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Climate Smart Agriculture Sourcebook

Climate-smart livestock production

Production and Resources

Climate-smart livestock production strategies

B2-2.1 Resource use efficiency

Given the current and projected scarcity of resources and the anticipated increase in demand for livestock products, there is considerable agreement that increasing efficiency in resource use is a key component to improving the sector’s environmental sustainability. More efficient use of natural resources is a crucial strategy for decoupling growth in the livestock sector from its adverse environmental impacts. Efficiency in the use of natural resources is measured by the ratio between the use of natural resources as input to the production activities and the output from production (e.g. kg of phosphorus used per unit of meat produced, or hectares of land mobilized per unit of milk produced). The concept can be extended to the amount of emissions generated by unit of output (e.g. greenhouse gas emissions per unit of eggs). Examples of opportunities that fall within this strategy are higher yields per hectare, higher water productivity, higher feed efficiency, improved management of manure and fertilizers and reduced losses along the food chain (Westhoek et al., 2011). Efficiency gains in the uses of resources can be achieved through improvements in management, technology, animal health, livestock breeds and feed crop varieties.

Improving the feed-to-food conversion efficiency in animal production systems is a fundamental strategy for improving the environmental sustainability of the sector. A large volume of food is wasted even before it reaches the consumer. FAO (2011a) suggests that about one-third of all food produced for human consumption is wasted. Along the animal food chain, reduction of waste can substantially contribute to lowering the demand for resources, such as land, water, energy, as well as other inputs, such as nutrients.

The current prices of inputs (e.g. land, water and feed) used in livestock production often do not reflect true scarcities. Consequently, input costs do not provide disincentives for the overutilization of resources by the sector nor incentives to address inefficiencies in production processes. Any future policies to protect the environment will have to introduce adequate market pricing for natural resources. Ensuring effective management rules and liability, under private or communal ownership of the resources, is a further necessary policy element for improving the use of resources. 

B2-2.2 Risk management and system changes

Traditionally, livestock producers have been able to adapt to various environmental and climatic changes. However, expanding populations, urbanization, economic growth, increased consumption of animal-based foods and greater commercialization (Chapter B2-2.1) have made traditional coping mechanisms less effective (Sidahmed, 2008). As a result, the identification of coping and risk management strategies has become very important.

A wide array of adaptation options are available (see, for instance, chapter B8-3.3 on the sustainable use and development of animal genetic resources for climate change adaptation (Kurukulasuriya and Rosenthal, 2003; IPCC, 2007). Possible adaptive responses include technological options (e.g. more drought-tolerant crops); behavioural modifications (e.g. changes in dietary choices); managerial choices (e.g. different farm management practices); and policy alternatives (e.g. planning regulations and infrastructural development). Some options may be appropriate in the short term, others for the long term (or both). 

In the short term, adaptation to climate change is often framed within the context of risk management, which is comprehensively dealt with in module C5 on disaster risk reduction. Washington et al. (2006) outline an approach for addressing the challenges of climate change that depends on a close engagement with climate variability. Livestock can  produce edible food for people from a range of inedible vegetal products. They can also move to find feed resources and endure a certain level of food and water stress. As a consequence, livestock production and marketing can help stabilize the food supplies and provide individuals and communities with a buffer against economic shocks and natural disasters. Particularly in pastoral and agro-pastoral systems, livestock are key assets held by poor people and fulfil multiple economic, social, and risk management functions. Livestock are also a crucial coping mechanism in variable environments. As climate variability increases, livestock will become more valuable because it provides a range of options (e.g. mobility, use of alternative feed resources, mobilization of body reserves ) to buffer the effects of this variability on food production. Box B2.3 on the drylands of Africa and the case study B2.3 on Zambia provide examples.

In addition, keeping more than one species of livestock is a risk-minimizing strategy and provides farmers with a wider range of adaptive options against climate unpredictability than if only one species is kept (Reijntjes et al., 1992):

  • An outbreak of disease may affect only one of the species, e.g. the cattle, and specific species or animals of specific breeds are better able to survive droughts and thus help carry a family over such difficult periods. 
  • Advantage can also be taken of the different reproductive rates of different species to rebuild livestock holdings after a drought. For example, the greater fecundity of sheep and goats permits their numbers to multiply quicker than cattle or camels. The small ruminants can then be exchanged or sold to obtain large ruminants.
  • Different animal species exploit different feed resources. In pastoral areas, camels can graze up to 50 km away from watering points, whereas cattle are limited to a grazing orbit of on average 10-15 km. Camels and goats tend to browse more, i.e. to eat the leaves of shrubs and trees; sheep and cattle generally prefer grasses and herbs. Their different shaped mouths allow them to graze different sources. 
  • Different animal species supply different products. For example, camels and cattle can provide milk, transport and draught power, whereas goats and sheep tend to be slaughtered more often for meat. Chickens often provide the small change for the household, sheep and goats are sold to cover medium expenditures, while larger cattle are sold to meet major expenditures.

