Driving smallholder cattle production in Indonesia

November 7, 2019

Cattle grazing in the palm oil plantation. The cattle belong to a commercial palm oil producer and can feed on recently harvested oil palm fronds and on the plantation understorey, traditionally viewed as weeds.

By Jori Bremer

My PhD project falls within the ACIAR IndoBeef program, more specifically the PalmCow project, which aims to โ€˜Develop profitable smallholder beef cattle production in association with oil palm plantation systemsโ€™.

A growing population and increasing standards of living in Indonesia have led to a growing demand for animal protein, especially beef. Local beef production is however constrained by limited feed and land resources. The integration of cattle in the 12 million hectares oil palm plantation is one suggested solution: the oil palm understory (commonly viewed as weeds by plantation managers) is used as feed, and no additional land needs to be converted to agriculture. At the same time, cattle grazing could reduce the need for labour and agrochemicals for weeding and provide farmers with an additional source of income. Overgrazing, however, can lead to soil degradation and the proliferation of unpalatable weeds. Cattle management is therefore a crucial determinant in the sustainability of cattle-oil palm integration.

Receiving the Crawford Student Awards gave me the opportunity to conduct interviews with smallholder farmers using oil palm understory as cattle feed. I asked about farmersโ€™ chosen cattle management model in the oil palm plantation, the reason behind the adoption of this management model, and their opinions on cattle-oil palm integration.

A one-on-one interview with palm oil and cattle farmer. From right: Wahyu Darsono (cattle manager), Jori Bremer, Roshif Syahdan (interpreter) and the farmer.

Forty-two smallholder farmers owning cattle participated, in four villages around the Buana Karya Bhakti commercial oil palm plantation in South Kalimantan. It was difficult to find respondents at first and I was resigned to the fact that I would probably not reach the target number of interviews. However, as often happens in Indonesia, everything fell into place on the last day of interviews, when 18 smallholders showed up. It was then a challenge to collect all the required information without making them wait for too long! My time in Indonesia certainly taught me about the benefits of being flexible and going with the flow, while trusting everything will work out in the end.

There are three main cattle management models in the area: continuous grazing, daytime grazing and no grazing. Interestingly, cattle management is controlled by the risk of cattle theft. Cattle are kept in kandangs (pens) to keep them safe from thieves. If the farmer can watch the cattle during the day, the cattle are allowed to graze outside. The smallholders continuously grazing cattle do so because their cattle are too difficult to handle and cannot be kept in kandangs.

Whereas I expected the application of agrochemicals in the plantation (fertilizer and herbicides) to be a deterrent for cattle integration in oil palm plantations, it was not viewed as a problem by smallholders. Oil palm plantation workers usually warn these cattle farmers about agrochemical application zones, which can then easily be avoided.

Juggling an 18-person interview: In these situations it was important to be flexible and adapt to the circumstances, to make sure everyone got to tell their story.

Cattle are considered one of the possible pathways for improving livelihoods and living standards, while at the same time being a form of income storage for times of need. This fieldtrip made me realise the importance of oil palm plantations for cattle farmers in the regions: due to the scarcity of alternative feed resources, the availability of oil palm understory is critical for cattle production. It is therefore crucial to develop sustainable grazing guidelines for cattle in oil palm plantations, so that present and future grazing can be managed sustainably and easily by smallholder farmers. This reinforces the importance of the IndoBeef program.

I am grateful to the Crawford fund student awards for giving me the opportunity to learn about cattle management in these cattle-oil palm integrated systems. I now have a better understanding on the local conditions and I have a better view on realistic research pathways, crucial information for the continuation of my PhD as well as for building the knowledge base on cattle-oil palm integrated systems.