Livestock management practices to cope with climate change

    | January 19, 2009

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    This week’s top news story looks at the many ways in which pastoralists are adapting their life and work in order to maintain their livelihoods. Of course, one of the biggest challenges faced by pastoralists and farmers is adapting to climate change. This script features interviews with farmers who have learned to manage livestock under changing and difficult climatic conditions. It was written by Andrew William Mahiyu, of the National Smallholder Farmers Association of Malawi, and was one of the winners of the CTA-Farm Radio scriptwriting competition on African Farmers’ Strategies for Coping with Climate Change. To view this script online, visit:


    Notes to Broadcaster

    Livestock play an important part when it comes to relish for our families (Editor’s note: “relish” is the part of the meal that accompanies the staple food. For example, in a rice and chicken meal, chicken is the relish; in a meal of chips with beef and vegetables, beef and vegetables are the relish.) Livestock also play a big role as a source of income and in certain cultures people rely on them as a means of paying dowry.

    With climate change affecting the productivity and health of livestock, including the production of milk and other animal products, we may suffer in the long run. We feel that it’s high time we blow the whistle, so that every farmer will awake and know for him or herself that the climate is changing. As climate change is affecting our crops, it is also affecting livestock. The message of the script is: with the unfavourable effects of climate change, it would be better if a farmer keeps fewer livestock so that he or she can manage them better. Also, he or she should establish pasture fields, plant drought tolerant grass and crops for feed, and construct a dike as a reliable source of water, rather than walking long distances with livestock.

    Farmers, extension workers and the whole agricultural sector may sometimes be silent on climate change. Livestock production and livestock products may be decreasing, but with this script, different agricultural players will be supported and start thinking of adapting to climate change, or even create more coping strategies.


    Host: Hello there, and welcome. My name is Andrew Mahiyu. Today we will discuss a new subject of concern – climate change and livestock management practices.

    Everyday the sun rises and goes down. We do our daily work and we think that life is, and will always remain, forever the same. But have we ever thought about how our crops, natural resources, and livestock are behaving these days, if we compare them with how they behaved twenty years ago? How about the rainfall pattern, the soils, the ground cover and water sources? Have they changed? If you think and remember properly, you will note that the climate has been gradually changing. What are you doing to cope with these changes? It’s time to give it some extra thought. Today on the program, we are going to talk about livestock management practices to help farmers cope with climate change. Please keep me company.

    Sounds of rain

    Host: Some 15 or 20 years ago, we could expect the first rains for the planting season on specific days of a particular month. We had thick forests with big trees in most parts of our continent. We had rivers that did not dry up from year to year and wide grazing land for our livestock. People had large herds of cattle. We could hardly remember the number of heads we owned. Maybe farmers could remember them by the colour of the skin. People enjoyed drinking milk any time of the day from their cows. Those herding livestock did not need to go long distances to graze their livestock, or to access sources of water.

    If we go out of our houses today, what do we see? Bare land with gullies, bare hills and dry rivers. We have cut all the trees with our merciless axes for charcoal, timber, firewood and other uses. In addition, due to overpopulation there is little or no uncultivated land. There is little land to graze our cattle. We are going long distances with our livestock to find grass and water.

    Sounds of cattle and goats

    Host: Livestock play an important role when it comes to supplying protein for our bodies. If family members could choose the type of relish that they want, a good percentage would go for meat. But these days, the rainfall pattern has changed in most parts of our continent. We hear of droughts and floods. As much as these changes affect our crops, they also affect livestock in different ways. So, before the worse comes to the worst, let us share what clever methods we can use to cope with this climate change.

    I visited a smallholder farmer, Mr. Themba Phiri, who hails from Mzimba District in Malawi. where there was a large population of livestock in the past. I found Mr. Phiri feeding a heifer.

    Sounds of farmer chopping grass

    Themba Phiri:
    The changing climate has affected livestock in several ways. Because pasture grows more poorly, there’s poor feed. Drought has also caused a lack of safe drinking water for animals. As a result, we don’t produce good and healthy animals, and they don’t provide healthy milk for the growth of young ones.

