Feed the Future
This project is part of the U.S. Government's global hunger and food security initiative.

Properly-Housed Livestock Contribute to Healthy, Well-Nourished Families

This post was written by Jim Yazman, an ASF Markets Specialist for the USAID Bureau for Food Security

Nearly all nutritionists agree that a diverse diet incorporating animal-source foods (ASF) is a component of the solution to the problem of persistent levels of malnutrition in rural poor households. ASFs — milk and dairy products, meat, fish and eggs — provide high levels of protein and easily-digestible nutrients in the diet that plant-based foods cannot provide.

ASFs are perishable and therefore, for families to have consistent access to ASFs, those foods need to be produced at home or acquired in local markets. Researchers are now postulating a link between troubling levels of malnutrition and growth faltering (stunting) in children under two years of age and exposure to livestock kept near homes and child play areas.  

In traditional “backyard” production systems, livestock roam free during the day in family compounds and nearby fields. In some cases, small stock and even cattle are housed within homes at night to protect them from predators or theft.

All animal wastes, human and livestock, bear biological threats to health, particularly from bacteria and protozoa that may cause diarrhea and impede digestive functions. When livestock are maintained near and within homes, family members — including young children and pregnant and lactating women — may come into direct contact with livestock wastes, like manure and urine, or wastes may contaminate air and water supplies and contribute to the growth of disease-carrying insect populations.

Research is underway to establish a link between livestock-keeping and the presence of bacteria such as Campylobacter spp. in the gut of infant populations presenting high indices of diarrhea and stunting. This research seeks causal pathways that lead to “environmental enteropathy,” a condition of the human digestive tract associated with reduced capacity to utilize food nutrients, possibly contributing to growth faltering in infants.

Animals scientists — livestock production specialists and veterinarians — do not dispute that frequent contact with livestock wastes is a health threat to humans. The problem, however, is poor livestock management not that households are engaging in livestock production enterprises as a livelihood and source of ASFs for home consumption.

The solution to this problem lies in understanding and applying commonly-accepted, appropriate best management practices (BMP) for ASF production, starting with adequate livestock housing designs that assure a healthy separation between animals and the wastes they produce and family living spaces.

BMPs for production of ASFs assure that all health threats to livestock-keeping households are understood and mitigated, starting with housing designs that not only provide for animal comfort and protection and facilitate high levels of productivity but also prevent contamination of air, water, soils and ASFs by livestock wastes.

Poor housing design can negatively impact livestock productivity and result in loss of fertilizer value from manure and urine, reducing a key contribution of livestock in productive, sustainable and climate-sensitive crop-livestock farming systems. Waste management within appropriate housing designs assures that the value of manure and urine as home-produced, inexpensive organic soil amendments and fertilizers for food crops is preserved and enhanced.

Appropriate, BMP-compliant “livestock confinement housing” designs promote sustained ASF production through (1) continuous access to feed and fresh, clean water; (2) protection from predators and disease-bearing vectors such as ticks and flies; (3) adequate ventilation and space for movement and exercise; (4) control of sunlight to promote health and facilitate drying of floors and surfaces as well as entry of UV rays that kill bacteria and viruses; (5) safe handling and storage of inputs such as veterinary pharmaceuticals and perishable ASFs; and (6) management of manure, urine and waste water to preserve fertilizer value and to prevent growth of flies, mosquitoes and other pests and disease vectors.

Confining livestock in BMP-compliant housing presents both challenges and opportunities. Investment in housing represents a transition in ASF production systems, opening the possibility of higher productivity that often facilitates entry into local live animal and ASF markets but also creating costs and raising risks. Livestock that roam freely acquire much of their nutritional requirements from the local environment, often supplemented by harvested grasses, stored crop residues and household food processing wastes. Confined livestock require a consistent supply of quality feed, from cultivated forages, household food wastes and consistently-available fresh water.  

Beyond initial investment costs, confinement of livestock creates additional burdens on households for harvesting forages and moving water, a burden that often falls to women and children.

Purchase of commercial feeds for confined livestock may be required for higher levels of productivity and often requires use of costly credit or commitment of scarce family capital, both raising the risk profile of the ASF production enterprise.

At the same time, adequately housed livestock are often more productive due to reduced threats from disease and predators and more consistent access to feeds and water. High herd and flock productivity translates to more consistent supplies of nutrient-rich ASFs for the family table and higher income from livestock-keeping enterprises, with income often controlled by women.

The transition to confinement housing of livestock is nutrition-sensitive, supporting the health and nutrition of women and children in livestock-keeping families.

Recommended actions to promote application of BMPs for livestock housing design include: 

  • Assist families to understand the costs, benefits and risks in transitioning livestock to confinement housing
  • Seek and apply guidelines for BMPs in livestock housing design through acquisition of design blueprints that are readily available from the USDA, Land Grant University-supported County Extension Services, the FAO of the UN, international NGOs and other organizations
  • Assure that front line extension workers are trained in BMPs for livestock housing design and management of livestock and their wastes and are backstopped by experienced livestock housing design and waste management experts.