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Voices from the lab: Postdoctoral researcher shares her first field trip experience

In this blog, one of the most recent Mazingira members, Sonja Leitner (Postdoctoral researcher, soil ecologist) who started with the team on 1st March 2018, shares an experience of her first field trip to Tanzania.

From 25-30/03/2018, I joined Lutz Merbold and Phyllis Ndung’u on a field trip to Tanzania, where we visited different smallholder dairy farmers. Having started only recently in the group, this was my first ever trip to Tanzania. Upon arrival in Iringa on 25/03/2018, we headed towards Mafinga (Mufindi district), where we spent the first 3 days of our trip. Mufindi is located in the Tanzania highlands (elevation approx. 1900 m asl), with a moderate and fairly rainy climate. After that, we drove to Morogoro (Mvomero District), which lies at 500 m asl and is characterized by hot tropical climate, where we stayed until our return to Nairobi via Dar es Salaam on 30/03/2018.

The impressions we got from the different farms in the two regions were quite heterogeneous. While some farmers did a reasonable job in raising and feeding their dairy cows and reported milk yields up to 15 L/cow/day, others were clearly struggling and stressed the low milk yields (0.5-2 L/cow/day). These differences could most likely be attributed to feed quality and quantity as well as a lack of knowledge on i.e. farm hygiene. Examples for this were that cows were kept in poorly-drained cattle Bomas with little space to lie down or were forced to stand throughout the night (Picture 1).

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Picture 1:  Cattle confined in poorly-drained cattle boma

In other farms, cows were kept on slated or concrete floors, which were cleaned regularly, and provided with fresh hay to keep them comfortable (Picture 2).

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Picture 2: Cattle in the so-called Roof, Fence, Floor confinement

Concerning feed resources, some farmers solely relied on letting their cattle graze (Picture 3), which might cause nutrient and energy deficiency, especially during the dry season. In addition, when lactating cows must walk long distances to find grass, chances are that the farmer cannot reach them regularly for milking, which increases the risk of udder infections and causes discomfort for the animals.

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Picture 3: Cattle grazing

Other farmers kept their cows close to their homestead (Picture 4) to ensure regular milking and animal care, and fed them a larger variety of nutritious feeds.

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Picture 4: Cow kept close to the household

Common feed types were Napier grass, green maize cobs, maize stover, sunflower cake (Picture 5), and sweet potato vines. Some farmers also provided their lactating cows with mineral supplementation.

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Picture 5: Sunflower cake as feed supplement

Concerning manure management, many of the farmers that regularly cleaned their stables also collected and composted the manure (Picture 6) to use it as fertilizer in cropping fields (mostly maize and sunflower) and only sometimes in forage fields (Picture 7).

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Picture 6: Composting manure in a smallholder farm

This is an important step in increasing farm productivity as tropical soils are often nutrient-poor (they especially lack nitrogen and phosphorus), and repeated planting and harvesting without nutrient replacement can quickly lead to degraded, unproductive soils. Secondly, using manure as fertilizer closes nutrient cycling within the farm, which helps to decrease nitrogen losses from the manure (a main cause of groundwater pollution, which is both a risk to human and animal health as well as to life in rivers and lakes), and furthermore leading to reduced greenhouse gas emissions. This is particularly important as animal manure is a large source of the three major greenhouse gases carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4), and nitrous oxide (N2O), with the last one being even 265-times stronger than CO2on a per mass basis. When the nitrogen from manure is supplied to the plants, it is taken up by plant roots and therefore recycled and prevented from leaving the system via leaching or N2O emissions. This can significantly decrease the environmental footprint of livestock farming, while simultaneously increasing plant productivity and soil fertility.

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Picture 7: Manure applied in a maize field

Currently, Mazingira has 3 Master students (Samuel Mugo, Daniel Sifael, and Edinah Ombogo) working in Tanzania under our IFAD-funded “Greening Livestock:Incentive-based interventions for reducing the climate impact of livestock in East Africa” project. Their work comprises regular visits of farmers to determine livestock live weight (Picture 8), milk yields and quality, feeding types, manure management systems, and general on- and off-farm challenges farmers might experience. These data will help to determine greenhouse gas emissions from smallholder dairy cattle following TIER 2 guidelines, establish farm-gate input and output balances, and help to develop suitable interventions to improve smallholder dairy farmers’ livelihoods.

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Picture 8: Heart girth and live weight measurements of a goat

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