Thursday, June 25, 2015

Weathering the Winter: Cattle Nutrition in Nicaragua

This post is drawn from Ashley Conway's trip report about her recent Farmer-to-Farmer assignment in Nicaragua. 

This was Ashley’s first time in Nicaragua, and her first time participating in the Farmer-to-farmer program. After serving in the Peace Corps in Zambia as an agriculture extension volunteer, she was eager to combine her background in tropical livestock system production with her M.S. in animal science. With her thesis research specifically studying improving the utilization of low-quality forages with alternative energy supplementation, this program provided an invaluable opportunity to apply her education and experience in a valuable and productive manner. The purpose and objective of the visit was to provide nutritional technical assistance to producers to improve their operational resilience and production metrics.

Over the course of the two weeks, the two volunteers conducted approximately 10 site/field visits to producers’ operations or plants. One afternoon workshop and one all-day workshop were conducted with producers and technicians. The final days in Nicaragua included presenting briefly on at the 2nd Annual Regional Farmers Congress and conducting an hour-long radio interview on a national broadcast of a weekly agriculture program.
Participant with his favorite cow

The month of April in Nicaragua is a difficult time for livestock producers. It is the end of their dry season (“winter”), and with no rainfall for approximately 5 months, there is little available feedstuff for cattle to graze. The pasture that is available is generally of very poor quality since the plants are near the end of their growth cycle. Feed tends to be high in fiber (NDF and ADF), low in crude protein, and virtually devoid of energy, all of which limit dry matter intake.  The producers are making great strides in improving their supplementation programs through the use of concentrates and silage during the dry season, and the majority of the recommendations in this report are intended to improve upon these programs.
Checking the quality of sillage

Another critical contextual observation that will help prepare future volunteers is with regards to the type of cattle that are being produced in Nicaragua. Nicaragua is on a very exciting cusp of agricultural revolution, with the specialization of livestock industries beginning to emerge away from traditional small-scale farming. This creates a unique set of challenges and exciting possibilities for farmers and future volunteers. The producers want to move toward specialized breeds of cattle and capitalize on the genetic component of production for specific industries. This means that currently most of the cattle that are being fed are dual-purpose animals, neither specialized for meat or milk, which changes the metabolic partitioning of nutrients and subsequent diet recommendations.

Producers seem to think that improving the genetic specialization of their cattle is the key to increased performance; however it is critical that future volunteers emphasize that nutritional management is the priority and any genetic improvements made will be wasted without appropriate nutritional programs.  Overall, the livestock and agricultural industries in Nicaragua are thriving, and provide several unique and exciting opportunities for improvement as well as innovation.

Conway and participants
By adopting the recommendations made, many of the producers may see an increase in resiliency during the end of the dry season next year. Many of them were looking for a solution to rapidly increase milk production and growth, but the more immediate need (and, in several cases, the most considerable oversight) is to maintain body condition and production during the winter. Hopefully, planning ahead and making some of the recommended changes now will improve their ability to continue production when feed and water are limited next year. Some of the immediate dietary change recommendations were an attempt to mitigate some of the detrimental effects of the long drought and winter. It was obvious when working with producers who have already had previous F2F volunteers that the recommendations made have been taken seriously and to great effect.  Apart from F2F, Masiguito Co-op has begun to see success with promoting the production of silage as a dry season feed for the dairymen. This is an excellent practice and this local intervention will complement the F2F recommendations in that area in a positive way.
Conway speaking on air in Matagalpa

Like many F2F volunteers, Ashley described the positive impact the assignment had on her as well as the high value for the host organizations. “This assignment was an incredibly valuable and enriching experience for me, both personally and professionally. As has been my experience in previous situations, I feel that I gained as much (if not more) from the people we met than they gained from us. It was an overwhelmingly positive experience, one that I hope to participate in again in the future.  Professionally, I believe that my experience in Nicaragua was an excellent addition to my previous international agriculture experience while greatly expanding my exposure to other animal production systems. I hope to continue my professional development in international livestock nutrition, particularly in creating sustainable integrated systems in tropical regions. The F2F program is a valuable component in continuing my personal and professional education in this area, and I am glad I have been able to participate. Without hesitation, I would return to Nicaragua to continue working with F2F and the many wonderful people I met during my brief time there.”

Monday, June 22, 2015

Happy Father's Day!

Father’s Day is a chance to celebrate and appreciate all of the dads around the world. This year, Partners is taking a closer look at the fathers involved in our Haiti Nutrition Security Program (NSP).

