Economic trade-offs of biomass use in crop-livestock systems: Exploring more sustainable options in semi-arid Zimbabwe
In complex mixed crop-livestock systems with limited resources and biomass scarcity, crop residues play an important but increasingly contested role. This paper focuses on farming systems in the semi-arid areas of Zimbabwe, where biomass production is limited and farmers integrate crop and livestock activities. Conservation Agriculture (CA) is promoted to intensify crop production, emphasizing the retention of surface mulch with crop residues (CR). This paper quantifies the associated potential economic trade-offs and profitability of using residues for soil amendment or as livestock feed, and explores alternative biomass production options. We draw on household surveys, stakeholder feedback, crop, livestock and economic modeling tools. We use the Trade-Off Analysis Model for Multi Dimensional Impact Assessment (TOA-MD) to compare different CR use scenarios at community level and for different farm types: particularly the current base system (cattle grazing of maize residues) and sustainable intensification alternatives based on a CA option (mulching using maize residues ± inorganic fertilizer) and a maize–mucuna (Mucuna pruriens) rotation. Our results indicate that a maize–mucuna rotation can reduce trade-offs between CR uses for feed and mulch, providing locally available organic soil enhancement, supplementary feed and a potential source of income. Conservation Agriculture without fertilizer application and at non-subsidized fertilizer prices is not financially viable; whereas with subsidized fertilizer it can benefit half the farm population. The poverty effects of all considered alternative biomass options are however limited; they do not raise income sufficiently to lift farmers out of poverty. Further research is needed to establish the competitiveness of alternative biomass enhancing technologies and the socio-economic processes that can facilitate sustainable intensification of mixed crop-livestock systems, particularly in semi-arid environments.