Fodder innovations to help Indian dairy farmers
India is the world's largest dairy producer, but in recent years milk prices have increased dramatically as farmers struggle with rapid inflation in the cost of animal feed. Feed represents around 70 per cent of the cost of milk production, but with family farms divided over generations, plots are becoming too small to sustain both fodder and food crops; areas of public land, often used for grazing among marginal and landless communities, are also shrinking. As a result, milk prices have risen to around 16-17 rupees (US$0.35) for a half litre packet, more than ten per cent of average daily income. In response, a coalition of national and international researchers* is developing dual-purpose varieties of sorghum, millet, pigeonpea and groundnut that produce high quality fodder from their crop residues without reducing grain yields.
Crop residues, such as straw, leaves and stalks, are already an important source of fodder in India, providing more than 40 per cent of the available dry matter for feeding livestock; some experts estimate this could rise to 70 per cent by 2020. But residues, especially from cereals, are often of low nutritional quality, which affects the productivity of cattle and buffalo. Dual-purpose crops, which produce high grain yields and nutritionally-rich residues, allow crop breeders to address the problem of poor fodder quality while also reducing land competition, and they fit well in India, where many smallholder farmers run a mixed livestock-crop system.
Anantapur district, in Andhra Pradesh, is a key groundnut producing region and also one of the most drought-prone areas in India. Seventy per cent of the agricultural land is planted with groundnut, supporting over 300,000 smallholders, therefore crop residues are mainly composed of groundnut stems, known as haulm. "Groundnut haulm's energy and protein content, and its palatability and digestibility can vary significantly from one variety to another," says Dr Michael Blummel, a scientist from the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI).
In 2002, the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) introduced an early maturing, high yield and drought-tolerant groundnut variety (ICGV91114), which produced 15 per cent higher pod yields, 17 per cent more haulm and better quality fodder compared to the locally grown variety. After giving their cows and buffalo the improved fodder, dairy farmers noticed an immediate impact as their milk production increased by 11 per cent.
A recent participatory feeding trial found that 400 ml of extra milk was produced daily by animals that had been fed the improved variety. A separate impact study by ILRI also estimated that during the main growing season, adopters would earn about 48,000 rupees per hectare (US$970 from sales of groundnuts and milk) - four times more than from growing the local variety.
Spreading the seed
Scaling up the adoption of dual-purpose crop varieties is a significant challenge. First of all, the improved groundnut variety is self-pollinating which deters most private seed companies from investing. Also the Governments' seed subsidy programme has not yet included the variety, and adoption has therefore largely been driven by farmer-to-farmer sharing of planting material. ICRISAT has also partnered with AGRAU University and local NGOs to train farmers in seed multiplication so that new material is available through informal seed systems. From 285 ha planted with the new variety in 2005, ICRISAT groundnut breeder, Dr Shyam N Nigam, estimates that 60,000 ha will be planted in the next kharif (rainy) season.
Dual-purpose crops have also created new value chains for the animal feed sector. In Hyderabad, for example, sorghum stover-based feed blocks are being marketed by animal feed companies. One block feeds one dairy animal per day, ensuring a production level of eight to 12 litres of milk per day compared to an average of three to four. Traders are therefore beginning to pay sorghum farmers a premium for their crop residues.
Following on from ILRI and ICRISAT's innovative crop breeding research, the IFAD-supported MilkIT project, led by ILRI, aims to improve access to animal feed for poor dairy farmers in India and Tanzania by using dual-purpose crops. The ILRI and ICRISAT researchers, and members of the CGIAR's Systemwide Livestock Program, are also transferring the dual-purpose crop breeding approach to African countries, through improved sorghum varieties. They are also studying the trade-offs when crop residues are used to feed animals, including the consequences for soil fertility.
Meanwhile, in India, the National Dairy Development Board has just published a 15 year plan, which highlights the importance of high quality fodder as an essential complement to genetic improvement of cattle. "As a Formula One car will not run on bad fuel, so improving the genetics of cows and buffaloes makes no sense if dairy farmers don't have good quality fodder," says ICRISAT's Jerome Bossuet. "The fodder question is certainly one of the first that needs to be solved, to ensure equal access to good and sufficient fodder for all herders, including small ones."
Dr Nigam is equally passionate about the place of fodder in national priorities. "India has to find new fodder solutions to sustain the dairy sector, and we must raise awareness about this, not only among farmers, but also in agricultural institutions," he says. "Dual purpose grain and fodder crops are an innovation which could help millions of herders cope with fodder scarcity in the coming years and benefit from the milk boom."
* International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI), International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT)
* National partners on groundnut include: Acharya NG Ranga Agricultural University (ANGRAU), Accion Fraterna NGO and Directorate of Groundnut Research, Gujarat
Written by: Jerome Bossuet, ICRISAT
Date published: March 2012
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