    Host: When you want to graze your cattle these days, you must travel a long distance. Was it the same twenty years ago?

    Themba Phiri: Climate change and high population growth have affected pasture land. High population has resulted in high demand for land. If you have animals, you have to take them far away to graze. If you want them to drink water, you have to drive them long distances as well. The longer animals travel, the more energy they use. This means that whatever they eat is used for walking to pasture land or water sources.

    And not for body growth?

    Themba Phiri: Neither for body growth nor milk production. The longer the cow travels, the less milk it produces, because it uses most of the food for traveling.

    Host: Does water play a big role in milk production?

    Themba Phiri: Yes it does. That’s why when a heifer has a calf, it has to drink a lot of water.

    Host: Mr. Themba Phiri, you are from an area with a lot of livestock. Can you give us some idea of how many cattle a typical farmer owned twenty years ago, and how many on average he or she would own today?

    Themba Phiri: The numbers of livestock have dwindled. In the past, a typical farmer in Mzimba could have thirty or forty, or even a hundred head of cattle. This is no longer seen today. They have all been sold or slaughtered. Right now we see ten heads of cattle on average. Some people who owned livestock before don’t own any now. They have sold the animals because of land scarcity, lack of grazing areas and the long distances to water sources. You know, Andrew, that crop gardens start right from the doorstep these days. You can imagine that if you have livestock, they will start feeding from your garden, or your neighbours’. What do you think will be the end result? To avoid this, people sell some or all of their livestock. Host: Do you think that climate change has affected poultry as well?

    Themba Phiri:
    Yes, in Malawi we prefer free range birds. Free range is when chicken go outside to peck and feed. Now, because careless cutting of trees has left the ground bare, there is less shade for them – there’s too much heat. So, most of the chicken’s eggs go bad from exposure to sun and heat. Even if the hen sits on them, they won’t hatch. Also, chickens eat fresh green grass, but it is scarce most of the time. Faced with this scarcity, they have automatically adjusted to lay fewer eggs. Fewer eggs hatch and the survival rate of chicks is poor. And, because there is no cover, predators such as big birds prey on the young chicks. The result is that farmers lose a lot of chicks.

    Host: Have pigs, goats, and other types of animals been affected too?

    Themba Phiri: Yes, they have been affected too.

    Host: But the goat is a browser, a free range animal.

    Themba Phiri: As a browser, a goat has a choice of what it wants to eat. But even the cow has the choice of what it wants to eat – it wants something appetizing. It’s strange these days to find cattle eating mangoes and even avocado pears. They would not eat these in the past.

    Host: What do you think can be farmer’s strategies for coping with climate change?

    Themba Phiri: I would suggest keeping fewer livestock of every type – whether cattle, chickens, goats or pigs. It’s better to keep just a few, which can be well managed, and to ensure good quality. In the long term, we should re-establish natural vegetation by planting more trees.

    Host: What can the government do?

    Themba Phiri: The government should build dams and plant green grass around the dams. Water will then be readily available for winter irrigation and will be safe for animals to drink. Farmers should also be taught to build dykes and should learn methods of water harvesting so that they have water throughout the year. Also, the government should educate farmers on how they must re-establish vegetation cover. It’s unfortunate that the government has fewer agricultural field advisors or other expert staff.

    Host: Thank you, Mr. Phiri. (Pause) Mr. Henry Chikanga Nkhoma is a farmer who keeps chicken and cattle. He admits that climate change has really affected livestock.

    Henry: Yes, climate change has affected livestock. We used to have big, strong oxen to pull an oxcart to plough our fields. Today we don’t have such big animals. If you look around the village, you will only find small animals pulling carts. It is because of the lack of appropriate feed. And sometimes our animals spend the night without water.

    I think what we need to do is to organize meetings, sit down and share these problems, and see the way forward. If we act separately, we will not see any change for the better. Also, everyone should plant enough drought-tolerant grass for their animals. Veterinary staff can help us learn how to make local feeds that provide the necessary nutrients to our livestock. We should keep only as much livestock as we can manage to feed.