NSP uses the care group model to spread knowledge among Haitian communities in order to improve the health and nutrition of pregnant and lactating women and children under the age of five. The program’s overall goal is to promote behavior change in nutrition in four geographic focus areas of Haiti in coordination with the Ministry of Health. The majority of the care groups are comprised of Mother Leaders, women who attend training sessions and then pass their knowledge onto other families in their neighborhoods. Men play a relevant role in the majority of development programs, especially at the domestic level. However, health programs and training opportunities typically are not designed to build men’s capacity to be responsible, competent husbands and fathers.

To be successful, behavior change initiatives need to target different groups in different ways. NSP is working with more than 1,200 men through our Fathers groups and 500 adolescent boys in our Youth care groups. Male promoters are also trained to engage men and male youth by building the capacity of fathers to talk about their roles in supporting nutrition and health in their own households and communities.

However, awareness-raising campaigns are not enough to integrate men in behavior change activities around nutrition. Recognizing the difference in priorities, interest, roles and responsibilities for men and women, NSP developed a curriculum to respond to the needs to incorporate men into the program. Traditionally, men are not involved in cooking or feeding activities in the household. However, men are usually very important during decision making and often referred to for gender issues. Therefore, NSP trains male promoters on techniques to engage men and raise their awareness on increasing and diversifying their participation in the household.

Has this technique worked? According to NSP staff, fathers that participate in NSP are more supportive of pregnant and lactating women and are influencing other men to contribute to better hygiene, nutrition and health. They are also supporting the work of the Mother Leaders by taking more responsibilities and playing new roles in the households: both in caring and improving livelihoods while producing more nutritious foods in the kitchen gardens. Men’s participation with family gardens, such as building fences, soil preparation, planting and monitoring of the garden, have allowed the Mother Leaders to find time to support their neighbors and other families in needs. Men and fathers also often plan joint opening sessions with mother leaders to talk about issues of common interest.

Now, more men want to become father leaders; they have asked for training materials to train other men. They participate with women during the community activities and use also theater and songs to convey the nutrition messages, as the Mother Leaders do in their classes. They spend time together with the male promoters to discuss their experiences and the benefits of being supportive of their mothers, wives, and sisters, as well as in spending time with their kids and other groups in the communities. Men are very supportive of these behavior changes in nutrition when engaged and trained early in the process. The transformation of the traditional male roles in Haiti through these fathers and teenage boys is starting the process of making long lasting change for all in the community.

Monday, June 15, 2015

The Constraints and Benefits of Biofortification

There are several approaches to resolving the problems of global food and nutrition insecurity. Partners of the Americas implements the Farmer-to-Farmer and Nutrition Security Programs, both of which work on improving the knowledge and practical skill sets of those participants. Another approach is to address the materials themselves, providing cost-effective equipment that can include even the seeds themselves. 

A relatively new and promising strategy to address malnutrition is the biofortification of food crops. Biofortification – in which crops are bred, traditionally or through genetic modification, to be rich in nutrients such as iron, zinc, and vitamin A that the body is able to absorb – is cost-effective and sustainable relative to other supplementation and fortification programs. These qualities make biofortification a viable strategy to reduce the prevalence of micronutrient malnutrition worldwide. 

Malnutrition is a greater health risk worldwide than malaria, tuberculosis, and AIDS combined. Throughout the world, non-governmental and governmental agencies have undertaken initiatives designed to reduce micronutrient (vitamins and minerals) deficiencies, but malnutrition still persists.  It affects an estimated 870 million people and accounts for nearly 50% of deaths in children under five.

Many organizations address this problem. One, Harvest Plus, has been a leader in the global effort to end hidden hunger caused by the lack of essential vitamins and minerals in the diet.  They develop nutrient-rich seeds, making sure they grow as well, if not better, than the ones farmers currently plant, and promote their use to farmers around the world.

The strategy’s success, however, relies on farmer and consumer acceptance. In order for farmers to adopt biofortified crops, the new variety must be available, accessible, and agronomically equivalent or superior to the current variety being grown. Furthermore, farmers must be able to sell their harvest in local markets. Consumers drive local market prices. Poor consumer acceptance will result in low market prices, and, as a result, farmers will not grow the crop.

