Mobile Pens Harness Livestock to Improve Farm Systems
In Mozambique, farmers are adopting mobile pens as an improved approach to care for their livestock and are reaping the benefits. While mobile pens are used elsewhere in the world, the concept is new to Mozambique. These semipermanent mobile structures are used to move cattle in mobile night kraals, and smaller ruminants in mobile tractors, across fields and pastures. The approach integrates livestock into the farm system and promotes resilience for animals, soil, and livelihoods. Land O’Lakes Venture37, in collaboration with the Regen Centre, the Centre for Technological Transformation (CITT), and Zambeze University, is working with farmers in Mozambique to pilot mobile night kraals and tractors to improve farm systems. Through the USAID-funded Resilient Agriculture and Markets Activity in the Beira Corridor (RAMA-BC) project, Venture37 plans to learn from the pilot, refine the approach and scale up its reach.
What are mobile pens, and what is their role in regenerative agriculture?
RAMA-BC uses regenerative agriculture as a key approach to achieving its goal of equitably increasing agricultural productivity and climate resilience through agricultural technologies and practices. Regenerative agriculture considers farming as a holistic system in which livestock and crops are integrated, thereby strengthening the system’s resilience.
Mobile livestock pens are one way that farmers can incorporate livestock into their farm system. The mobile pen innovation started with mobile night kraals and stems from ultra-high-density grazing practices seen in Zimbabwe. Mobile night kraals mimic the way that ultra-high-density grazing regenerates landscapes, but on a smaller scale. The cattle roam freely during the day under the watch of their herder. At night, they are corralled into a mobile night kraal made from tall poles placed in a circle on a field or pasture and wrapped in an opaque, thick fabric. The cattle replenish the soil they stand on by mixing plant residues and manure into the ground with their hooves. The kraal is moved to a new location after a week and will not be placed on the same plot for at least a month, allowing the land to regrow.
The principle of mobile night kraals has since been expanded by livestock researchers to include other smaller livestock — such as goat, sheep, pigs and chickens — by using tractors. Unlike mobile night kraals, tractors house the animals during the day and night and are moved to a new area of the field or pasture daily. With tractors, the animals replenish the soil in the same way as with mobile night kraals and they graze similarly — an added benefit for the pasture. When given the option to graze freely on a large open pasture, livestock will eat the grasses they prefer. This allows the less desirable grasses to dominate the pasture, and it reduces the biodiversity and productivity of the pasture. By uniformly and intensively grazing pastures using tractors, all grasses are eaten. During the rest period, the land regrows a healthy and diverse variety of grasses that maintains pasture quality.
Mobile night kraals and tractors are an easy way for farmers to build livestock into their farm systems and promote regenerative agriculture fundamentals. They can be adapted to fit any size of farm and can be used with a wide variety of livestock.
How is the RAMA-BC project using mobile pens in Mozambique?
In Mozambique, farmers traditionally keep animals separate from the larger farm system. Livestock are usually housed in permanent structures that trap all the nutrients from waste in one spot. This not only squanders the free fertilizer, but it creates poor conditions for the animals. This is especially true during the rainy season when cattle are often up to their knees in mud and waste. To address this, the RAMA-BC project is using mobile night kraals and tractors as a regenerative agriculture practice. The program provided mobile pens to a group of 15 small and commercial farmers as part of a pilot. The farmers are trialing the pens for one year to observe the benefits of integrating livestock into their farm systems. The pens were built in partnership with the CITT in Manica using local, low-cost and accessible materials. RAMA-BC trained the farmers on the proper use, management and movement of mobile pens. Several pilot farmers also participated in a visit to the Regen Centre in South Africa, where they got hands-on practice in moving animals housed in mobile pens.
Only five months in, the pilot is already generating benefits for farmers and their animals. Farmer fields and pastures are being regenerated and saving farmers money on synthetic fertilizers. In addition, farmers have reported lower animal feed expenses now that the animals graze in the fields and pastures all day. The pasture regeneration has increased soil fertility and water retention, making them more resilient to extreme weather. Farmers have reported decreased mortality from Newcastle Disease among their poultry and African Swine Fever among their pigs. The animals are healthier in the clean and open-air pens and are more capable of fighting off disease on their own. Water waste and labor have also decreased, as the new pens don’t require regular cleaning.
The RAMA-BC project is now working to widen the reach of this activity. The project is hosting farmer field days next spring to showcase the impact of mobile night kraals and tractors. Interested farmers will have the chance to learn about the approach and connect with hardware suppliers who can provide them with the materials necessary to build their own mobile pens. From these field days, the project anticipates that 200 to 500 additional farmers in Mozambique will start to implement the technique on their own farms. The project is also working on disseminating several mobile pen and regenerative agriculture training videos to farmers, students, universities and extension workers.
Since the pilot is not yet complete, the project is continuing to monitor and measure the impact of mobile pens with support from its partners. A UniZambeze intern will research the impact of mobile night kraals and tractors on crop productivity across three sites. Additionally, the Regen Centre will measure maize yields on fields that used mobile pens and compare the results to fields that did not use pens. These results, combined with lessons learned from the pilot, will enable the team to reflect on, adapt, and scale up the approach.
The way forward
Lately, livestock have been scrutinized for their negative impact on the environment. With the climate emergency, it’s more critical than ever before to consider how small-scale farming and holistic farm systems are integral to minimizing environmental impacts. Mobile pens are one innovation that demonstrate how livestock can be integrated into farm systems and positively influence the environment around them. Through the regeneration of degraded soils and increased productivity and wellness of the livestock, mobile pens promote a strong and resilient farm system that is better equipped to manage climate shocks.