Photo: Nappier grass growing in a farm in Busia county Western, Kenya. - Photo: 2016

African Livestock Experts Focus on Climate-Resilient Fodder

By Justus Wanzala

NAIROBI (ACP-IDN) – Demand for milk and livestock products in Kenya is growing fast and has already outstripped supply in some parts of the country. One of the results is that many smallholder farmers are venturing into rearing dairy cattle and, to some extent, dairy goats.

One of these farmers is Emily Mukwambo, who keeps six dairy cows in her three and half acre farm in Busia County, western Kenya. However as Emily and thousands of other small-scale farmers embrace dairy farming, it is emerging that climate change is affecting the availability of fodder and forage leading to farmers failing to meet the nutritional needs of their livestock. Compounded by the lack of information some farmers have about these needs, milk production is being affected, leading to diminished incomes.

According to Emily, erratic rain and long dry spells mean that farmers are compelled to make silage or purchase bales of hay to feed their animals, paying little or no attention to the nutritional value of the grass used to make the hay.“The key concern is usually to ensure the cows survive drought,” says Emily, whose cows produce a daily average of 28 litres of milk.Adherence to a good nutritional regime could definitely increase their milk production.

According to Emily, had she been able to access high quality fodder milk production would have been higher. “We mainly depend on Napier grass (or elephant grass) to feed our cattle. Fortunately it grows very fast during the rains and some farmers cut and convert it into hay to feed their animals during the dry season. Otherwise we are compelled to purchase hay at USD 2.5 per bale, a cost we find rather high,” she complains.

Henry Odhiambo, Farm Manager at Busia County Agricultural Training Centre (ATC) says that local farmers mostly feed their livestock on Napier grass which, although palatable, mainly provides carbohydrates.

Noting the need for farmers to be educated in providing varieties that can ensure a balanced diet for their livestock, Odhiambo cites desmodium, a tropical forage legume, as a key source of proteins and says that the key advantage of desmodium is that it can be intercropped with Napier grass.

Odhiambo explains that because climate affects both human and animals, farmers are being encouraged to grow fodder trees. “We train farmers about planting of fodder trees such as Leucaena and Sesbania sesbani. The tree leaves are a source of protein-rich fodder for livestock and the wood can be used as a source of fuel or construction material.”

With extension services funded by the government and non-governmental organisations, farmers are increasingly learning how to conserve and handle various types of fodder for feeding their livestock, and Odhiambo says that during the rainy seasons, when there is an abundance of various types of grasses, farmers are urged to make hay.

Some mixed farmers also experience crop failure when, for example, drought affects their maize cultivation. In such case, says Odhiambo, they are advised to convert it into silage.“Nutrition is key to successful livestock production,” he explains, “so that even within cattle breeds renowned for high milk production, individual cows usually produce varying amount of milk depending on how they are fed by their owners.”

Odhiambo predicts that Busia County will be milk sufficient in the next few years, because of continued acquisition of information on livestock nutrition by farmers as well as the availability of fodder varieties that are resistant to drought and diseases thanks to ongoing research.

Meanwhile, in an attempt to surmount the obstacles brought about by climate change, experts have stepped up research for drought-resilient fodder. On 2 November 2016, the International Centre for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT), a member of the Consortium of International Agricultural Research Centres (CIGAR), announced in Nairobi that it has developed a new variety of high-quality, drought-resistant forage grass for the East Africa region.

The grass, known as Brachiaria, is said to be capable of boosting milk production by 40 percent thus generating millions of dollars in economic benefits for dairy farmers. According to experts, the grass will also reduce carbon emissions.

CIAT experts noted that livestock producers, including dairy farmers in East Africa, spend hours collecting poor-quality wild grass for their cattle rather than purchasing seed for improved grass varieties that could highly their production significantly.Brachiaria grass originated in Africa, but its performance and nutritional qualities have been improved by plant breeders at CIAT headquarters in Colombia.

Steven Prager, a senior scientist at CIAT, says their that the centre’s research shows that Brachiaria grass could be the cornerstone of productive and resilient livestock systems that quickly provide more milk and money for small-scale dairy farmers.CIAT experts have focused on the additional milk and money that could be delivered for the estimated two million small-scale dairy farmers across Kenya, Tanzania, Ethiopia, Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi.

They also argues that because Brachiaria grass is easier for cows to digest, the animals emit less of the greenhouse gas methane per litre of milk produced. Other climate friendly qualities of the grass are that it has deep roots, enabling it to capture carbon and store it in the soil, while preventing soil erosion. The grass has found wide acceptance among livestock farmers around the world and seed production has already been commercialised in countries such as Brazil where large-scale livestock husbandry is practised.

“The beauty of these new Brachiaria grasses is that they allow farmers to boost meat and milk production while actually reducing methane emissions that contribute to global warming,” said Solomon Mwendia, CIAT’s forage expert in Nairobi.

Mwendia noted that differences in forage and feed quality are major reasons for cattle in parts of sub-Saharan Africa contributing relatively more methane per kilo of meat or milk produced than in other parts of the world.

According to the expert, “better pasture grass can take our dairy producers from a ‘lose-lose’ to a ‘win-win’ situation; from poor production and high emissions to strong production and lower emissions.”

CIAT’s plant breeders in Colombia are working with public and private sector partners to increase the commercial availability of improved Brachiaria seeds in Africa. Currently, seeds are imported, but commercial seed production in Africa is being considered.

Striking a balance between growing food crops and fodder among small-scale farmers such as Emily is a challenge to farmers.

According to Debisi Araba, CIAT’s Regional Director for Africa, boosting dairy production is the first step out of poverty for many farmers, but most farmers have few resources, hence opt for trade-offs based on what can conveniently work for them.“Often, they do not perceive that planting nutritious pasture grass will do that, and will not just take up land better devoted to crops,” said Araba.

“But there are ways to cultivate pasture grasses without displacing crop production, and the investment in forages can put much more money in their pockets.” [IDN-InDepthNews – 28 November 2016]

Note: This report is part of a joint project of the Secretariat of the ACP Group of States and IDN, flagship agency of the International Press Syndicate.

Photo: Nappier grass growing in a farm in Busia county Western, Kenya. Credit: Justus Wanzala

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