Lambs

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I am in Bolivia now working with our partners CENDA on our “Small Animals, Big Changes” project. In brief, we are trying two different nutrition-sensitive agriculture interventions. At about 3500 metres above sea level, HealthBridge and CENDA are working with the farmers and families to promote chickens (building chicken coops, providing a starter flock, teaching how to use vermiculture, and promoting the consumption of the eggs). The link between the agriculture side and the nutrition side is pretty clear – the chickens lay eggs and we are encouraging the families to eat the eggs rather than sell them. Through the nutrition education efforts of CENDA, the families now seem to get the importance of the eggs. They are planning on feeding them to the kids.

In the mountain plateau communities, at about 4000 metres above sea level, we are promoting improved sheep husbandry. They are sheep farmers (and llamas, alpacas, potatoes and other crops) and they are eager to learn and adopt practices that improve their flock’s health. One of the parts of the intervention is the promotion of the construction and use of covered corrals for the sheep.

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The weather is often cold and wet. In August last year over a metre of snow fell and tens of thousands of animals were killed in the Andes. Some farmers in these communities lost every new born lamb. They are confident that with the covered corrals the lambs will not freeze to death and survival rates will be higher. This is encouraging – it is our hypothesis that the improved corrals will lead to better lamb survival, and the farmers agree with this. We are collecting data to test this hypothesis. The second hypothesis is that increased lamb survival will lead to increased milk production (that seems clear) and increased meat consumption. As the farmers become confident that their lambs will survive until adulthood they will be less hesitant to harvest the older sheep. We are not working to increase flock size, but rather to increase flock turn over – put the pasture into growing the young ones rather than maintaining the old ones. Thus, the old ones can be harvested and the families can eat more meat. That is the hypothesis, but we do not know if it will work out that way. Sheep are the farmers bank accounts and increasing harvest rates would be a difficult decision for them to make. But we got one little bit of good news this week that I would like to share with you. We did a survey of 44 farmers’ herds, collecting data on, among other things, herd size, number of ewes who were pregnant and gave birth, how many of the newborns are still alive, and how many sheep they harvested in the past year. And it is very exciting to report that the number of sheep harvested is fairly tightly and positively related to the number of lambs that survived (r-squared=.34). In multivariable regression, the only factor that is related to number of sheep harvested is the number of lambs still living. Not even herd size is a predictor of the number of sheep harvested. This is encouraging. Now, just because they are harvesting more sheep with better lamb survival doesn’t mean they are eating more sheep – they may be selling more. But it is in the right direction and gives us something to work with, and be optimistic about.