    Host: That was Henry Chikanga Nkhoma, a local farmer. He admits that we have not spoken up about climate change and we need to do something to save our livestock.

    Musical break

    Host: Dear listener, we have heard from the farmers’ point of view on how climate change has affected livestock, and what strategies they think can be put in place to cope with it. What are your views? This is everyone’s battle. If we start acting today, even our children will imitate what we do. The government of Malawi is not completely silent on climate change; they claim to be doing something.

    Wilfred Lipita is the Director of the Department of Animal Health and Industry (DAHI) of the Ministry of Agriculture and Food Security.

    Wilfred: We are not silent on climate change. We know that sometimes we have too much rain, which leads to floods, and floods have negative effects on the growth of pasture and the health of animals. Too little rain also affects the growth of pasture. Sometimes diseases and pests may come due to climate change. The wind direction and the speed of the wind itself may affect the movement of parasites from one place to another. This may result in the spread of diseases. Ticks may survive under certain conditions and not survive under other conditions. This can have an effect on our livestock.

    What I think is that farmers should minimize the degradation of the environment by avoiding cutting of trees. Cutting trees may result in floods and droughts. Some grass species may also be dying, and, as a result, we may have no fodder. Or we may have fodder which may not be as nutritious as it used to be.

    Farmers should also know that the time has come when they should not rely on natural grass alone for feed. They should at least plant Napier grass or Rhodes grass the way they do with their crops, but as animal feed. Farmers who have livestock should start practicing stall feeding or intensive management of livestock.

    Host: Some smallholder farmers say it would be better to keep fewer animals, just enough that he or she can manage. How do you comment on this?

    Wilfred: We may say that farmers should minimize the number of livestock, but if they don’t know how to manage them, there is nothing they can achieve. If a farmer manages his or her livestock intensively, and feeds them well, and they are not causing degradation to the environment, then the numbers don’t matter. You can have as many animals as possible if you have enough space to keep them. But again, it’s the management of the animals and the environment which is very important.

    How about sources of water? We can see that most of our rivers do not hold water throughout the year.

    I agree with you – we do not have rivers that flow all year as we used to have in the past because of soil erosion, cutting down of trees and farming along river banks, just to mention a few causes. We need to drill boreholes, or dam the water so that our livestock have access to water.

    For this to be a success, veterinary staff have to play a big role in training farmers on the strategies I have mentioned. But if the experts in the field are silent, we should not expect an animal to act on our behalf. It will also be silent and die of starvation and thirst.

    Can we conclude by saying that this is what your department is currently advising farmers in the field?

    Wilfred: Some of these strategies are being considered for implementation, and some are yet to be introduced to farmers. But I admit that we are behind if we compare our actions with the way the climate is changing. We need to fasten our seat belts and act faster.

    That was Wilfred Lipita from the Department of Animal Health and Industry commenting on the strategies the government is planning to implement to cope with climate change.

    Yes, it is true, we need to act faster to save the livestock we have, and the grass species that are still available today. I believe that, from what you have heard, you have grasped something that will keep ringing bells of action in your mind. Those bells will produce fruits if you act quickly. Let’s not lose our livestock. Good bye.


    -Contributed by: Andrew William Mahiyu, National Smallholder Farmers Association of Malawi (NASFAM), P.O. Box 30716, Lilongwe 3, Malawi.
    -Reviewed by: John Ajigo, Programme officer, Nigerian Environmental Study/Action Team (NEST), Ibadan, Nigeria.

    Information sources
    -Thank you to: Farmers from Mzimba District – Mr Themba Phiri, and Mr Henry Chikanga Nkhoma.
    -Mr. Wilfred Lipita, Director of the Department of Animal Health and Industry of the Ministry of Agriculture and Food Security, P.O. Box 2096, Lilongwe Malawi.
    -Mr Duncan Warren, NASFAM Director of Crop Production.