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More shrubs for more milk in Eastern Africa

Fodder mixtures containing shrubs and napier grass could provide relief for dairy farmers (Charles Wambugu, ICRAF)
Fodder mixtures containing shrubs and napier grass could provide relief for dairy farmers
Charles Wambugu, ICRAF

In the highlands of Uganda, Rwanda, northern Tanzania and especially Kenya, producing enough milk to take advantage of increasing demand is a challenge for the region's three million smallholder dairy farmers. Population density is high in the highlands of East African countries, and because demand for milk is centered around their towns and cities, there is great pressure on tiny urban and peri-urban dairy farms, many of which are just one or two acres in size.

Most farmers must cut and carry feed to their confined dairy cows or goats, and finding enough good quality fodder is a key issue. Napier grass is the most common dairy feed in the region, but its protein content is not high enough to sustain adequate milk yields. High protein commercial dairy meal - containing maize and wheat bran, cotton seed cake, soybean meal and fish meal - is difficult to transport and is too expensive for most farmers.

Fodder shrubs can provide a solution. The World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF) states that these shrubs are easy to grow and, by fixing atmospheric nitrogen, improve soil fertility. They can also withstand repeated pruning and do not compete with food crops. The plants mature in about twelve months, after which they can be pruned and fed to livestock for up to 20 years. The shrubs also provide fuelwood, stakes for supporting tomatoes, bananas and climbing beans, and their flowers provide forage to the bees for honey production. In addition, planting shrubs on field contours prevents soil erosion.

Optimising shrub productivity

In the early 1990s ICRAF, together with partners such as the Kenya Forestry Research Institute (KEFRI), International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) and the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (KARI), began projects to ensure smallholder farmers would be able to optimise the productivity of introduced fodder shrubs. Participants tested nine appropriate species for different agro-ecological zones and investigated how to best manage and utilise fodder shrubs, including a study of homemade feed ration production.

Calliandra is an important fodder shrub (ICRAF)
Calliandra is an important fodder shrub

Research was also conducted on economic returns from feeding dairy animals with shrubs and on alternative dissemination pathways for knowledge and seeds. About 200,000 farmers in Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, and northern Tanzania (about half of them women) have planted fodder shrubs in the last ten years. According to ICRAF, farmers in the first year spend about $US11 raising and transplanting seedlings. In subsequent years they earn on average $US95-120 from increased milk production.

Between 2002 and 2005, ICRAF continued to study the optimum use of fodder trees in partnership with the UK-based Forestry Research Project (FRP) and the Oxford Forestry Institute. Research on farmer-to-farmer extension led by ICRAF revealed that this method of dissemination has great potential in reaching a wider population of farmers, especially in areas where public extension services are weak.

Charles Wambugu, a scientist with ICRAF, says, "The project helped train farmers to become fodder shrub seed and seedling distributors and marketers by building their technical and entrepreneurial capacities." This helped shift seed and seedling distribution from the public to the private sector. Farmer cooperatives and societies have developed an increased role in delivering extension services through dissemination of information and the distribution of planting materials to other farmers."

Challenges to increasing fodder shrub use

Wambugu identifies two problems in further expanding the use of fodder shrubs by farmers: these are the lack of information on the economic and environmental potential of using the shrubs and the poor availability of planting materials. He says, "Unlike other agricultural inputs, established farm input outlets lack information on the potential of using fodder shrubs to increase milk quality and quantity, and thus they are not active in disseminating fodder shrub information and in distributing planting materials to farmers.

Mulberry is a fodder shrub with very high palatability (Charles Wambugu, ICRAF)
Mulberry is a fodder shrub with very high palatability
Charles Wambugu, ICRAF

The marketing channels for fodder shrub planting materials are not yet well developed." In addition, he notes, shrubs do not perform well at high altitudes and in drier parts of the region, and he calls for research organisations to reach out to meet the needs of farmers found in diverse environmental conditions.

Wambugu says recent increases in milk prices in Kenya are currently providing more incentive for farmers to invest in fodder shrubs. "There has been increased demand for planting materials by potential and existing dairy farmers," he notes. "However, production and utilisation of fodder shrubs is knowledge-intensive with clear stages of key information that is needed to make the whole process successful. That is where extension services should play a key role."

Written by: Treena Hein

Date published: January 2008


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