Image from Harvest Plus
Fortified vs. Regular Sweet Potato
This suggests that crops biofortified with carotenoids (colorful plant pigment that the body can turn into vitamin A) may be met with more resistance than crops biofortified with minerals such as iron and zinc that are essentially invisible. That being said, crops biofortified with carotenoids have, however, been successfully adopted in multiple cases. A study involving 24,000 households in Uganda and Mozambique gave promising results for the adoption of the orange-fleshed sweet potato in those countries.  At the beginning of the project, less than 10% of sweet potato crops in the two countries were orange-fleshed, but after two years approximately 50% of the sweet potatoes grown were orange. 

This success can be attributed to HarvestPlus’s understanding that effective communication with adult women and men was crucial for adoption as women are responsible for growing the sweet potatoes and feeding the family, while men control the family income and could commercialize the crop. In addition, children liked the taste and appearance of the food, which contributed to greater demand. In Maputo, Mozambique, a provitamin A maize has been introduced.  White maize is the most common staple produced and consumed in Maputo; the switch to dark orange maize has been met with some resistance. One survey suggests, however, that household size, presence of small children, dietary diversity, and taste were all statistically significant factors determining consumer acceptance.

Biofortified crops can significantly impact micronutrient malnutrition throughout the world, but resistance of farmer adoption and consumer acceptance must be addressed. To do this, researchers must consider agronomic traits, seed availability, visual appearance, taste, texture, and cultural stigmas. Successful projects provide a model for overcoming constraints. Despite possible constraints, biofortified crops have been successfully adopted in multiple cases and the field merits further research and development.

Friday, June 12, 2015

Agricultural Extension: an Opportunity for Providing Agricultural Services to Farmers

Here at Partners, we have wonderful interns who work alongside our Agricultural and Food Security team! Amanda Quintana, the Monitoring and Evaluation Intern for the AFS team attended a symposium on Extension services. Below is her reflectionary excerpt:

After attending the Strengthening Extension & Advisory Services for Lasting Impacts symposium coordinated by MEAS (Modernizing Extension and Advisory Services), I asked myself, what IS ‘extension’ and how is this term changing international development and sustainability? In the context of agricultural and rural international development, “extension” is a resource that influences or transfers activities between organizations and firms to farmers and agriculture.

It brings the latest findings in research and science to practices in agriculture, maintains the way farms are kept, and contributes to farmer education. While at the symposium, I learned that a method called ‘Farmer to Farmer’, highlights that working with farmer groups is essential in strengthening the capacities of individual farmers. Functional barriers of farmer organizational development should be identified to better address future farmer to farmer extension programs and interventions. It is important to look at the origins of a group and their existing framework to: 1) properly address concerns, 2) improve farmer education, management, and leadership within a farm or company, and 3) target strategies and policies for improvement. Our Farmer-to-Farmer program here at Partners of the Americas (funded by USAID) addresses these key issues to train farmers and increase the sustainability and effectiveness of agricultural practices in developing countries. 

The symposium lecture concluded with a small table activity discussing future approaches, such as Community-based Participatory Action. During the activity. Overall, I learned that programs that work with extension and train farmers can assist in increasing food security and reducing the rate of poverty through sustainable practices. So the next time you hear the term "extension", remember that the idea is to "extend" key resources and scientific information to work and people on the ground. 

Friday, June 5, 2015

World Environment Day

Plants in repurposed plastic bottles,
Happy Friday! Today is World Environment Day (WED), which is dedicated to the United Nations mission to encourage global public awareness and action to benefit the environment. It’s a day to do something positive for the environment, so that individual actions become a collective movement for the good of the planet. This year’s theme is Seven Billion Dreams. One Planet. Consume with Care. According to the UN WED website, “By 2050, if current consumption and production patterns remain the same and with a rising population expected to reach 9.6 billion, we will need three planets to sustain our ways of living and consumption.”

Compost pile, Guyana
“Consuming with care” means living within our means as a global society so that future generations have the same opportunities to experience a healthy and diverse environment as we have had in the past. Living sustainably is about doing more and better with less. Our continued prosperity and development doesn’t have to be hindered by or harmful to the environment.The challenge that WED presents this year is to commit to #just1thing that each individual can do to make a positive change or impact, something that Partners of the Americas takes very seriously. Farmer-to-Farmer volunteers have gotten a jump start already- here are just a few of the stories that have been featured on this blog in the past.

