Moadamiyet al-Sham livestock farmer Faahd’s sheep in his enclosure in Reef Dimashq, 1/8/2022 (Habib Shehada/Syria Direct)
DAMASCUS — For two years, Khaled Rahal, 44, tried to keep his herd of cows, his main source of income for years. But as economic conditions continued to deteriorate and the cost of raising livestock went up in regime-controlled areas in and around the Syrian capital, this year Rahal was forced to sell them, one by one.
Years of war in Syria have impacted the country’s livestock sector, and led farmers to lose their herds due to feed shortages and high prices. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine this past February deepened the sector’s crisis. It was the final blow for Rahal, who is from a village in the Jabal al-Sheikh region of western Reef Dimashq province. Two months ago, he got rid of his entire flock, save for a single cow that he kept for his family’s needs.
Rahal had 15 cows, each valued at between SYP 4.5-5 million ($1,000-$1,200 according to the current parallel market exchange rate of SYP 4,465 to the dollar). But he had to sell them for 20 percent below market value “because the market is at a standstill,” he told Syria Direct. The high price and scarcity of feed has left the livestock market “deadlocked,” he said.
Since 2011, Syria’s livestock sector has lost 173,000 cows, as their number dropped from 830,000 head in 2011 to 693,000 head in 2020, Assistant Minister of Agriculture Rami al-Ali told a local news site on April 9. The estimated number of sheep in the country is 16 million, down 2 million from 2010.
In February, the Director of Livestock Production in Damascus’ Ministry of Agriculture, Osama Hammoud, estimated that Syria had lost about 40-50 percent of its livestock.
While livestock throughout Syria have been affected by economic changes and the war in Ukraine, this impact is particularly felt in Damascus and its surrounding countryside due to a “lack of pastures and rain,” leading to “the death of newborn” calves, Abu Abdo, a farmer in Harasta city in Reef Dimashq, told Syria Direct.
Abu Abdo, 56, had to rent some wheat farmland after it was harvested to provide a pasture for his 12 cows for a rent of “SYP 200,000 [$44.79] per dunam for two months,” he said.
As a government response, Damascus aims to expand yellow corn cultivation and continue importing heifers from abroad, Assistant Minister of Agriculture al-Ali said in April. The Ministry intends to “import 1,000 head of cattle, to be distributed between Deir e-Zor and Aleppo provinces,” he said, in addition to attempting to “strike a balance between cattle and the feed available for them.”
Searching for alternatives
Feed prices are high and availability of government-subsidized feed, sold for SYP 1,100 ($24) per kilogram, is low. As a result, some livestock farmers in Damascus and Reef Dimashq resort to feeding their animals dry bread.
One of them is Fahad, a sheep farmer in the city of Moadamiyet al-Sham, in the western Damascus countryside. The price of one ton of barley feed is now SYP 1.5 million ($336), up from SYP 800,000 ($179) in 2021. The price of a ton of domestically produced hay is SYP 1.2 million ($268), up from $112, Fahad told Syria Direct.
Last year, one kilogram of imported feed sold for SYP 1,500 ($0.33), but its price has more than doubled, Rahal said. Today, the same quantity sells on the black market for between SYP 3,500 and SYP 4,000 ($0.87-$0.89).
But the prices of dry bread used as an alternative have also gone up, due to increased demand and “the government banning stockpiling and trading in bread,” Fahad said. The cost of one kilogram is up to SYP 900 ($0.20), he said, while it was previously SYP 200 ($0.04). Dry bread costs nearly as much as the fodder it replaces.
Damascus has raised the price of fodder several times, citing sanctions imposed on the country. Feed imports have also been hit by the Russian-Ukrainian war. In response, the state has turned to “feed rationing” for the state-subsidized fodder available to farmers.
Facing this reality, livestock farmers use alternatives such as barley, yellow corn and straw, a number of them told Syria Direct. But the prices of these options have also gone up, Hikmat Haddad, a member of the Syrian Poultry Breeder’s Committee told pro-Damascus newspaper Al-Watan in March. Yellow corn’s price is up 30 percent, with one ton now SYP 1.65 million at the port and SYP 1.7 million at the market. Soybean meal, a byproduct of oil extraction, is up 25 percent, selling for SYP 2.96 million per ton at the port and SYP 3 million to consumers.
Some livestock farmers are also using “poor-quality” grains and legumes for animal feed, such as black lentils, chickpeas and long-grain rice. “We buy them from families that receive aid from charitable organizations, since these kinds of items aren’t suitable for human use,” Fahad said. Only using imported fodder is beyond his ability, so he uses it in “small quantities, alongside other alternatives.”
In Fahad’s enclosure in Moadamiyet al-Sham, Fahad’s sheep are thin, their bodies reflecting the reality of the livestock crisis in Damascus and its countryside.
The regime links increased feed prices to the Russian-Ukrainian war, as the two countries are Syria’s main suppliers, Abdulkarim Shubbat, the head of the regime’s General Organization of Fodders, the state body that distributes subsidized fodder to Syrian farmers, said in March. The GOF “imports corn from Russia, while private sector traders were importing from Ukraine and other countries,” he said.
But the problem appears to go far beyond Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and cannot be reduced to high production costs and the regime’s inability to import market needs from other sources. In December 2021, local news site Athr Press reported a significant shortage of subsidized fodder in the warehouses in Syria’s central Homs province, in addition to poor storage. New fodder was not dispensed properly, and old fodder was not properly preserved, the site reported, as part of an embezzlement deal of SYP 2 billion ($478,000) involving the head of the warehouses.
A losing trade
Each of Abu Abdo’s cows in Harasta produces around 30 liters of milk per day, valued at SYP 48,000 ($10.75). For that production level, “the cow needs 10 kilograms of fodder and two kilograms of hay per day,” which costs SYP 40,000 ($8.95). Sometimes, given poor-quality fodder or if Abu Abdo is not able to provide nutritious feed, production falls to 20 liters. “We sell at a loss,” he said.
The price of one liter of milk is “very low” compared with production costs and the prices of milk products, he added. One kilogram of labneh, for example, is SYP 16,000 ($3.58). Still, he has to sell his milk to traders at these prices because he is not able to manufacture [other] products or sell it to the consumer at higher prices “due to high transportation costs.”
Rahal estimates that caring for one cow, in terms of feed and medicine, for one month costs him SYP 1.2 million ($268), while selling its milk yield nets him around SYP 1.8 million ($403). “This yield is not stable, and depends on the availability of imported nutritious fodder for the livestock,” he said. When he has to use local fodder or dry bread, “the cow’s production drops by half.”
Earlier this year, flocks of sheep died in Syria’s southern Quneitra and Suwayda provinces, Al-Watan reported. The deaths were linked to hunger, lack of veterinary medicine and high fodder prices amid a “feed rationing” shortage.
Speaking about livestock issues in Quneitra, the head of the Quneitra Syndicate of Veterinarians, Rushdi Bahaa al-Din, told Al-Watan that Syria’s economic situation has hurt the livestock sector. The results include “the emergence of (opportunistic) diseases and reduced immunity, which negatively impacted the health and productivity of herds.”
For farmers like Rahal, “livestock farming has become a burden, compared to its low financial returns and high production costs,” he said. That is why he decided earlier this year to sell his herd, and “turn to agriculture.”
This report was originally published in Arabic and translated into English by Mateo Nelson.