Smallholder cattle enterprise development in Timor-Leste

UQ researchers are helping smallholders shift from subsistence to semi-commercial farming to improve livelihoods in Timor-Leste.

Thirty per cent of Timor-Leste’s 1.3 million people live in extreme poverty, consuming below-minimum thresholds of animal protein – a known contributing factor to high infant mortality and stunted growth.

Cattle are already a valuable part of Timor-Leste culture. Ruminants and pigs are kept as a source of income and sold either for traditional ceremonies or to commercial traders on a cash-needs basis, and larger ruminants are also traditionally used for dowries. However, cattle smallholders are mostly subsistence farmers, and livestock productivity is low in the region.

UQ researchers, led by Dr Geoffry Fordyce, are helping rural families in Timor-Leste shift from subsistence to commercial cattle production systems.

“Developing smallholder cattle production will boost protein availability to the Timor-Leste people,” Dr Fordyce said.

“There is potential for these smallholders to cost-effectively and sustainably increase their wealth and standard of living by increasing their productivity through better marketing and management of their livestock.”

Poor husbandry means low productivity

Much of the cattle in Timor-Leste is kept on over-utilised and degraded land. Low annual average calving rates and growth rates, and very high mortality rates of all age classes are the primary contributors to low annual live weight production and low efficiency of Bali cattle systems in Timor-Leste, estimated at around 25 kg/animal and 0.15 kg/kg cattle, respectively. Under-nutrition caused by lack of feed and water and almost no management or husbandry are the primary reasons for low cattle productivity per animal.

With support from Indonesian scientists, Dr Fordyce’s project partners with Timor-Leste’s primary agencies for cattle research, development and extension: the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries (MAF) and the University of Timor-Leste (UNTL). The research and development were conducted with community groups at field sites in Timor-Leste. 

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Redi Kamodi are re-empowering smallholders

Researchers trained these community groups, called Redi Kamodi, from areas with high cattle populations. With support from Indonesian and Australian team members, the Redi Kamodi evaluated and implemented many primary practices such as forage production, cattle management, marketing, and business skills development – skills that ultimately shift them to more profitable cattle production and trading.

Dr Fordyce said the Redi Kamodi community group is structured to work as a business collective, providing an entry point into commercial business practice.

“Producers and buyers of agricultural products, including cattle, both benefit when they are both businesses. Individual subsistence farmers are usually unable to benefit from agricultural product transactions on their own,” Dr Fordyce said.

Anyone in the community with an interest or stake in the production and marketing of cattle can be part of a Redi Kamodi. This includes farmers, traders, transporters, butchers, material suppliers feed producers, local officials and government officers. The elected chief of a Redi Kamodi should be someone with a business stake from any part of the production or marketing chain, but not a government officer.

“The group regularly assesses their situation, problems, opportunities, and builds a vision for the future,” Dr Fordyce said.

“They then consider new practices that may help them solve their problems and ultimately enable them to get from their current situation to the envisaged situation.”

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Smallholders and their families thrive

Redi Kamodi have already implemented several practices, including planting and feeding tree legumes, using legumes and crop residues for fattening bulls, weaning calves, selling animals to meet market specifications and maximise value, and developing safer cattle handling systems.

Once a plan is agreed to, it may take several years to fully develop new cattle farming systems and achieve a larger net income. But the individual and combined success can be substantial. In the first three years of the Redi Kamodi in Fatucahi, the combined net benefit for farmers has been US$35,000 (more than A$51,000). As their cattle systems transition from subsistence to semi-commercial, the smallholders’ income grows. Comforts like running water in the home, better access to health and education then increase.

In the north-west coast suco of Aidabaleten, Sr Carlito joined the Redi Kamodi, facilitated by MAF field officer, Aristides Tavares. With other farmers in the Redi Kamodi, he learned to calculate profits and losses associated with cattle. Sr Carlito prepared a costed plan for growing forage and fattening bulls. His family now hand-feeds two tethered bulls with low-cost forages that he inter-rows in a hectare of food crops. The bulls now generate increased profits for the family, of which a third is used to buy replacement cattle for fattening again. Most of the remaining funds are for family expenditure.

The research program supports two PhD students in Australia. Adelino do Rego’s research will find suitable ways for Timor-Leste farmers to analyse the potential of farm management options and how to communicate this. Latino Coimbra’s research will find practical ways to at least halve the number of newborn calf deaths from the typical 20–30 per cent, most of which are caused by poor nutrition.

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