Top of the Crops

02 March 2017

Malaysia has a demand-supply imbalance where livestock is concerned. We import over 90% of our goats, putting us at a high food security risk. To address this, a new generation of Malaysian research farmers are on a mission to find new ways to make animal farming economically viable; not just by breeding better goats, but treating their farms as knowledge resources for the public and industry.

Mohamad Fesal Idris and sisters Najmin and Nadiah Tajuddin aren’t your traditional rural farmers. Though breeding goats is the core business of Sumberdaya Alam Farm and ar-Raudhah Biotech Farm – the properties they manage respectively – neither of them sells milk or meat for profit. They are independent research farmers whose work revolves around producing better breeds of goats in order to help small-timers become self-sufficient.

One of the biggest challenges facing Malaysian goat farmers is the lack of access to quality breeds; it’s imperative to inject new quality breeds from time to time to minimise inbreeding, which may lead to low-quality breeds that yield less meat, pungent flesh, or milk.

However, this is easier said than done because scientific awareness among rural farmers in Malaysia is low, and with tightening worldwide controls, acquiring quality goats from traditional livestock-importing markets like Australia and New Zealand is virtually out of reach for the small-time player.

Some of the goats at ar-Raudhah Farm.

“The majority of goat farmers in Malaysia are small-timers who only need ten to 15 goats,” says Najmin of ar-Raudhah Biotech Farm. “If you want to buy from an Australian farm, you have to buy in large quantities,” she adds. Moreover, the Exporter Supply Chain Assurance System (ESCAS) requires that Australian animals can only be sent into approved supply chains overseas, designed to ensure the welfare of the animal from delivery in a foreign port to slaughter in an approved abattoir. Traditional importers are unlikely to sell live goats to unaudited farms to be slaughtered.

This means the small guys will eventually get squeezed out, unless farmers find alternative means to source quality breeds in smaller quantities. To address the plight of these farmers, ar-Raudhah Biotech Farm, part of a private estate in Kuang, Selangor, was set up in 2006 to breed meat-producing goats.

With a fully equipped laboratory using advanced biotechnology processes such as artificial insemination, embryo transfer and organic fertilisers processed using probiotics, ar-Raudhah keeps between 700 to 1,500 meat-producing goats at any one time. When the goats reach the age of maturity, they are sold to farmers.

“Boer makes up 95% of our goats as they get very heavy at a young age [hence produce more meat] and multiple pregnancies are high,” explains Najmin.

Since inception, the farm won the highly coveted Sijil Amalan Ladang Terbaik for five consecutive years. This means the farm is free from foot and mouth disease (FMD) and Brucella, twin threats that have crippled many Malaysian farms. This quality assurance is important because it guarantees return on investment to the small-time farmer, who may not be able to recover from a bad investment (a goat typically costs about RM800 onwards).

Pak Faisal of Sumber Daya Asli farm.

A strong scientific component similarly drives Sumber Daya Asli, a two-acre farm in Tanjung Karang, Kuala Selangor, managed by Mohamad Fesal Idris, a former business journalist turned research farmer, popularly known as Pak Faisal KS.

In his "backyard laboratory", as he calls it, Pak Faisal studies how genes, feed and environmental elements influence the way goats pack on pounds and fight off disease. It’s imperative to maximise a goat's fertility period because it is only productive for six years. According to the research farmer, a good goat with good management can produce three pregnancies in two years and multiple pregnancies.

By practising what Pak Faisal calls holistic farming, his boutique operation has produced some outstanding results. The roughly 250 goats and sheep he owns live in a spacious pen that he divides into "compartments", which include a hospital, feeding area and recovery ward for does that have given birth. He even pipes Quranic verses to calm them down.

Unconventional though his methods may seem, experiments crossbreeding quality imported bucks with local ones have resulted in some of the most efficient weight-gainers around. “Triplets are also common among my goats,” Pak Faisal shares proudly.

A crucial pillar to his methodology is the incorporation of efficient microorganisms (EM) or beneficial living bacteria, a Japan-origin technology that is well-known overseas but not widely practised in Malaysia. According to Pak Faisal, animal feed that’s been treated with EM is free from pathogens and creates antibiotic effects for animals, eliminates bad smell and safeguards the animals from bloating and diarrhoea, resulting in lean meat and tasty, odour-free milk (we can vouch for the latter, having drunk some ourselves while touring the farm).

Pak Faisal also dedicates part of his farm to plant napier grass.

The feed comes from his own effort as well. Pak Faisal is a passionate advocate of integrated farming, which means you do both animal husbandry and grow crops at the same time, killing two birds with one stone. Animal feed is typically the biggest cost for goat farmers, so Pak Faisal allocates part of his two-acre property to plant napier grass, a common food source for goats. Additionally, he leases three acres of land in a nearby kampung to grow corn. Cornstalks and agricultural waste from his cornfields are converted into animal feed, which means animal feed can be produced economically with zero wastage. “At the same time, you can make money from selling corn cobs,” he says.

Nadiah agrees that integrated farming is a good way to supplement income while waiting for the goats to reproduce. In 2012, the ladies set up a one-acre vegetable farm at ar-Raudhah to grow vegetables, fruits and herbs, using organic fertiliser made with waste and microbes from the goat farm. Two years later, they began offering their farm produce through a community supported agriculture (CSA) programme, a subscription service where customers pay an advance subscription for a promise of the harvest in future. That way, the farmer has on-hand capital and can concentrate on his activities. In addition to conventional vegetables such as cucumbers, pumpkins, aubergines and leafy vegetables, they make it a point to put in local herbs such as ulam and serai, “so that our subscribers can get reacquainted with local produce they might have lost touch with,” explains Nadiah.

Aware that the adoption of innovating farming methods is still low among traditional goat breeders, both Sumberdaya Alam and ar-Raudhah have made education a core part of their operations. Pak Faisal, who holds a Master in Agriculture and sits on the assessment panel of the National Agriculture Training Curriculum, is a highly sought after speaker and trainer. Several times a year, ar-Raudhah works closely with the Department of Veterinary Sciences to organise training sessions for farmers. It also accepts students from community colleges for internships.

Though their management styles may differ, both have one thing in common: knowledge sharing through social media forms a core part of their activities. ar-Raudhah’s instagram account is peppered with photos of families and children visiting their facilities to learn about agrarian activities. Meanwhile, Pak Faisal’s Facebook page resembles a celebrity's fanpage – only the stars are goats. His entertaining posts regularly attract hundreds of likes and keep his fans coming back for more.

Viewed through these farmers’ lens, agriculture – once deemed unappealing to the younger generation – seems fun again.

Perhaps this combination of technology, education and fun is exactly the jumpstart needed by Malaysia's agricultural industry, which has struggled to recruit new blood. According to Deputy Agriculture and Agro-Based Industry Minister Datuk Seri Tajuddin Abdul Rahman, only 15 percent of the 800,000 members of the Farmers Organisation Authority (FOA) are aged below 40 years old, while 45 percent of them are already aged 60 years and above.

"While the majority of our visitors are older," Najmin acknowledges, "we get a lot of passionate young farmers coming in as well."

Education may not be the mainstay of these farms, but according to Nadiah, they do it because they want every farm to be a good one. “We don’t want to be dependent forever on external sources. Our philosophy is, we want people to do farming well so that they can grow the market, and every Malaysian can access good cheap food because it’s plentiful," she concludes.  

By Alexandra Wong
ar-Raudhah images courtesy of ar-Raudhah.

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