In March 2013, F2F volunteer Rhonda Sherman of North Carolina traveled to Guyana to provide instruction to farmers, students and staff at the Guyana School of Agriculture, and the public on composting and vermi-composting – using worms to turn organic wastes into compost. The benefits of creating compost include low cost, improved moisture and nutrient content of soil, increased crop yield, replacement of chemical fertilizers, and the diversion of household/industrial wastes from the garbage can and, eventually, landfills.

Tires repurposed as cattle feeders,
In January 2013, climate change and water resource management professionals Femke Oldham and Matthew Freiberg traveled to San Andres Island, Colombia, to demonstrate sustainable food and water systems to female inn owners comprising the Caribbean Paradise Lodging Association. This past week, Heather Schlesser’s photos of recycling tires into cattle feeders while on assignment in Nicaragua were featured as well.
wedding bands

Inspired by industrious F2F volunteers, the AFS Team has started making and keeping their own #just1thing promises. Our two Program Officers Andi and Courtney both walk or ride their bikes to work every day. Director Peggy grows some of her own vegetables and herbs, and Assistant Director Michael and his wife used wooden wedding bands harvested from fallen trees instead of metal due to the negative social and environmental impacts of mining precious metals.
Home-grown herbs and vegetables

There are many ways to choose environmentally friendly choices every day. What’s your #just1thing going to be? Let us know and add your #just1thing promise to the conversation! Follow AFS on Twitter at @APartnersAgFood and use #WED2015 to join in worldwide action!

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Seeking Shade: Bull Health in Nicaragua

Herds with little access to shade
Nicaragua has one of the highest potentials for livestock production in Latin America, but its actual production is among the lowest. The country's national calving rate falls below 50% annually but improvements in cattle management could raise this to 70%. This increase in production could result in an additional 42 million gallons of milk and 200 thousand calves per year, which in turn could increase profitability of the livestock industry by 100 million dollars annually. The low fertility rates that Nicaraguan farmers have been struggling with can be attributed to decreased nutrition, poor reproductive management, and heat stress.

The purpose of Katie Pfieffer and Heather Schlesser’s visit was to provide trainings on male cattle reproduction, especially the factors that affect male reproduction. The goal was to try and determine what is affecting reproduction of bulls in Nicaragua and what if anything can be done to increase the reproductive performance of these bulls.
Schlesser presenting at Le Leche conference

“Upon arriving to Nicaragua we met with Farmer-to-Farmer staff to discuss the weeks ahead. The first activity that we participated in was the Le Leche conference for dairy producers in Nicaragua. At this event there were 300 total people, 60 of them female, and 240 of them male. At this conference I (Schlesser) presented on heat stress and its effects to reproduction. At the end of the presentation I also fielded questions on how deforestation can affect heat stress and how to decrease heat stress. The climate of Nicaragua places animals in moderate to mild levels of heat stress year round. Strategies to reduce the heat stress placed on animals are necessary not only for the reproductive performance of the animals but for also the animals ability to grow and maintain health. Farmers practice deforestation of their land to increase the grazing land available for their cattle. However, by doing so they increase the level of heat stress the animals are experiencing.
All of the participants
In general a cultural change to the way animals are treated is needed. On several farms we visited, animals had no access to shade or food. On a few farms, animals did not even have regular access to water. Not having access to shade or water was also observed for other beasts of labor not associated with the farms we visited.”

In addition to the education and assistance that Farmer-to-Farmer volunteers provide the host organizations, volunteers consistently report on the richness of their own learning experiences working with their hosts.
Old tires recycled to make feeding bins

Ms. Schlesser said, "This trip allowed me not only to see how other cultures practice farming but also to learn about a different culture. During the last two weeks I have had the opportunity to interact with the most selfless and welcoming people I have ever met. The veterinarians and technicians were thoroughly interested in the topic and asked thought-provoking questions. For me it was enjoyable to work with people that wanted to learn and make a difference. I intend to use the presentations prepared for this trip with my farmers in Wisconsin. While visiting some of the farms I noticed some alternative feeding structures, which I think would work well on some of the farms in Wisconsin. The use of old tires is a great way to use items that are already found around the farm."

Ms Pfieffer added, "This trip was a once in a lifetime opportunity to experience cattle production in Central America. I had previously traveled to Costa Rica on vacation but that was a very different type of experience. Meeting the local people and experiencing the food and culture was unique. I really enjoyed working the veterinarians and veterinary technicians. Professionally, I provided a lot of information. This increased my understanding of some topics and also helped me continue to develop my presentation skills."