AUSTRALIAN veterinarian Isabel MacPhillamy and animal scientist Franny Earp, of The University of Sydney, are studying how to help improve the livelihoods of smallholder farmers in South East Asia.
Focusing on improved food security, they are both working towards their PhDs as part of a broader team effort by the Mekong Livestock Research (MLR) Group, to understand what motivates farmers to change their husbandry practices and break the cycle of rural poverty in Laos, Cambodia and beyond.
"The program is focused on assisting subsistence smallholder farmers to transition away from poverty to a more viable and sustainable livelihood through investing in improved livestock productivity," Isabel said.
"In particular, it's about building the capacity and understanding of how smallholder farmers can incorporate improved feeding systems, adopt preventative animal health and welfare strategies, and importantly, improve household financial resilience."
Isabel is also interested in how farmers and village para-veterinarians can improve disease surveillance and response to reduce losses.
"There is ample evidence that where demand for beef remains strong, improved productivity and reduced disease, leads to improved animal health and welfare outcomes, with better lives for farmers, their families and their animals, through reduced rural poverty," she said.
Franny is attempting to better understand the role of gender, recognising that although care of cattle is considered mainly the work of men, women are increasingly important.
"Increasingly, males are forced to work off-farm to increase incomes and the burden of household farming activities is increasingly met by women in supporting the family," Franny said.
The collaborative work of the MLR group has been underway in the Mekong since 2007, supported by ACIAR-funded projects in Cambodia and Laos, plus a DFAT Business Partnership Platform project also in Laos.
Additional support has also come the Crawford Fund for field officer extension training and conference presentations, the New Colombo Plan for an extensive program of student participation, the John Alwright, John Dillon and Australian Government Fellowship Awards for assisting Mekong scholars, plus numerous collaborations with international agencies and universities.
The work has been examining interventions that can improve the husbandry, health, production and socio-economics of mainly cattle and buffalo productivity but also other farmed species by smallholder farmers, while also addressing gender issues on their family farms.
A major breakthrough has been the introduction of forage systems to improve the dietary base and more recently, molasses feed blocks. Both interventions decrease the often excessive work load common to both the 'cut and carry' and 'common grazing' feeding systems in the Mekong.
"That creates more time for other work/activities and more easily managed livestock," Franny said.
The blocks provided by animal nutrition supplier 4 Season Company have proven a very effective method of mustering cattle back to the villages for overnight housing. The animals actively seek out the nutrient-rich supplementation blocks containing molasses.
The blocks are now readily available from the SK Vet Clinic in Luang Prabang, along with knowledge building handbooks on livestock husbandry, reproduction and biosecurity.
"Farmers have also been impressed with how calf mortality is controlled by simply deworming neonates for the roundworm,and how regular vaccination protects against the bacterial disease Haemorrhagic septicaemia and the viral infection of foot and mouth disease," Franny said.
More recently, Laotian farmers have had access to the pain relief product Tri-Solfen as a treatment for FMD. Tri-Solfen is being sprayed on painful FMD lesions, providing relief from suffering, hastening healing and enabling animals to eat more readily. It also avoids the use of expensive and unnecessary antibiotics, which are ineffective against the FMD virus.
Professor Peter Windor from The University of Sydney said Tri-Solfen was being promoted as an effective strategy to reduce the use of antibiotics in livestock and limit the potential but serious risk of antimicrobial resistance that can affect both animal and human populations.
"A very important role in our work is to let the scientific community know of the impact of our collaborative findings that may be of benefit to other development programs," Professor Windsor said.
"Our extensive work of well over a decade in the Mekong has shown the importance of using a systems approach that promotes multiple and interacting factors for positive change, consistently aimed at improving rural livelihoods through increased livestock productivity.
"The initial focus of such programs has clearly been shown to enhance nutrition and reduce mortality and disease risk."
Professor Windsor said as learning had continued in the MLR programs, many farmers had continued to improve their livestock husbandry skills, having recognised that healthier, more valuable livestock offered pathways for reducing food insecurity and disease plus rural community resilience.
"Assisting our regional neighbours with programs that reduce FMD risk and improves markets for beef that are increasingly including Australian-origin animals, is good for Australian business and biosecurity," Professor Windsor said.