Taking the Bali bull by the horns

An holistic ‘farming systems’ approach, which evolved out of a number of Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR) funded projects in northern Australia and Africa, is now helping improve both agricultural productivity and lives of small farmers in the drier regions of eastern Indonesia.

In his time as a forage agronomist, Jeff Corfield has had the unusual experience of seeing innovative approaches to farming developed in his own backyard spread globally. “Much of the technology and methodology for the farming systems research approach was pioneered in northern Australia, where I’ve lived for over 40 years,” Corfield explains. “And for nearly a decade I was part of a Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) team which applied that approach to the problem of improving beef cattle production within small farmer communities in eastern Indonesia.”

The projects Corfield was involved in were funded by ACIAR and conducted in collaboration with Indonesian agricultural agencies and universities. Their aim was to help improve Indonesia’s food security, preserve its indigenous Bali cattle breed stock, reduce dependence on imported beef and lift rural villages out of poverty. “I’ve seen farmers we worked with go from scratching subsistence livelihoods to being able to afford motorbikes, brick houses and even university educations for their kids – all through improved cattle production,” Corfield says.

While Corfield acknowledges technology played a role in that transformation he’s keen to emphasise the results CSIRO achieved were as much a function of taking a culturally sensitive, participatory “working and learning together” research approach as applying sophisticated computer models.

“The systems approach looks at the farm holistically as a range of intertwined interactions with lots of different inputs and outputs,” he says. “We used data from local sources to develop sophisticated farming systems models to help predict, say, how introducing a new type of forage would increase the cattle growth rates and the impact that would then have on everything from a farmer’s income to the amount of labour he would require. While such computer models are mainly of interest to researchers we also used them to workshop various ‘what if’ scenarios with farmer groups before testing them on farms.”

One ‘what if’ scenario that had long been explored in Indonesia with few lasting results was whether the introduction of new forage plants would provide a more nutritious and reliable food source for cattle. “There have been lots of projects in Indonesia over many decades that introduced new forages but most disappeared without a trace,” notes Corfield. “Indonesian farmers, like farmers everywhere, are risk-averse. They aren’t going to change their farming methods unless it’s clearly demonstrated that doing so pays off and, even then, only if they can take ownership of the process. I believe the approach we used generated that sense of ownership.”

Throughout eastern Indonesia, farmers would spend up to seven hours a day in the dry season collecting rice straw or native grass to feed their cattle. CSIRO researchers were able to convince farmers involved in their study to plant new and improved perennial grasses and legumes. The result? The time devoted to forage gathering fell to less than one hour per day for many farmers.

Another production constraint the CSIRO team tackled was farmers’ lack of control over the mating cycle of their cows and the resulting poor-calving percentages. “Traditionally cattle mating took place opportunistically through the dry season when cows grazed with young bulls on poor-quality crop stubble. Poor dry season nutrition reduced cow fertility, while uncontrolled mating spread calving thoughout the worst months of the dry season, placing even more stress on cows,” Corfield notes.

In the intensive rice cropping areas of central Lombok, where many farmers already housed their cows at night in communal sheds called kandangs, farmer groups were encouraged to keep quality bulls specifically for controlled mating, recognise oestrus and feed their cows with new forages to improve calving rates and cow/calf condition. “In that way we were able to value-add to existing farming practices. Farmer groups involved in the project saw their calving rates increase from often below 50 per cent to around 90 per cent in some cases. In addition, the calves’ birth weight almost doubled and their mortality rate dramatically declined.

“In many parts of Indonesia, cattle are a store of capital which farmers sell to pay for things like school or medical fees. When you increase the amount of cattle through the kind of projects my colleagues and I were involved in, farmers not only have more cattle to sell, they are also in a better position to wait until the price is high to do the selling; to be ‘price makers’ rather than ‘price takers’.”

Corfield says the big pay-off from the stepwise participatory research approach used to introduce advances such as new forages and better breeding methods has been the sense of empowerment it’s helped engender in Indonesian farmers, a can-do attitude he’s hoping will spread to struggling rural communities elsewhere.

“After a while things would reach a tipping point where farmers would gain the confidence to experiment with all sorts of options we’d never planned on them doing, such as investing their extra cattle income to sink bores and build dams to grow irrigated rice. What we learnt from our research in Indonesia is now being applied in other parts of Asia and Africa. It’s even informing research being done in Australia, so things truly have come full circle.”