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Fodder shrubs increase milk production

Mary cuts at least six kilos of fresh foliage per day (© WRENmedia)
Mary cuts at least six kilos of fresh foliage per day
© WRENmedia

Using secateurs to give the clean cut that stimulates re-growth, Mary Gikuni harvests branches of calliandra from the rows of metre-high shrubs planted on the contours of her sloping farmland. Systematically returning to each plant every 8-12 weeks, Mary cuts at least six kilos of fresh foliage per day, which she feeds to her three cows, as well as to several goats, rabbits and even to her chickens - she says it helps to harden the eggshells. She is one of some 200,000 dairy farmers in East Africa who have invested in fodder shrubs, and who are reporting an increase in milk yields of at least 1-2 litres of milk per animal per day. Almost half the farmers who have adopted the shrubs are women.

Compared to other types of feed, fodder shrubs have plenty to recommend them. The leaves and pods are rich in protein - more than double that of fodder grasses - and can provide up to 60 per cent of a ruminant diet. Napier grass is the most common dairy fodder in Kenya, but its crude protein content (around nine per cent) is not high enough on its own to sustain adequate milk yields. Commercial dairy meal - a combination of maize and wheat bran, cotton seed cake, soybean meal and fish meal - is difficult to transport and too expensive for most farmers: a 90kg bag to feed one cow for a week costs around US$18.

Small investment brings multiple gains

Farmers earn on average US$95-120 from increased milk production (© WRENmedia)
Farmers earn on average US$95-120 from increased milk production
© WRENmedia

According to the World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF), one of the key promoters of fodder shrubs, the overall impact of the trees in terms of additional net income from milk could be as high as US$30 million in Kenya alone over the past 15 years. Farmers in the first year spend about US$11 raising and transplanting seedlings, choosing from nine recommended varieties. In subsequent years they earn on average US$95-120 from increased milk production, with one cow generally needing 500 shrub plants to feed it throughout the year. As leguminous species, many fodder shrubs bring the added benefit of fixing atmospheric nitrogen and improving soil fertility.

Basic training in how to cultivate and use the shrubs has been an important ingredient in their success. Mary, for example, says she was first introduced to the concept by the SeedCo company, but that at first she felt she was learning "only for the sake of knowledge". "When I started out I did not have a lot of passion for it," she says, "but once ICRAF introduced the fodder shrubs a second time, I got interested and even showed them the seeds that I had from SeedCo and had not used."

Farmer-to-farmer spread

Following further training from ICRAF in 2005, Mary adopted the shrubs more seriously, and since then her milk yields have tripled. "I now get 22 litres per cow daily," she says, "and my customers say the milk has more protein and butterfat." As milk yields have increased, Mary's spending on feed inputs has fallen by as much as 75 per cent. With the support of her husband, who originally gave her a one acre plot near their homestead to set up her farming business, Mary also promotes the shrubs to other farmers, hosting workshops in a training room on her farm, and earning extra income from seed sales.

Mary promotes the shrubs to other farmers (© WRENmedia)
Mary promotes the shrubs to other farmers
© WRENmedia

Nine shrub varieties (two indigenous to East Africa) are now available for different ecosystems in the region, from hot, humid coastal lowlands to mountainous highlands at 3,000 metres. Farmer-to-farmer dissemination has been key to their spread, with the average adopter passing on seed to six other farmers. They have been particularly appreciated by poorer farmers, as they require almost no cash investment, the only inputs required being seed and modest amounts of labour. As deep-rooted plants, the shrubs continue to provide feed through the dry months, helping farmers to have a stable milk production and to take advantage of seasonally higher milk prices. "The shrubs also provide fuelwood, stakes for supporting tomatoes, bananas and climbing beans, and their flowers provide forage to the bees for honey production," says Esther Karanja from ICRAF.

The widespread uptake of fodder shrubs has demonstrated how science can turn around the dwindling fortunes of smallscale farmers, boxed in by the effects of climate change and spiralling input costs. A major advantage of the most popular shrubs, such as calliandra, trichandra and mulberry, is that farmers do not have to stop growing other crops to make room for them. The shrubs are grown in hedges around the farm perimeter or along contours, where they help to reduce soil erosion, and pruning to a height of one metre avoids shading of nearby food crops. They are also easy to grow, maturing in about 12 months, after which they can be regularly pruned and fed to livestock for up to 20 years.

By Bob Koigi

Date published: September 2011

 

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