Feed production in Africa is a boom and bust cycle. Most of the continent’s pastures are green and lush in the rainy season, only to wither to dry scrubland in the dry season.
For example, while Burkina Faso produces a surplus of six million tons of fodder per year, its Sahelian livestock regions show a deficit of two million tonnes per year.
The quantity of livestock feed is not the only problem: its quality is another. Studies have shown that in Tanzania pasture forage quality declines by a fifth during the dry season. In Ethiopia it drops by 28%. The result is a 40% decrease in milk production.
In many other African countries, for example Sudan, Algeriaand South Africastudies have shown that the quality of livestock feed goes from an excess during the rainy season to a sharp decline, with a subsequent reduction in meat and milk and even mass mortality of livestock.
This cycle raises the question of why African herders do not save fodder for the dry season.
To find an answer, we revised studies and sought expert advice on the preservation of livestock feeds in sub-Saharan Africa. Fifteen experts representing all regions of sub-Saharan Africa participated in and reviewed a total of 161 studies.
Our results indicate that smallholder farmers rarely adopt forage preservation or practice it adequately. Most farmers on the mainland are small farmers.
Surplus fodder for livestock is often improperly stored, resulting in wastage. And fodder production is lacking in the dry season.
There are a number of reasons for this. They include limited resources, knowledge, skills, labor, land and suitable fodder.
Improving livestock diets would also improve people’s nutrition. More efficient use of fodder resources could also help prevent problems such as desertification and human conflict.
We make a number of recommendations. First, that there should be major investments to increase awareness of the benefits of growing and conserving better forage, and how to do it. Second, that animal production should shift from raising a large number of unproductive animals to a smaller number of well-fed, highly productive animals. Finally, better markets for feed, animals and livestock products would create an enabling environment for better livestock feeding practices.
Hay, silage and crop residues
Hay made from fresh grass is the most common type of preserved fodder in Africa. Yet many technical and managerial issues result in poor quality. Grass is often harvested after maturity rather than at the recommended time before the grass blooms. Harvesting too late greatly reduces the quality of the hay.
Storing hay the wrong way results in nutrient loss and can also be a physical waste. For example, a study in Ethiopia found that up to 70% of the protein content of the grass has been lost by poor outdoor storage. This can be improved by using raised platforms, for example, and mixing grass with legumes.
Silage is a useful way to store livestock feed. It is made by chopping up grass or other plants and storing it in airtight containers to allow fermentation and preservation. Additives such as molasses improve quality and fermentability. But this practice is rare among African farmers. The silage produced tends to be of poor quality and prone to spoilage and mold.
More ruminant cattle (cattle, sheep and goats) in Africa are fed mainly on crop residues (stems and leaves, for example), which are of very poor quality. Various treatments – physical (chopping, densification, granulation), chemical (urea treatment) and biological (cultures of micro-organisms) – can improve the quality and digestibility of crop residues. These techniques are essential for improving meat and milk production. Yet additives are often expensive and the techniques too complex for smallholders.
Techniques to improve livestock feed
African farmers rarely use the techniques that can improve the feeding of their livestock.
We have identified several reasons.
The first was a lack of awareness of how well-preserved forages can increase livestock productivity and profits. Smallholder farmers also lacked the knowledge and skills to grow fodder.
Studies of Kenya, Zimbabwe and Uganda showed that farmers did not save fodder because they did not know how to do it efficiently. This, in turn, was due to isolated and often ineffective livestock extension services in many African countries.
Second, efforts to find solutions were hampered where farmers were not involved in research and development. For example, a fodder chopper introduced in Tanzania created more work for women and the community rejected it until it was revised to reflect their needs. Systemic constraints such as finance, lack of tenure security and lack of markets hinder smallholders’ investment in various technologies.
Third, fodder cultivation is rare. Most of the fodder comes from large areas of pasture and rangeland, of low to medium quality, which are directly grazed by livestock.
Improving farming practices
To solve these problems, it is necessary to increase awareness, knowledge and skills in the cultivation, processing and conservation of fodder and the management of crop residues. New inputs suitable for smallholders could include silage additives, chemical and biological treatments of crop residues, affordable and efficient silos, forage harvesters, choppers and compactors.
A general reorientation of livestock production in Africa is warranted, moving from too many poorly fed cattle to fewer well fed cattle. This approach is climate-smart because livestock fed lower quality diets emit relatively more greenhouse gases than those fed higher quality diets.
With such improvements in their diets, livestock in Africa could play a greater role in reducing hunger across the continent.
This article was prepared in collaboration with Jim W. Harper, Communications Manager, University of Florida, and Adegbola Adesogan, Director, Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Livestock Systems, University of Florida.