Country Profiles

Cattle production systems

TL has a short history in beef cattle production but grew under Indonesian rule and has spread rapidly throughout the country. Households in virtually all areas of TL raise cattle using whatever resources are available. Production systems vary around the country due to a mix of factors including climate and resources, infrastructure and access to markets, and culture, but bear some common characteristics.

The country has a monsoonal climate with wet and dry seasons that vary by area. In general rainfall is lower in the north and higher in the south. Distinct dry seasons result in feed gaps and insufficient water supply for livestock. The vast majority of cattle are grazed for all or most of the year on grasslands, scrubland or scavenging around the village. Cattle can be penned at night, seasonally, or in some cases not at all. There is however often integration into the cropping sector. Corn is grown throughout TL and rice is grown in wet season or on irrigated areas and cattle commonly graze on stubble after harvest. Seasonal access to cropland and grasslands is governed by local rules. There have been long-standing efforts (especially from missionaries) to introduce cut and carry for crop residues, which happens in many areas, but it is widely acknowledged that crop residues and storage are under-utilised, as are tree forages (gliricidia and leucaena) except in some areas (e.g. Oecussi). There have also been programs to introduce forages – either by utilising existing tree forages or planting new tree and herbaceous legumes and grasses – but is confined. Sago palm is commonly fed in dry season through much of TL.

TL researchers commonly differentiate between extensive, semi-intensive and intensive systems, although definitions can be blurry and data on the relative importance is limited (Soares, 2010). Cattle are produced predominantly in “unspecialised systems” where the vast majority of farmers own cows to produce calves that are fed to slaughter weight. That is, there is little specialisation in production where particular areas or producers focus on particular activities (e.g. cow-calf production or fattening) based for example on resource endowments and market access.

Thus, cattle in TL are raised in low input – low output systems. With low inputs (feed, labour, capital), outputs are also low (live weight production) as are intermediate performance indicators (calving rates, growth rates, mortality rates, turnoff rates). These production systems are not necessarily inefficient per se, especially as costs are low. However, cattle production systems in TL can be seen as inefficient insofar as existing resources are under-utilised or not used in a strategic way to meet key constraints. There is substantial opportunity to increase production and production efficiency.

For the purposes of discussion, five beef cattle zones in TL can be identified: the east and southern grassland zone; the western border zone; the northern dry zone; Oecussi; and the central-west mountain zone. Broad characteristics of the “beef zones” include:

  • Eastern and southern grassland zone (Lautem, Viceque, Manufahi). This zone is characterised by relatively high rainfall and long(er) wet season, and open savannah grasslands. Buffalo are prevalent in these areas and cattle are kept in relatively large herd herds (average of 6 head in Lautem), but in uncommercialised, low input – low output systems. People in the east attach a high “cultural value” to buffalo and cattle and are known as “staunch”. Improvements in these areas can be made through pasture and grazing management.
  • Western zone (Bobonaro and Cova Lima). Rainfall grades from low in the north (like the northern dry zone) to wet grasslands in the south. This diverse region supports a large number of cropping and livestock activities, including small-scale but relatively densely populated and “commercialised” cattle production systems. Partly for cultural reasons and also because of proximity to the Indonesian border and live cattle markets, people in the west are known as more commercialised. There are large amounts of crop residues that could be better utilised, in addition to tree forages and herbaceous legumes.
  • Northern dry zone (Liquica, Dili, Bacau). Low rainfall limits agricultural options and seasons in the north of TL. The northwest has traditionally been a significant cattle production area due to proximity to both the Dili and Indonesian markets (although better roads from other areas are said to be diminishing this comparative advantage). Because of the harsh conditions and limited alternative feeds, there appear to be gains in disseminated tree forages.
  • Oecussi. The climate and terrain of Oecussi incorporates many of the characteristics of the dry northern zone. Limited agricultural options, proximity to Indonesian markets, and a history in cattle production and tree forages, mean that cattle production systems are relatively well-established in Oecussi.
  • Central-west mountain zone. Steep terrain, poor roads, alternative agricultural activities (cash crops, horticulture and coffee) and lack of feed mean that cattle systems are sparse and uncommercialised in this area, and less suited to development projects or programs.
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