BY Brian Odhiambo
New varieties of high-quality, drought-resistant forage grasses could boost milk production by 40 percent and generate millions of dollars in economic benefits for struggling East African dairy farmers, according to a new analysis by experts at the International Center for Tropical Agriculture – a CGIAR Research Center.
“Farmers could benefit more from surging consumer demand for livestock products in East Africa,” said Dr. Steven Prager, a senior scientist at the Center, which is known by its Spanish initials, CIAT. “Our research shows that brachiaria grasses could be the cornerstone of productive and resilient livestock systems that quickly provide more milk and money for small-scale dairy farmers.”
Prager is co-author of the new CIAT study that assessed benefits that could accrue to East African dairy producers from adopting new varieties of a pasture grass called brachiaria. The grasses were developed by CIAT plant breeders to survive harsh growing conditions, while providing considerable nutritional benefits for livestock.
The CIAT analysis focused on the additional milk and money they could deliver for an estimated two million small-scale dairy farmers across Kenya, Tanzania, Ethiopia, Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi. It found that investing in forage quality – and in getting new forages to farmers – can be a low risk investment likely to generate benefits in the order of tens of millions of dollars.
The new varieties are high-yielding, nutritious and, because they are easier for cows to digest, animals produce far less of the greenhouse gas methane per liter of milk produced. The grass has other climate-friendly qualities: its deep roots help it capture carbon and store it in the soil, while also preventing soil erosion. Given its many benefits, brachiaria grass has become the most extensively used forage in the world, with seed production already commercialized in big cattle-producing countries like Brazil.
“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 Dr. Solomon Mwendia, CIAT’s forage expert in Nairobi and a co-author of the report. “Right now, many dairy farmers here are spending much of their day collecting wild grasses that do not give animals the nutrition they need. This takes time away from other jobs farmers could be doing, and at the same time results in a higher greenhouse gas footprint.
Differences in forage and feed quality are some key reason cattle in parts of sub-Saharan Africa contribute relatively more methane per kilo of meat or milk produced than in other parts of the world. Improved forage and feed quality can make digestion more efficient, boosting milk productivity and reducing harmful greenhouse gas emissions. “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,” said Mwendia.
Brachiaria grass is native to Africa, but its performance and nutritional qualities have been improved through decades of work by CIAT’s plant breeders in Colombia. The Center is now working with public and private sector partners to increase the commercial availability of improved brachiaria seeds in Africa. Currently, seeds need to be imported, but the Center hopes that in the future commercial seed production can be established in Africa itself.
“We already know that just boosting dairy production can be a critical first step out of poverty for many farmers here,” said Dr. Debisi Araba, CIAT’s Regional Director for Africa. “Homegrown, commercial seed production could mean that potentially millions of farmers make that step, with knock-on effects on dairy processing industries, and increasing the supply of high quality milk for urban and rural consumers.”
CIAT scientists are currently using big data approaches like remote sensing and digital mapping to find out where commercial production of brachiaria seed might be viable in Africa. But establishing brachiaria production and seed commercialization in Africa will not be without its challenges, Araba noted. Reducing the possible impact of local plant pests and diseases will be key, requiring national testing and field trials in different agro-ecological conditions in each country. It will also require an awareness drive among farmers about benefits of cultivating forages.
“Most farmers have few resources: understandably, they are constantly making trade-offs about what will bring them most income on their farm,” continued Araba. “Often, they do not perceive that planting pasture grass will do that, and will just take up land better devoted to crops. 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,” he said.