Improving the efficiency of natural resource use along the livestock value chain can contribute to a range of social, economic, and environmental benefits. Principle 3 provides guidance for contributing to these efficiency gains through improvements in productivity. This principle is applicable to all livestock systems with potential for productivity improvements. It has particular relevance for mixed and extensive ruminant systems in Africa, Asia, and Latin America and the Caribbean, which are generally lower-yielding.

Improving livestock productivity enables producers to sustain and/or increase output without significant growth in animal numbers, thus contributing to multiple development goals.

Practices that improve productivity at the animal level (yield per animal) are commonly included in development activities to lower the costs of production; increase the amount of protein- and micronutrient-rich animal-sourced food available for household consumption; and raise incomes. In addition, yield improvements can contribute to climate change mitigation by reducing the amount of greenhouse gases that ruminants emit per kg of animal protein produced. Herd-level productivity improvements can provide multiple benefits as well through avoiding the economic and environmental costs associated with herd losses and unproductive animals.

Points of Consideration:

Does the project involve low-yielding livestock, particularly ruminants? If so, in project design, include incentives for increasing animal and herd productivity:

Key practices to incentivize at animal level:

     - Improving feed rations: overall digestibility and balancing of protein,
energy, and micronutrients.

     - Improving animal health and welfare through disease prevention and
       control, and adoption of the Five Freedoms.

Key practices to incentivize at herd level:

     - Improving reproductive management through breeding and selecting for
       highyielding, high-fertility genetic potential; using artificial insemination;
       and managing reproduction and offtake rates to minimize unproductive 
       animals in the herd.

     - Unless large animal herds are used for risk mitigation or asset saving,
       consider alternatives to keeping nonfoodproducing livestock.

Include a baseline and indicators in project M&E to track and capture the benefits of productivity improvements.


Approaches and Tools:

Increasing the digestibility of the diet, as well as the protein and micronutrient content, generally results in higher productivity. Key approaches are increasing the proportion of highly digestible forages in the diet; managing cultivated forages and pasture to maximize digestibility; adding high-energy and high-protein supplements, such as concentrates (e.g., grains, brans, oilseed cakes) to the diet; adopting precision feeding; and applying feed analysis and ration optimization to meet animal nutrient requirements. (FAO, 2012a). To be resilient, such diet improvements need to be based on sound knowledge of local feed resources and of import opportunities and risks. Regions that experience weather variability and/or drought may adopt forage conservation and storage practices, such as silage production, to sustain higher-quality diets through periods of scarcity.

Improve animal health and welfare. Animal health and welfare improvements reduce the adverse effects of distress, disease, and infection on productivity in all livestock systems and species. They also help avoid the environmental impacts associated with low- or nonproducing animals. Key approaches include avoiding animal distress, for instance, due to heat, crowding, and injury (Five Freedoms); proper administration of vaccines, mastitis (udder), and other disease prevention and control; and judicious use of antibiotics to avoid spreading antimicrobial resistance (AMR).

Improve reproductive management. Breeding overhead, or nonfood-producing reproductive animals, can account for significant portions of the herd: about 69% in specialized beef and 52% in dairy systems as a global average (Opio et al., 2013). Improving herd-level reproductive management can reduce the breeding overhead required to maintain herd size. Key approaches include low calving intervals; multiple births; offtake (for sale or slaughtering) of young males and unproductive females; genetic selection within herds for high yields; longevity; high conception rates; and use of artificial insemination (AI). Adequate health and nutrition, particularly in pre- and postcalving intervals, can enhance milk quality and improve animal health and longevity. (Crowe et al., 2018; IAEA, 2007). 

Consider alternatives to nonfood-producing livestock. Livestock producers in many developing countries rely on large herds for purposes other than food production such as for draft power; manure to use as fertilizer; asset saving; and risk mitigation (FAO, 2012). Where possible and culturally appropriate, alternatives to livestock may be considered, such as mechanized labor, use of synthetic fertilizers, and banking and insurance systems (Udo et al., 2011).

Variables to Consider:

Age at first calving.

Age structure of the herd.

GHG emission from the whole herd divided by total milk and meat production, i.e., emission intensity at herd level.

Annual rate of herd growth.

Male-to-female ratio in dairy herds.

Incentives to scale up production. Livestock productivity gains and the profits they yield can incentivize producers to scale up production and increase animal numbers (Alcock and Hegarty, 2011; Perman et al., 2003). This may result in higher overall emissions and other environmental impacts from the additional animals. Incentives to increase yields may thus require complementary incentives to constrain herd growth.

Environmental impacts of feed production. While high in digestible energy and protein, concentrated production is often characterized by high-intensity inputs, monoculture, and greenhouse gas emissions. The environmental impacts associated with producing such feeds must be accounted for when designing feed improvement strategies (principle 4).

Soil and water pollution. Productivity improvements can result in increased output of manure. Depending on the system, manure can contain damaging concentrations of nutrients and the pharmaceuticals used in animal health. Incentives to improve productivity should thus incorporate adequate waste management strategies (principle 5).