Reflections from a year in the field: Sustainable livestock feeding systems in rural India
Over the last year, I was conducting fieldwork in the Kandhamal District of Odisha, India. We implemented a goat feeding experiment with Kondha tribal farmers in the forest fringe areas of Tikabali Block. Livestock management in the project area was extensive (as opposed to intensive) where animals openly graze with minimal or no oversight. Quantity and quality of grazing areas have seen steady declines in as little as the last 10-20 years because of conversion to agricultural lands and forest extraction of resources such as firewood.
Our hypothesis was that a semi-stall feeding system could improve the health and wellbeing of goats while giving local farmers further opportunities for marketing improved livestock products. (Learn more.) There is one cultivation season in this region where farmers mainly cultivate paddy, and they leave fields fallow for the remainder of the year. Livestock management proves to be another restraint for farmers to grow crops in other seasons because unmanaged livestock will damage valuable produce, which increases the importance of addressing the animal management system for tribal farmers.
We established a goat feeding experiment with 16 farmers in two villages. Half of the farmers continued with their traditional, open grazing system and half of the sample shifted to a semi-stall feeding system with feed provided by the project. We collected data within each of the three main seasons: summer, rainy and winter. It was an enriching opportunity to work with the same 16 farmers for a full nine months to deepen my context for the quantitative variables measured. We learned their daily patterns, understood cultural norms of livestock management, and came to appreciate the social connections and tensions that reside within these complex communities. Implementation of this experiment in rural India exposed me to the monumental challenge of establishing projects in rural places with lacking infrastructure and a dearth of skilled labor for execution of rigorous research methods. Finding reliable people for delegating responsibilities is essential for success, and I was privileged to have outstanding support staff.
We collected a substantial amount of data regarding the commonly consumed forages, the quality of forages, management practices, and the potential to change management. In the end, we had farmers request hands-on tutorials about how to grow forages and how to provide feed for their animals. We hosted a fodder cultivation workshop with the assistance of the Animal Husbandry and Veterinary Services Department, and it was gratifying to see the interest that organically emerged because of our research. Farmers were thankful for the interest that we showed in them, and hoped that information sharing could continue in the future to help them improve their production systems.
As I work to clean my data and make conclusions about how our research can influence animal husbandry policy, I reflect on the incredible experiences that I had in India over the last year. This year has been a once in a lifetime opportunity to leap into a foreign environment, try out an idea, and fully embrace the failures and successes. I hope that other students will accept opportunities to venture outside their research stations or labs and get a taste of how research could work on the target audience.
I want to thank the Tata-Cornell Institute and TARINA for the provision of funding to undertake this project, my committee members for their long-distance support, and all the support staff in India that helpful to make this project a reality, particularly my project coordinator, Nimisha Bhagawaty.
By Maureen Valentine
Maureen Valentine (email@example.com) is a TCI Scholar and a third year Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Animal Science. Maureen completed her one year of fieldwork (as required for TCI Scholars) in 2016.