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Saturday, February 1, 2003

Researcher taps into goats’ milk to save farmers from a life of poverty

SON TAY – If Dinh Van Binh had his way, every year would be the Year of the Goat in Viet Nam.

Head of the Son Tay Research Centre in Ha Tay Province, Binh has struck upon the idea of using goats’ meat and milk to lift people out of poverty.

"Our farmers have never exploited goats’ milk as food, even though it’s a reliable source for the poor," Binh said.

goats at VGRRC stable area
Udder success: Farming goats for their meat and milk is taking root across rural Viet Nam. — VNA/VNS Photo Van Lang

In the late 1990s he began a pilot project, with help from the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), to popularise goat farming and develop goats’ milk products.

In 2001, FAO awarded his centre the annual Edouard Saouma prize for its outstanding handling of the project.

Binh accepted the prize last year in Rome, along with US$25,000.

He plans to give part of the money to ethnic people living in Ha Tay, Tuyen Quang, Thai Nguyen and Thua Thien-Hue provinces and the rest to developing the centre’s goat herd.

"Viet Nam has about 16 million hectares of hilly land, which can feed at least 16 million goats," Binh calculated.

"Goats are easy to keep, require much less investment than cows, and provide more meat," he said.

On top of that, the initial purchase price is much lower, with cows selling for about VND20 million compared to just VND1 million for a goat.

Apart from the traditional Vietnamese species of Bach thao and "grass goats", farmers can now choose from at least eight species.

The research centre plans to import American goats that can weigh up to 140kg to further enrich farmers’ choices.

Long gestation

Binh’s ideas to use goats’ milk products as a way to lift people out of poverty stems from observations he made during his childhood.

Growing up in the poor northern province of Ninh Binh, he saw farmers graze goats carelessly and not use their milk.

However, he had to wait until he graduated from the Ha Noi Agriculture University before he had the skills to realise his ideas for goat breeding.

In June 1992, he bought Bach thao goats to breed with the local Son Tay species.

His first attempt was a failure, but gave him the necessary experience to adapt the species to local conditions.

Three years later, he completed a doctoral thesis about the biological features and productivity of Bach thao goats.

Binh found that no other species of goat matches the high reproductive ability of the Bach thao.

Not long after getting his doctorate, India offered Viet Nam 250 pure Indian goats, and with these, Binh was on his way to achieving his dream.

It is not an overstatement to say Viet Nam’s current herd of goats is a direct result of Binh’s drive.

"I bred the Indian and Bach thao male goats with the female grass goats," Binh said.

"The result was a mature goat 8-10kg heavier than the grass goat. With this new breed goat farmers could potentially earn US$5.2-6.5 million a year.

"The Lac Thuy District in Hoa Binh Province earns nearly VND1 billion ($64,900) a year from goat meat alone."

Binh and his colleagues have helped goat farmers learn the best methods to raise their herds and utilise manure to make biogas tanks to supplement their fuel sources.

The centre has also organised a purchasing network to buy goats’ milk in participating provinces to produce cheese, which sells for about VND150,000 (about $10).

Binh says he is happy with the project, as it is "for the poor by the poor".

Seeing the impact the project has had on farmers’ living conditions has helped Binh and his workmates overcome challenges which have arisen.

Binh is not put out by the effort needed to get goats to mountain communities who will most benefit from the project.

He bubbles with excitement about a recent trip to a Van Kieu community in Thua Thien-Hue Province where he and his team had to walk for half a day carrying 30 kids, simply saying, "now they have 200 goats." — VNS