However, livestock production can be destabilized, particularly by climate change and events such as disease outbreaks (see Chapter B2-1.2). For many poor people, the loss of livestock assets means a collapse into chronic poverty and has long-term effects on their livelihoods. Helping decision makers understand and deal with current levels of climate variability can provide one entry point to the problems posed by increasing variability in the future and the options that may be needed to build resilience. However, there are still problems to be addressed concerning the uncertainty of climate projections and projected impacts and how this uncertainty can be appropriately treated when determining response options (Wilby et al., 2009).

Box B2.3  Livestock as a tool for adaptation

Regions identified as the most vulnerable to climate change, such as sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, are also regions where farmers and rural communities rely the most on livestock for food, income and livelihood support, and where livestock is expected to contribute more and more to food security and better nutrition. There is therefore an urgent need to help livestock farmers become more resilient to climate change.

Traditionally, livestock keepers have been capable of adapting to livelihood threats. In some situations, livestock keeping is itself an adaptation strategy, particularly in pastoral communities where livestock have always been the main asset to produce food. In marginal areas with scarce resources and harsh climatic conditions, pastoralism is often the only way to sustain livelihoods, in that it can produce food, contribute to economic activity and provide a range of socio-economic services (Scoones, 1996; Ashley and Carney, 1999). Livestock can be also used to diversify agricultural production, which can be part of a risk management strategy in case of crop failure (Jones and Thornton, 2009). 

In the drylands of sub-Saharan Africa, FAO has collaborated with the World Bank, the French Agricultural Research Centre for International Development (CIRAD) and the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) and Action Contre la Faim to assess livestock production under climatic constraints and propose interventions to increase productivity and reduce the impact of climate variability on livestock outputs. The volume and quality of feed supplies were assessed, as well as the degree to which they could meet animal requirements under different climatic and intervention scenarios for the period 2012-2030.

Results show that 2.5 times more feed resource are needed in a baseline 2012-2030 scenario with similar climate than in the past (1998-2011), and 3.5 times more feed are needed in the case of drought. The assessment also showed that there is a potential for livestock’s growth if feed resources are made accessible, which calls for interventions in animal mobility (corridors, security, border regulations, health, tenure), feed management (storage, processing, transport) and stratification of production to reduce grazing pressure in arid areas. Interventions in the African drylands can significantly increase the output of livestock products by 5% to 20%, if accessibility to feed is improved. Shocks brought by climate-driven variability on livestock production can be buffered through animal movements, adjustments in feed baskets, health interventions and animal offtake for market: while inter-annual variability in biomass reaches 16% in the baseline scenario, interventions can to 7 to 14% (depending on the interventions considered) in animal intake, and to 1% to 8% in animal product (Figure B2.4). Results therefore confirm that livestock is a strong asset for adaptation in pastoral areas.

Assessing the resilience of livestock production systems to drought causing lower feed availability, their potential for future growth, and the combined need for long term investments and timely policy interventions is essential to informing the planning of policy makers, as well as the international community -to better enable them in carrying out efficient and coordinated actions for climate change adaptation.

Figure B2.4

Interannual relative variability (relative standard deviation in %, high values reflect high variability) of usable biomass, animal intake in dry matter and metabolizable energy (ME)ix as a proxy for animal products in the baseline and the drought scenarios with different levels of interventions (from Mottet et al., 2015). Health interventions correspond to veterinary measures (e.g. vaccination) aimed at increasing  fertility and decreasing calf and adult mortality. Early offtake of bulls is an intervention in which young male animals are sold earlier to the market.

Source: FAO, 2016

Longer-term approaches to adaptation can often involve system changes (e.g. a change in the set of commodities produced or the shift from extensive to mixed systems) or the adoption of new technology that is currently unavailable. There may be long lag times between the identification of a problem and the development of readily available and appropriate technology to address it. Research carried out now needs to be appropriate to the environment 20 to 30 years in the future. This has implications for how research is targeted and for the design, testing and implementation of the research. One approach may involve searching for homologues of projected future climate conditions in areas where similar conditions exist now and where breeding and selection can be carried out (Burke et al., 2009).