BDEP blog part three: Smallholder Dairy Development in Bangladesh: Addressing the Productivity Gap

Originally published on March 14, 2017.

Part Three of a Four; in Part One we introduced some of the philosophies used by the BDEP team to guide their project, while in Part Two we mentioned how two of these philosophies drive the activities undertaken by BDEP. One of the most important philosophies followed by BDEP is that believing comes from farmers seeing progress with their own eyes, in their local setting. Part Three explores some of the most important topics which farmers are seeing on a daily basis, on their farm or on their neighbor’s farm.

By Geoff Walker

With yields of less than two liters per day for local cows and around eight liters per day for cross-bred cows, productivity in the dairy farming sector of Bangladesh is poor. How is BDEP working to address the reasons for such poor yields?

The key issues which need to be remedied by demonstrating their effect, on farm, right there in the 230 villages BDEP is working in through Khulna and Rajshahi Divisions, include the following:
  • Separation of water and feed. Today in Bangladesh, water and feed are nearly always mixed. This does not allow for the provision of clean water in the necessary volumes or the supply of the right, nutritious feed.
  • Once separated from the feed, clean water can be provided in the right volume by allowing cows to decide for themselves when they want to drink (separate water trough).
  • Better sources of nutrition; in particular most rations provided to cows today are considerably low on protein. The ration needs to be tailored to the body weight and milk production level of the individual cow, to avoid either insufficient nutrition (causing lower milk production) or over feeding (causing higher costs than necessary).
  • Better calf rearing, including the use of calf milk replacer (CMR) (which is cheaper than milk, so an instant profit is created, and CMR also allows for accurate feeding according to body weight).
  • Realistic weaning strategies including rumen development.
  • Cow comfort, including untying cows where possible, the use of sand beds as opposed to concrete floors, having cows outside in a breeze and under shade rather than in the confined concrete sheds used in much of Bangladesh, and frequent showering to mitigate high ambient temperatures.
So which of my philosophies of dairy development guide this most important part of our work? It is apparent to me that if water is placed in front of cows, they will drink. Cows are attracted to more nutritious food and they will eat it with absolute pleasure if it is placed in front of them. Calves will take to maize powder early in their lives if it is available, and hence rumen development will occur followed by early weaning. The point being made is that cows and calves will do the right thing, if they are allowed.

It is lack of understanding of better farming practices among farmers which is in effect causing them to stop cows doing the right thing. It is apparent, therefore, that we refer to philosophy 1, “human development must come before cow development.” I would say that of all BDEP’s philosophies, this is the single most important one, and one which can often be overlooked as we rush to more cows and better cows and modern technology, without the basics skills to make these work.

All of these concepts are demonstrated to farmers on-farm. While it is clear that the use of enhanced fodder must be on-farm, with so many smallholders classed as landless, the production of improved nutrition takes place at a farm/business specializing in such production. BDEP calls them, “mini-agribusinesses” or “MABs”. BDEP has now created more than 100 such mini-businesses, which in addition to growing enhanced fodder, also blend superior concentrate with correct protein content, and offer other goods and services needed by dairy farmers, such as calf milk replacer, deworming tablets, ear tags, rock salt and rubber mats (for cow comfort).

BDEP firmly believes that in the Bangladesh context, quality is best achieved by local supply. In addition, transport costs mean locally grown fodder is preferred. Thus BDEP is encouraging specialization, by dairy farmers to improve their farming systems, and by MABs to produce superior nutrition. This is 100% consistent with BDEP’s philosophy 7, “specialization is a feature of modern economies, and should be applied in developing dairy sectors just as in developed economies.”

If the best cow in the world were to be imported to Bangladesh, and managed under traditional practices, it would no longer be the best cow in the world. The understanding of farmers needs to be significantly upgraded before they can manage better cows to better effect. And, before farmers can be taught better animal husbandry and farm management, much effort needs to be put into equipping the practitioners who can teach them enhanced management. BDEP has trained around 70 young people, including BDEP  and partner staff who are now very effective dairy development resources in Bangladesh. We could not convince farmers to change traditional practices without investment in human development in advisory services.

I use the term “advisory services” rather than “extension service.” In my opinion, the term “extension” has been captured by providers of animal health treatment and artificial insemination, while doing very little about farm management and animal husbandry. I use an estimate that 90% of the factors limiting productivity of the dairy sector in Bangladesh are connected to farm management and animal husbandry, and only about 5% each to animal health and genetics. The term “advisory service” supports philosophy 8, “Thinking Not Things.” In other words, dairy development does not come from “things” such an AI straw or an injection of veterinary medication; it does not come from a truck or a mini-processing facility; rather it comes from providing knowledge to farmers and teaching them to think and understand how to look after their cows properly.

In Part Four, we shall review what farmers do with the higher milk volumes they are producing.

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