CIAT’s forages team has been trialing a climate-smart livestock system in Patía, in Colombia’s restive Cauca department.

Long plagued by challenges, from sputtering armed conflict to frequent drought, Patía is a microcosm of Colombia’s livestock conundrum. With around 23 million cattle and an average of one animal to 1.4 hectares, it’s a lot of land for not much cow.

It’s also the recipe for environmental calamity. Land degradation due to livestock production is widespread, forests have been cut down to make way for grazing areas, and livestock are responsible for a large part of the country’s agricultural greenhouse gas emissions. But somewhere like Patía, there are few other options. Pretty much everyone depends on cattle – all 35,000 head of them.

Up until 2007, Noelí Angulo let his cattle graze the naturalized grasses that spring up each year. But these weren’t particularly nutritious or resilient when the rains failed; productivity and earnings were low. Then everything changed. Active in his local farmers association, scientists from the University of Cauca (Unicauca) and CIAT asked if he would be willing to try silvopastoralism – a rotational grazing system that combines nutritious forage grasses, herbs, shrubs, and trees.

As well as the promise of increasing the productivity of both cattle and land, improved forages used in silvopastoral systems can also weather drought, help restore degraded soils, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions associated with cattle farming. Noelí agreed.

To establish the system, he divided his land into six plots. In one he planted Brachiaria, a broad-leaved grass native to Africa that grows in knee-high clumps. It’s more nutritious and drought-tolerant than the wispy wild grasses. Its deep root system also helps accumulate soil carbon and stabilizes the soil, protecting against erosion. Easier to digest and more nutritious than the naturalized grasses, cattle fed with Brachiaria are more productive, resulting in lower methane emissions per kilo of meat or liter of milk.

In an adjacent plot, he planted Canavalia, a drought-hardy legume conserved at the CIAT genebank, associated with improved grasses. As well as a palatable source of protein for cattle, it fixes atmospheric nitrogen, adding to soil fertility and reducing the need for fertilizer. In additional plots, he planted other nutritious forages, along with naturalized and introduced leguminous shrubs and trees for feed or shade or both.

Noelí moves the cattle from plot to plot roughly every five days. The rest period allows the grazed plots to recover in a cycle that – with good management – can continue productively for years.

The results go some way to explaining Noelí’s big smile: currently, his 20 cows graze five hectares – more than five times the average stocking density in Colombia. He gets an additional 50% amount of milk from each cow, and his animals reach slaughter weight in three years instead of five. The extra income has helped him send his son to university; he hopes to become a vet. When a severe drought struck Patía in 2012, many farmers lost cattle to dehydration or starvation; Noelí’s – fortified by a good diet based on drought-resilient grasses – all survived.

CIAT and Unicauca are testing a range of improved forages and silvopastoral systems like Noelí’s and already around 200 farmers in Patía are either trialing silvopastoralism, or the improved forages that are the foundation of the system. They’re also investigating bottlenecks that could prevent widespread adoption, such as access to forage seeds, and ways to introduce the ongoing management practices that silvopastoralism requires. These and other issues will need serious work.

But there’s probably never been a better time to try. Fifty years of armed conflict in Colombia has brought enormous rural instability. The prospect of peace means many farmers – and loan providers – can start thinking seriously about investing long term for the first time in generations. If those investments can help make livestock systems more productive, resilient and sustainable, the environmental returns could be huge.