What's your beef? Why it might be time to give livestock a break

What's your beef? Why it might be time to give livestock a break

Cows are regularly portrayed as evil: four-legged, four-stomached, greenhouse gas machines chomping through forests and destroying the planet.It’s no wonder the idea of a climate-smart livestock system sounds like an oxymoron.

Nevertheless, I’m promised a glimpse. To get it, we head into Colombia’s restive, mountainous, Cauca Department. A few peaks and troughs later, and we descend into Patía – a narrow valley long-plagued by challenges, from sputtering armed conflict to frequent drought.

Patía is also a microcosm of Colombia’s livestock conundrum. With around 23 million beasts, the country has as many cattle as Australia has people, grazing an area the size of Germany. At an average of one animal to 1.4 hectares, it’s lot of land for not much cow.

It’s also the recipe for environmental calamity. Land degradation due to livestock production is widespread, forests have been cut down to make way for new grazing areas, and livestock are responsible for nearly all of the country’s agricultural greenhouse gas emissions.

But somewhere like Patía, there are few other options.

Pretty much everyone here depends on cattle – all 35,000 head of them. And in spite of the stunning scenery – striking outcrops and hanging mountain mists – there are telltale signs that the land can’t cope anymore. Stripped of trees and vegetation, tongues of eroded soil rake overgrazed hillsides, and exhausted, trampled rangelands abound.

Needless to say, none of this looks particularly climate-smart to me.

Until we reach Noelí’s farm.

Cattle on Noelí's farm in Patía. Pic by Neil Palmer (CIAT).

A big man with an equally big smile, Noelí comes from a long line of cattle producers. Up until 2007, like his parents, grandparents and neighbours, he let his cattle graze the wild grasses that spring up each year. But these weren’t particularly nutritious or resilient when the rains failed. Productivity and earnings were low.

Then everything changed.

Active in his local farmers’ association, scientists from the University of Cauca and CIAT asked Noelí if he would be willing to try silvopastoralism – a rotational grazing system that combines nutritious forage grasses, herbs, bushes and trees.

As well as the promise of increasing the productivity of both cattle and land, silvopastoral systems can also weather drought, help restore degraded soils and reduce greenhouse gas emissions associated with cattle farming.

Noelí was totally up for it.

To establish the system, he divided his land into six plots. In one he planted brachiaria, a broad-leaved grass native to Africa that grows in knee-high clumps. It’s more nutritious and drought-tolerant than the wispy wild grasses. Its deep root system also helps accumulate soil carbon and stabilises the soil, protecting against erosion.

Easier to digest and more nutritious than the wild grasses, cattle fed with brachiaria are more productive, resulting in lower methane emissions per kilo of meat or litre of milk. Fortunately, cows find brachiaria tasty too.

But the system is about much more than a single grass.

In an adjacent plot Noelí planted canavalia, a drought-hardy legume conserved at the CIAT gene bank. As well as a palatable source of protein for cattle, it fixes atmospheric nitrogen, adding to soil fertility and reducing the need for fertiliser. In additional plots he planted other nutritious forages, along with leguminous bushes and some extra trees for feed or shade or both.

Now here’s the key: Noelí moves the cattle from plot-to-plot roughly every five days, doing a full rotation across the whole farm every 30 days-or-so. For the cattle, it’s like a nutritious, month-long, six-course dinner, with Noelí the attentive maître d’. 

The rest period allows the grazed plots to recover in a cycle that – with good management – can continue productively for 10-15 years.

The results go some way to explaining Noelí’s big smile: currently, his 20 cows graze five hectares – more than five times the average stocking density in Colombia. He gets almost double the amount of milk from each cow, and his animals reach slaughter weight in two years instead of five. The extra income has helped him send his son to university; he hopes to become a vet.

Noelí tells us that when a severe drought struck Patía in 2012, many farmers lost cattle to dehydration or starvation. His own – fortified by a good diet based on drought-resilient grasses – all survived.

In terms of climate-smart, that’s more like it.

Greener pastures?

Just off the winding Panamerican Highway that cuts through Patía, CIAT and Unicauca are testing a range of forages for use in silvopastoral systems like Noelí’s. From the wrong side of an electric fence, several cows look longingly at the lush leaves of some improved grasses.

