Livestock and soil fertility: a double bind
Nepal has one of the highest densities of animals per unit of land, amounting in the hills and mountains to 267 cattle, 139 buffaloes, 51 sheep and 260 goats per km2 of cultivated land (DFAMS, 1992). Average farm families rear 8 livestock units, comprising mainly cattle, goats, sheep and buffaloes (LMP, 1993). In some areas, pigs, poultry, equines, and yaks and their crosses are reared in addition.
ILEIA Newsletter • 12 nº 1 • April 1996
More and more land is needed for food production, making it difficult to sustain livestock. However, most mountain areas are remote and lack transport facilities. Chemical inputs are unavailable and unaffordable and oxen are needed for draught power. Soil fertility therefore depends on livestock. The mountain farmers of Nepal face a serious dilemma.
Migratory flocks of sheep and goats are hired to manure the terraces
Photo: SC Ghimire
Livestock are fed on crop residues and grasses available from the cultivated areas. Forest resources also play an important part in the agricultural system, not only as a source of forage for livestock but also for fuel. The system is so balanced and interdependent that over-exploitation of either of the components would affect the entire agricultural production system. Intensive crop cultivation, and to a limited extent the washing of topsoil by monsoonal rains, has resulted in the loss of soil nutrients and a decline in soil fertility. Soil fertility can only be restored with animal manure. In addition, animals and their products are the source of much needed cash, which accounts for up to 21% of total household income in the mountains (Nepal Rastra Bank, 1988).
Livestock raising systems
Because livestock and crops are integrated, livestock husbandry depends on the cropping systems practised. In the low hills and valleys (<1000m asl), where the land is under cultivation almost all the year round, animals are managed under stall feeding or semi-stall feeding systems. With the increase in altitude, the intensity of cropping decreases and the availability of fallow fields and communal pasture increases. As a result, extensive animal management becomes more common. In the high hill villages, a transhumance system of livestock production is common.
Animals managed under a sedentary system are kept in or around the village throughout the year. Crop by-products form the principle feed resource which is generally supplemented with some concentrates. Concentrate feeding, known locally as 'kundo' is given to the lactating animals and is a practice adopted by most farmers. It is made at home, predominantly from maize flour, rice bran, salt and kitchen waste in about 2-3 litres of water and boiled. The amount per day varies from 0.5 - 1.0 kg/day/animal and given during or after milking. Forest resources and fodder trees grown on the terraces are the source of green feed for these animals. Most of the large ruminants, and some goats and sheep are managed under this system. Manure from these animals is composted, and applied to the field which is the principle way of manuring terraces.
Under the transhumance system, animals move to different locations constantly throughout the year depending on the cropping seasons. Although sheep and goats are the main livestock species managed under this system, it is common to find buffaloes grazing at 4000m asl in Nepal. During winter months, while the animals are at the lower altitudes, the migratory herds are herded on the terraces during the night for in-situ manuring (see article by Subedi). In the Nepalese hills, this is an important method of maintaining soil fertility. This system is in great demand and farmers pay to have herds manure their field.
Soil fertility under pressure
Decline in productivity of land and animals has been observed by farmers, and visible over-exploitation of the natural resources by both people and animals indicates that this system might not be sustainable. The reason for this decline is the lack of nutrients both for land and animals. To meet the food requirements of the growing family, a farmer has either to intensify cropping or to increase the cropping area.
However, under the existing system, soil nutrients cannot be increased without increasing the number of animals. This in turn is not possible due to the limited opportunities for increasing animal forage resources. In addition, labour shortage due to lack of incentives has adversely affected the traditional practices of maintaining soil fertility.
The answer to this complex problem is not simple. Any effort to improve the situation will have to consider not only the biological and environmental aspects but also social traditions and cultural taboos. Reduction of animal numbers would be possible to some extent by optimising the use of plant proteins in human diet, increasing the introduction of grain legumes in the cropping system and improvement in soil fertility. However, cattle have a religious value for Nepalese people and they are protected by the law. Moreover, a reasonable population would always be needed to produce the working oxen and manure.
Any change in the system would need to be implemented gradually. Simultaneous efforts need to be directed not only to increase the productivity of land and animal but also to the control of further increase in the human population and fragmentation of cultivable land. The animal feed deficiency during winter needs to be alleviated by the cultivation of fallow fields with leguminous crops, and terrace risers with high yielding grasses. Intensive forage production is possible only when animals are stall fed. Some efforts to better use crop by-products might also play a role.
To make the system sustainable, the choices available to the farmers are rather limited, but some innovations are promising. For example, the stall feeding system is gradually being adopted and forage grasses and fodder trees are being planted. This indicates that although the changes are gradual and slow, farmers have realised the need for the sustainability of the system.
Text: BR Joshi and SC Ghimire
Lumle Agricultural Research Centre, Post Box No. 1, Pokhara, Nepal.
- DFAMS. 1992. Livestock statistics of Nepal. Department of Food and Agriculture Marketing Services.
- LMP. 1993. Livestock Master Plan. His Majesty’s Government of Nepal.
- Nepal Rastra Bank. 1988. Multipurpose household budget survey. (Study on income distribution, employment and consumption patterns in Nepal).