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The FAO small ruminant programme

Sheep and goats are particularly valuable in developing countries because of their ability to utilize scarce grazing and tolerate unfavourable climates. Their numbers are increasing in these countries but corresponding increases in productivity have not, in general, taken place. FAO's activities with small ruminants aim to help the small farmer or stock owner in these countries to improve production, resulting in greater availability of protein and higher incomes. Emphasis is being given to the improvement of indigenous production systems and to breeds within their own environments.

Sheep and goat numbers have increased steadily throughout the world over the past 25 years. The world's sheep population is now more than 1 000 million and that of goats is rapidly approaching half that level. However, it is important to note that sheep and goat numbers are increasing much faster in developing countries than in developed ones. This may be explained by the ability of small ruminants to survive and produce in poor environments on low-cost feeds; their particular adaptability to arid conditions; and their suitability for the small, capital-scarce family farms in developing countries. The population growth is encouraging but should not be a goal in itself; greater efficiency must be achieved at the same time.

Improvement in livestock production in developing countries does not necessarily follow the same approach nor require the same technologies as those applied in developed countries. This is confirmed by the many unsuccessful examples of imports of high productivity breeds of livestock and the introduction of pasture improvement techniques into environments and farming systems to which they are not suited. Other strategies and alternative development concepts must be formulated. This pertains to small ruminant production as well, which is characterized by specific systems and genotypes suited to the vastly differing ecological environments of arid, semi-arid, tropical and high-altitude regions.

The major factors limiting a meaningful and sustainable improvement in small ruminant production in developing countries are: seasonally related low levels of nutrition, high levels of pre-weaning mortality resulting from parasites and infectious diseases, and bad management of economy. These constraints are interactive and are often aggravated in traditional husbandry systems by lack of flock management. The genetic capacity of most of the indigenous breeds is a further limiting factor but an improved genetic potential arising from selection or crossbreeding cannot and will not be expressed until nutrition and flock husbandry have been improved.

Consequently FAO gives priority to the improvement of the existing nutrition levels and to flock management in indigenous production systems. This implies the introduction of simple or comparatively advanced technologies into traditional systems and is an approach that has produced both spectacular and encouraging results in some projects. In northern Togo, for example, over 300 farmers now farming more than 15 000 sheep have increased ewe productivity in the traditional village system from 7 kg/lamb/ewe/year to over 30 kg/lamb/ewe/year. The technologies introduced (night shelters, anthelmintic drenching and flock grazing/strategic feed supplementation) were simple and easily adopted by the farmers. Now that levels of flock management have at least partly exploited the inherent genetic capacity of the indigenous Djallonke breed, the project is embarking on a genetic improvement scheme.

Training of extension staff through on-farm demonstration programmes is the cornerstone of FAO's small ruminant field programme. The field programme includes 32 projects in 15 countries of Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean. FAO supports a number of activities on small ruminants under its Regular Programme, such as: information synthesis and preparation of publications and training materials; training-cum-guided development activities: and support for strategic research.

Based on the success of the Togo project, a number of regional activities have been initiated in which extension workers are trained to promote, demonstrate and guide the development of sheep and/or goat farming in village-based smallholder production systems. These activities are carried out with emphasis on practical training of the target group of farmers and closely monitored demonstration farms are a key component. A number of regional training-cum-guided development activities have been implemented, such as the goat-meat production project in Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines. Others in preparation include sheep-meat and wool production in Colombia, Peru and Bolivia as well as integration of small ruminant production into alley-farming in Nigeria, Ghana and Benin, the latter with funding by the Government of the Netherlands.

Training aids have been produced to support these activities including guidelines for specific elements of sheep and goat improvement, such as genetic screening/open nucleus flock breeding and health plans, as well as practical training manuals for extension workers. A set of videos on sheep production in West Africa has also been prepared. Some nine papers on small ruminants have been published in the FAO Animal Production and Health Papers in recent years.

Generally, lack of basic research information is not a major limitation to the development of small ruminant production in most developing countries. However, in certain situations. specific applied research is needed. Many of the field projects have small applied research components to support their development objectives. One example is the research being carried out in a regional project in the Near East, involving Turkey, Jordan, the Syrian Arab Republic and Iraq, which assesses the efficacy of the genetic screening of Awassi ewes for "exceptional" high milk production. The first year's results are very promising; the screened animals have outyielded controls by 50 percent on average. Embryo transfer technology will now be introduced to speed up the propagation of the selected genotypes in these open nucleus breeding flocks. Other research projects will include the evaluation of immunogens to enhance reproductive efficiency. Preliminary study proposals have been formulated to evaluate the usefulness of growth promoting and beta-agonist compounds. These proposals at an applied research level are aimed at increasing differentially and manipulating body tissue growth in such breeds as the fat-tailed Awassi sheep.

Subregional Small Ruminant Research and Development Networks have been established in Asia, South America, West Africa and in the Near East/North Africa regions with emphasis on "training-cum-guided development" activities. An additional activity of the Asian subnetwork is an assessment of the potential of livestock/tree-cropping systems which particularly involve small ruminants grazing under coconut, rubber and palm-oil trees. A number of projects were identified in a workshop on livestock/tree-cropping held in Malaysia in December 1988.

The establishment of an inventory of personnel and projects engaged in small ruminant activities within each region is essential in promoting cooperation and contact between individual researchers, extension workers and trainers within the networks. A computerized inventory of ongoing projects (research, training and extension) has, therefore, been developed by FAO. This computerized data base, SAGIN (Sheep and Goat Information Network) available at FAO, Rome, now includes well over 300 projects.

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