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Latin America: ruminating over the options for fodder

Livestock are in important source of income to the rural poor in Latin America (EMPRAPA)
Livestock are in important source of income to the rural poor in Latin America

The vast arid and semi-arid areas of Latin America - from Mexico to Chile and Argentina - are characterised by high levels of rural poverty. Erratic rainfall and recurrent drought limits crop production and, for poor small-scale farmers, cattle are too expensive to buy and maintain. Small ruminants, sheep and goats, provide poor households with one of the few options for income generation.

As the dry season approaches, many poor sheep farmers have cause for concern as fodder options are scarce. As the rangelands become less productive, due to overgrazing and poor management, feeding off pasture is no longer a year-round option. At the same time, demand for livestock products is soaring, especially near urban areas, and farmers are left with little choice but to purchase extra fodder at a high cost - if they can afford it. Many sheep farmers find it difficult to supply their flocks with enough calories, protein and other nutrients and a number of animals starve. Often the best that farmers can hope for is that all their ewes survive.

Pilot projects for improving livelihoods

A number of low-cost technologies and management practices for improving small ruminant productivity have been developed and tested within projects implemented by ICARDA, the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas. Now supported by the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), ICARDA and its partners are working to improve small ruminant productivity and producer incomes through market-oriented research in the dry areas of Brazil and Mexico.

In Brazil, sheep farming families in the Boa Vista and Boqueirão communities in the states of Pernambuco and Ceará have participated in trials to select high-yielding grasses to provide good forage. Two new grass species, Braquiarao (Brachiaria brizantha) and Capim Massai (Panicum maximum cv. Massai), developed by scientists at the Beef Cattle Unit of the Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation (EMBRAPA), were selected by farmers from among several tested in forage trials.

Feed fortified with cactus is one possible solution to fodder shortages (Juan Manuel Pinos)
Feed fortified with cactus is one possible solution to fodder shortages
Juan Manuel Pinos

The grasses are grown during the wet season on areas where perennial fodder shrubs such as Leucaena and Gliricidia, and a native fodder plant called Maniçoba (Manihot pseudoglaziovii), already grow. The grasses have produced dry matter yields of over 11 tonnes per hectare, providing enough feed for livestock throughout the entire dry season.

Project leader Dr. Luis Iñiguez says the use of pasture containing either grass - in addition to hay and sorghum - has produced very promising results with ewes gaining rather than losing weight during the dry season. This strategy is currently being expanded to more farmers, and additional testing is being done on other promising drought-tolerant grasses, legumes and grain crops.

Surplus fodder for silage

Another option for providing fodder during the dry season is community-level silage production, where surplus fodder harvested in the wet season is processed and stored. In San José de la Peňa, Mexico, and Boqueirão, Brazil, farmers have been shown how to use the 'ring technique,' which produces silage using relatively basic equipment. "The ring technique is old, but is not known by most of resource-poor producers in the dry areas of the world," says Iñiguez.

Fodder is compacted using two iron plates curved into a semicircle and joined together at the ends by a simple latch. The ring is assembled and placed on a flat surface and the space inside filled with chopped, freshly harvested forage, which is trampled and compacted into a cylinder of feed. The silage blocks are then covered with plastic and enclosed in boxes or drums and left to ferment for around 30 days.

Feed blocks are helping farmers sustain their livestock during the dry season (Juan Manuel Pinos)
Feed blocks are helping farmers sustain their livestock during the dry season
Juan Manuel Pinos

Feed blocks are another low-cost technology being used to manage flock nutrition during the dry season following successful introduction by ICARDA in several countries in West Asia and North Africa. In San José de la Peňa, feed ingredients such as chopped straw and other fodder plants are fortified with Opuntia cactus (prickly pear), molasses, local feedstuffs and urea.

In the central Mexican region of Zacatecas, the project has helped to revive pileteo; a traditional method for collecting rainwater. Pileteo involves farmers making low soil ridges between furrows to create small pools of water during rainfall for growing a range of water-efficient fodder crops including cactus, barley and oats. Future plans to extend the use of pileteo include the establishment of more demonstration fields and offering incentives for farmers to implement the technique.

After fours years of research, the results have been encouraging. Practical, low-cost technologies for improving nutrition and productivity have been tested jointly by farmers, researchers and extension staff and adoption is growing. Iñiguez reports that the results will be analysed in Brazil and Mexico to see how they may be applied to other areas in the region that face similar constraints during the dry season. "In addition," he says, "the project has promoted intensive exchange of information among partners so that fruitful south-south cooperation has been established. This is leading to the consolidation of a critical level of expertise for animal production in the dry areas of Latin America."

Written by: Treena Hein

Date published: January 2008


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