The trials have attracted interest from humans too. CIAT’s Jhon Freddy Gutierrez tells me the roadside location is intentional, showcasing the forages alongside the wild grasses struggling at the end of a long dry spell. He’s received lots of requests from locals keen to find out more. Already around 200 farmers in Patía are either trialling silvopastoralism, or the improved forages that are the foundation of the system.

The farmers in Patía are willing to change they way they manage livestock production; they know the benefits of improved, eco-efficient cattle-raising; they’re just missing the various kinds of support needed to put the systems in place.

Nelson Vivas

Leader, Livestock and Forages Nutrition Group, University of Cauca

What’s very often missing in the livestock debate is that it is the production system that’s at fault, not the animals. With the right system, you can produce more, earn more, and improve the environment at the same time. Michael Peters

Tropical Forages Program Leader, CIAT

The Colombian government prioritised silvopastoral systems in its plans to tackle climate change, which were submitted to the United Nations last year. These drew attention to the fact that increasing productivity reduces the need for farmers to seek new areas for grazing. This in turn eases pressure of forests, with the potential for enormous emissions savings from “avoided deforestation”.

It hopes to introduce silvopstoralism on around 6 million hectares in the country.

But – sorry yes, there’s always a “but”. Silvopastoralism isn’t entirely new to Colombia; it’s been tried in different parts of the country for years but has never really taken off. Why?

The thing is, livestock systems don’t start and end at the farm gate. There are lots of off-farm factors that can prevent even the most enthusiastic farmers getting involved. This is silvopastoralism’s own conundrum, and something the Unicauca and CIAT scientists are figuring out.

Here’s a taster of what they know so far:

To get started, farmers need cash to buy the forage seeds. If they don’t have cash, they need to borrow. But unless they have formal land titles – which many of them don’t – they’re going to struggle to get a loan. Even if they have money for seeds, there might not be any available. Also, in some areas, land prices are so low it makes financial sense for farmers to just buy more of it and persevere with traditional systems.

In addition, the new system can be a bit of a culture shock for some farmers. Traditional cattle production in Patía is very hands-off (get land-add cows-leave); silvopastoralism requires constant upkeep.

These and other Issues could conspire to keep the idea of silvopastoralism exactly that: an idea. Addressing them will need serious work.

But there’s probably never been a better time to try. Fifty years of armed conflict in Colombia has brought enormous rural instability. The growing likelihood of peace means many farmers – and loan providers – can start thinking seriously about investing long-term for the first time in generations. If those investments can help make livestock systems more productive, resilient and sustainable, the environmental returns could be huge.

Silvopastoralism could play a major role in making livestock production more climate-smart, and changing the sector’s bad environmental image. It could help farmers across the tropics sustainably increase production, while adapting to and mitigating climate change at the same time.

Peter Laderach

Climate Change Scientist, CIAT and the CGIAR Research Program of Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS)

Nutritious, productive forages are the foundation of more sustainable livestock systems. It’s great to see the versatility of different forages conserved and studied at the CIAT genebank in Cali continuing to make a difference in the lives of smallholder farmers, through silvopastoralism. Daniel Debouck

Genetic Resources Program Leader, CIAT


The “Development and use of forage resources for sustainable bovine production systems for the Department of Cauca” programme is funded through the Colombian government’s Sistema General de Regalías.

The work is affiliated to the CGIAR Research Program of Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS) and the CGIAR Research Program on Livestock and Fish.

CIAT’s previous and ongoing work with improved forage grasses in the region is funded by the German government’s Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ).

Additional work in the region has been supported by Colombia’s Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs, and Colciencias.


Call to Action

1. Testing and introduction of silvopastoral systems in other regions of Colombia and Latin America, specifically to help rehabilitate lands that have been degraded through unsustainable livestock practices. Currently, around 80% pastureland in the region is degraded.

2. Feasibility studies of silvopastoralism in Africa – there is great potential for the establishment of the systems in many parts of humid and sub-humid tropics, particularly in Africa. These could enable livestock producers to contribute sustainably to the continent’s livestock revolution.