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Harnessing synergies of crop-livestock integration for climate-smart agriculture

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Integrating crops and livestock can enhance the climate resilience of farming systems

© ILRI

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Integrated crop-livestock systems that provide synergies towards more resilient climate-smart agricultural production systems are possible despite the recognised competition between crops and livestock enterprises. To make this work, it is necessary to understand the trade-offs and capitalise on the opportunities provided through integration.

Most research and development work on climate-smart agriculture (CSA) is focussed on crops rather than livestock production systems. However, livestock often play a major role in smallholder production systems, where it is common to find chickens, small ruminants (goats and sheep) and in some cases cattle.

Where livestock are considered, they are often looked at as competition for resources between crops and livestock rather than as contributing synergies for integrated production. For example, conservation agriculture – one of the main CSA practices promoted widely – requires farmers to maintain soil cover, predominantly using crop residues. However, crop residues are a major source of feed for animals in mixed crop-livestock systems. Agroforestry systems such as improved fallow and mixed intercropping also suffer from similar problems, with multipurpose trees being prone to browsing by livestock in the off-season.

Despite these challenges, integrating crops and livestock can enhance the climate resilience of farming systems. As an example, the Conservation Agriculture Scaling Up project in Zambia illustrates some of the benefits that can accrue when crop and livestock production are well integrated. This project is implemented by the Ministry of Agriculture with technical support from FAO.

Benefits demonstrated include increased yields of maize and legumes (particularly cowpeas) and increased milk production from dairy cattle. Manure from the livestock has been applied to fields, improving moisture and nutrient retention, which has contributed to higher yields. The livestock productivity benefitted from increased crop biomass production, which made it easier for smallholders to provide the extra crop residues to the livestock while at the same time adequately meeting the requirement for soil cover.

Entry points for crop-livestock integration

A study of possible CSA interventions for Southern Africa identified several entry points for crop-livestock integration, including conservation agriculture, soil fertility management, agroforestry and land management. All of these provide opportunities to achieve synergistic effects that increase both the productivity and sustainability of the agricultural system and mitigate the effects of climate change. Fisheries and aquaculture provide additional entry points for livestock. CA and agroforestry are CSA interventions that provide good examples of entry points for achieving synergies from crop-livestock integration.

CSA-related synergies expected from crop-livestock integration include:

  • Diversification of livelihoods
  • Diversification of income options (with livestock providing income throughout the year rather than seasonally as with most crops)
  • Resilience building
  • Provision of traction (reduction of labour needs)
  • Enhancement of soil health and fertility through manure
  • Use of biomass from crops and agroforestry tree species as animal feed
  • Biogas production (mitigation objective)

However, there are challenges and trade-offs in the management of integrated crop-livestock systems such as the following:

  • It is challenging to produce enough biomass to meet the needs of the livestock in the initial phase of establishing CA while at the same time retaining enough mulch to achieve the full benefits from CA.
  • The scale of livestock production may be limited by requirements to control livestock movement, particularly in the off-season when there are few alternative grazing opportunities because of the competition for biomass.
  • Limitations in the supply of legume seeds as well as seeds for appropriate multipurpose agroforestry species that would be necessary to provide enough biomass to meet the needs for crop production and livestock feeding.
  • Bush fires in the off-season can undermine establishment of agroforestry trees and burn crop residues left on the soil surface as mulch, which will negatively impact on livestock feeding.
  • Effective integration will require consideration of extra labour needs; for instance, for herding, feeding, fencing and handling of manure.

This article was created through a CTA-led process to document and share actionable knowledge on 'what works' for ACP agriculture. It capitalises on the insights, lessons and experiences of practitioners to inform and guide the implementation of agriculture for development projects.

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