Scoping trip to the north-west highlands

Written by Lucy Lapar and Nguyen Ngoc Toan

North-west is a poor mountainous region in Vietnam. There are about 20 ethnic groups in the North-west, of which the biggest is Thai people. In order to explore opportunities for a new livestock project in this area, in an attempt to support poor farmers to secure livelihood and reduce poverty, ACIAR arranged field visits to Son La and Dien Bien — two of the provinces in this region. The scoping mission had the following objectives:

  • Characterise the smallholder pig and cattle production systems of the north-west highlands of Vietnam and their systems context, including their role in crop-livestock systems and livelihoods
  • Summarise the opportunities and challenges in moving towards a greater market orientation for smallholder livestock producers in Vietnam
  • Identify key research issues, including market, action research and upstream research issues
  • Draft a suggested research approach that would address these issues, including objectives, research questions, possible partner institutions and people

Participants in the scoping mission included three members from the Tasmania Institute of Agricultural Research (TIAR) (Peter Lane, David Parsons and Shaun Lisson), two from the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) (Lucy Lapar and Nguyen Ngoc Toan), three from the National Institute of Animal Husbandry (NIAH) (Vu Chi Cuong, Dinh Xuan Tung and Dinh Van Tuyen), two from Thai Nguyen University (Phan Dinh Tham and Mai Anh Khoa).

The team had meetings with local Department of Agriculture and Rural Development (DARD) officials and visited and interviewed farmers in Yen Chau and Mai Son districts in Son La and in Dien Bien district in Dien Bien to gain an understanding about smallholder pig and cattle production system, and constraints and opportunities for livestock production in these provinces.

We found that cattle and buffalo are important livestock species for farmers in the North-west, providing a power source and manure for crop cultivation and also a source of income. Cattle and buffalo production in the North-west is basically a free-grazing system, using household labour. Feed is predominantly natural grass or post-harvest crop by-products such as maize stover. In winter/dry season, cattle/buffalo are kept at home in some households where they are fed by dried rice straw, which is left to waste if not used as feed. In other households, they are still allowed to graze in the forest. With free-grazing as the predominant practice, feed is a problem in winter if cattle production is to expand. It also exposes animals to disease risk, since it is difficult to control diseases in such systems.

Cattle production appears to have a great potential to develop in the north-west region as it suits current farmer practice in animal raising, making the best use of naturally grown feeds, and cattle/buffalo are perceived to be less susceptible to diseases. As demand for beef in low land areas is growing due to the increasing affluence of people in urban areas, there will be a good market for cattle products. If the shortage of feed supply in winter and other constraints are adequately addressed and market opportunities are well identified and linkages developed, cattle production might be a good source of additional income for poor farmers in the region.

Pigs are a ubiquitous presence in farming systems in the North-west, be they in scavenging, free-grazing systems in the uplands of Dien Bien and Son La or in semi-intensive systems in the lowlands of both provinces. Pig raising is considered a tradition in some ethnic groups (e.g. Thai ethnic minority people often raise pigs for slaughtering during festivals). Pigs are especially important in the livelihoods of very poor ethnic minorities, usually for home consumption, or for celebrating special occasions or cultural/religious festivals. Pig raising in the north-west region is predominantly home-based, making use of food waste and crop by-products and relies solely on household labor. As pigs are often kept at home, a household member can do housework and take care of pigs at the same time.

We found that pig and piglets are still in short supply. In relation to local demand for piglets and pork in the North-west, pig production can potentially be an important option for improving livelihoods by supplying existing market demand for pork and piglets (for breeding). With Vietnamese preference for pork and being the cheapest meat relative to other types of meat, ensuring there is adequate available supply of pork at affordable prices would contribute to food security of consumers while at the same time providing income opportunities to producers. Pig production is already part of the traditional practice by most people in the region, so almost every household is already raising pigs. The opportunities to improve current practice in order to generate better returns from pig raising point toward addressing productivity constraints arising from nutritional imbalance, mainly due to lack of adequate feed (due to resource constraints), and also losses from mortality due to diseases. The local market will remain a major outlet for locally produced pork in the region and will be sustained by local demand emanating from traditional preference for pork by ethnic minorities and by the average Vietnamese consumer in general.

At the end of the trip the team met to discuss possible research. An official report will be completed in the near future. This will be used to conceptualise a new livestock project, which is expected to start in 2010.

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