In Europe intensive livestock production is often seen as harmful for the environment and animal welfare – think of cattle fed on grains which would be better used for human consumption. And producing lots of waste in concentrated areas which is difficult to deal with. In Africa, the mantra tends to be that intensification of livestock production is an environmental good – livestock are confined and prevented from over grazing scarce vegetation resources. Better fed livestock also use resources more efficiently since they use less energy for maintaining essential body functions leaving more for production of meat and milk. This is good for water use efficiency and means lower GHG emissions per unit of milk and/or meat.
However, in some work we did under the Systemwide Livestock Programme, some of our results indicate that livestock intensification could reduce returns of biomass to soil with possible consequences for long term crop yields and soil integrity. The study used a gradient of productivity in East Africa to look at patterns of use crop residue use among farmers. Crop residues such as straws and stovers are a key resource as crop-livestock systems intensify. In many mixed crop livestock systems farmers are under pressure to feed crop residues to livestock for immediate livelihood needs leaving less biomass for return to the soil. Our results suggest that farmers who sell more milk return less biomass to the soil. Farmers may therefore face a trade off between making immediate money from milk sales or investing in the long term natural capital of their soils.
The work emphasizes the need to think about the whole system when making recommendations about future intensification strategies.
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