Fodder blocks: overcoming an uphill struggle
With a shudder and a shove another fodder block is thrust off the chute and into a sack. "For a small cow, one block per day is sufficient," shouts Dr Sharma who has guided the development of this fodder solution for upland India. Overseeing the noisy chopping and pressing of an order destined for livestock on farms way up in the hills, he explains, "Quality feed at an affordable price is the aim and these blocks are hitting the target."
From surplus to scarcity
In India's northern state of Uttarakhand, the fertile plains of irrigated rice, wheat and vegetables soon give way to the steep foothills of the Himalayas where rainfed, subsistence agriculture predominates. Down on the plains there is a surplus of fodder - paddy straw, wheat straw and sugarcane tops - and yet in the hills, on small land holdings with a much shorter growing season, fodder for dairy cows and other livestock is scarce, especially in the winter months.
The need for fodder in the uplands means that the narrow roads that wind up the steep hills are busy with a stream of trucks hauling livestock feed from the lowlands, as far as 200 km into the mountains. However, haulage adds a heavy price to the feedstuffs: many of the hill farmers cannot afford the quantity and quality of feed their animals need, so productivity and incomes remain low.
Just 30 km from the base of the hills, the Agricultural University of Pantnagar sprawls across 1,000 acres of farmland, which yields more than enough agri-waste feedstuffs for the University's dairy herds of buffalo, Holsteins and indigenous Sahiwal cattle. But Dean of the College of Veterinary and Animal Sciences, Dr Sharma, has a particular interest in the problems experienced by small-scale livestock farmers, and has recognised that a technical business solution was required to help them. "We knew that a compressed, 'complete' feed would fit the market," he explains. "So, we commissioned agricultural engineers to design the diesel-powered machine that could handle and compress dry fodder into blocks."
Farmers in four areas - Pithogarh, Chamoli, Nainital and Champawat - were involved in the development and testing of the feed blocks and these are now the main areas for their sale. The composition is 50 per cent chopped straw or cane tops blended with 39 per cent concentrate and 11 per cent molasses, which increases palatability and acts as a binding material.
Do the stock like it? "It's much more palatable than rough straw," reports Sharma. "Also, livestock in hill areas tend to suffer from deficiencies of minerals such as calcium. So in addition we have developed a urea-molasses lick to supply all the essential minerals required by the animals."
A solution that stacks up
Another batch of chopped, mixed ingredients is tipped into the fodder compressor's hopper, which feeds into a narrow chamber. At the flick of a switch a metal plate bears down on the mix. Once compressed, it is cut into a uniform block weighing about 4 kg which has several advantages over loose fodder: it is easy to handle; compared to loose fodder three times as much can now be carried in each lorry load and it offers good feed at affordable prices.
"The farmer has to pay less for transport," explains Sharma, "and he is getting better nutrition at a lower cost. The keeping quality is also better, at least six months in the dry season." The blocks appeal to Dr Sharma's preference for tidiness too. "Look how well the 32 kilo sacks stack cleanly together," he remarks as he pats the pile in the store. "No mess, no waste."
In the hill areas the price of dry, loose fodder is up to 12 rupees (US$0.30) per kilo. Since the complete feed blocks are sold at about 8 rupees per kilo, it is no surprise to Sharma that their order book is full. "There is so much demand," he says, "that at present we have orders for 1000 quintal [one hundred tonnes] a month. But at full capacity we can currently only make 300 quintal [30 tonnes] a month."
Building blocks of a new business?
In order to satisfy demand, Sharma and his team hope to attract an entrepreneur who will take the technology and the market developed by the Pantnagar University fodder development unit to set up a fodder block business.
Is the University tempted to hold on to this income-generating business? Sharma smiles at the thought. "It is satisfying to find a financially viable solution to a difficulty. That is the challenge we enjoy. However, there are yet more farming problems that we need to move our minds to now."
Date published: January 2008
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