"Buffaloes are like having capital," Kongsin Wilaikham, from Norgpue in Khon Kaen Province in northeast Thailand, told IRIN. "I rely on my buffaloes because the tractor is now so much more costly, given fuel prices. I use them for ploughing, for their manure and for cash when needed."
Five years ago, Kongsin took a 100,000 baht (US$2,940) loan from the government's Agricultural Bank to buy four buffaloes. From the offspring he has kept 11 and sold another 10 to supplement his income.
Like many farmers with buffaloes, Kongsin uses more manure and less chemical fertiliser. The surplus manure he sells for 12 baht per sack. "One application of manure can last two or three years if applied correctly. I want to use less and less chemical fertiliser because it costs so much."
In recent decades, buffaloes have been increasingly replaced by tractors. But according to agriculture authorities, as tractors now cost as much as 70,000 baht ($2,200) and fuel and fertiliser prices are skyrocketing, more farmers are seeking to buy buffaloes as draft animals to plough the fields, for manure, a good source of natural and cheap fertiliser, and to sell for cash when times are tight.
Yod Sisunt, animal scientist of livestock breeding in the Livestock Department of the Ministry of Agriculture, told IRIN: "In our national agricultural plan, we are thinking of ways to increase the use of buffaloes and fertiliser."
Photo: Brennon Jones/IRIN
|Noohtian Kerdsak and his wife Somboon own a farm in Nang Yakao village in northeast Thailand. They use only their buffalo to till their rice and sugarcane plots, and manure to reduce their need for high-priced chemical fertilizer|
The plan has the blessing of King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who sees using buffaloes and other livestock as an integral part of his goal for a sustainable agricultural policy and urged as far back as the 1980s the establishment of a buffalo bank from which poor farmers could borrow and purchase animals at reasonable prices. His daughter, Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn has also been a strong advocate for the greater use of buffaloes and promoted the establishment of a Buffalo Association Training School to teach young farmers how to use buffaloes efficiently.
Chintana Indramangala, senior expert in livestock production at the Department of Livestock Production and secretary to the Buffalo Association Training School, estimated that while there were as many as seven million buffaloes in the 1970s, numbers were down to 1.53 million in 2007.
"Only a small percentage of these are being used as draft animals," said Chintana. "The rest are multi-purpose, for the manure and for income when sold as meat." There are approximately two million small mechanical tillers nationwide, according to the Agricultural Ministry.
Phansiri Winichagoon, manager of the environmental unit of the UN Development Project Thailand, told IRIN: "While no one has quantified it yet, I think there will be a significant shift to buffaloes because of the high price of fuel and fertilisers." Most agricultural experts think it is time for the government to do a formal survey to see just how big a shift is taking place.
Photo: Brennon Jones/IRIN
|Noohtian Kerdsak plows his rice land by buffalo, preparing it for his wife and a friend to immediately plant rice seedlings once the land is sufficiently flooded and tilled|
Charan Chantalakhana, former professor of livestock systems at Kasetsart University, told IRIN buffaloes are most efficient in rain-fed areas and small-scale farms in which there is only one crop per season. "Some 80 percent of Thai farms are rain-fed and small-scale and most are now less that two [12 rai] or three hectares [18 rai]," said Charan. He added that farms had shrunk in recent years as hard-pressed farmers sold land to other farmers or for industrial sites.
Noohtian Kerdsak and his wife Somboon own one such small-scale farm in Nang Yakao village, Khon Kaen Province.
"We use the buffaloes more now for ploughing because of the high cost of tractors," Noohtian told IRIN, adding that with the increased use of manure he had cut his chemical fertiliser use by 30 percent – a significant saving when the price has risen from 330 baht ($10) to 1,250 baht ($37) per 50kg.
Last year, he harvested 160 sacks of rice of 30kg each, 95 of which were kept for family consumption and the remainder sold at 250 baht ($7.80) each. He also harvested 45 tonnes of sugarcane at 680 baht ($21) per tonne. Any profit goes for "fertiliser, consumption of other foods for the family and for making merit [giving financial offerings at the local Buddhist temple]".
Noohtian is a great advocate of the buffalo. "If you have 60,000 baht to buy a tractor – in 10 years' time it is no longer good, but with that money you can buy six buffaloes or so and they will have offspring to sell for cash and manure instead of fertiliser.
"Look around, you see buffalo, but you also see there are no new tractors. The people have stopped buying them because of the high fuel prices."