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Fodder innovation: revisiting an old problem

Fodder is one of the main constraints to livestock keepers in developing countries (Andy Hall, UNU-Merit)
Fodder is one of the main constraints to livestock keepers in developing countries
Andy Hall, UNU-Merit

From pastoralists in the semi-arid regions of West Africa to the co-operative dairy farmers of India, scarcity of fodder is one of the biggest constraints faced by livestock keepers in developing countries. Although the underlying reasons may be quite different, the survival of millions of subsistence livestock producers is dependent on two key factors: good animal health and sufficient access to fodder. This is especially true for those who wish to make the transition from subsistence to commercial production and to prosper in competitive markets.

For more than four decades researchers have developed a range of technologies to address the issue of fodder shortages including improved forage species, various silage techniques, and the incorporation of cereals and legumes with straw and other residues to improve animal nutrition. Development projects have also introduced fodder banks and alternative cropping patterns to help introduce new fodder varieties and feeding systems. But disappointingly, and for a wide range of reasons, many researchers and development practitioners have found that limited progress has been made in resolving fodder scarcity.

Taking a different stand

In order to explore fodder scarcity from a new perspective, a collaborative project has been funded by the UK Department for International Development (DFID) in India and Nigeria. Instead of using the traditional approach of providing information and technological solutions, it is taking an 'innovation systems' approach.

This approach, supported by researchers at the MERIT centre of the UN University (UNU-MERIT), is based on the belief that innovation is a demand-driven, responsive process. In other words, innovation is not about the introduction of a new technology or policy change, but a continuous series of changes that keep pace with and respond to the unpredictable shocks and opportunities that affect the agricultural sector.

Identifying people and policies

Although fodder yields can be high in some years, research is needed help to make these yields sustainable (ILRI)
Although fodder yields can be high in some years, research is needed help to make these yields sustainable

The project is based on previous DFID-funded work conducted by the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) over the last five years, which began by investigating whether forming partnerships with local organisations would be a better way of transferring technology to farmers. The approach had some success, but also revealed other constraints that were preventing farmers from accessing or using the technology.

It was discovered, for example, that public seed systems were not supplying fodder varieties preferred by farmers, and the private sector was reluctant to distribute seeds when initial demand was low. Adoption of fodder technology was also only found to be worthwhile if animal health services were available, or if there were links to markets, and it was often difficult to get different organisations to work together to achieve this.

With fodder requirements dependent on unpredictable climate and market conditions, it is likely that one year's solution to the problem may be inappropriate to the conditions experienced the following year. In other cases, fodder shortages were not a technical problem, but a policy and institutional problem, such as access to grazing on common land.

As a result of these findings, ILRI realised that a change of focus was required and that there was a need to recognise the complexity of organisations involved in fodder systems and in identifying the factors preventing them working together more effectively. But equally important is the need to identify the necessary individuals and organisations in the policy process to help bring about policy and institutional change.

The argument that fodder scarcity is a result not of scarcity of technology but of innovation capacity is the basis for ILRI, UNU-MERIT and their partners to explore whether this new focus on innovation capacity can help address the fodder issue.

Complexities, challenges and capacity

UNU-MERIT's Andy Hall acknowledged that this is a difficult piece of research that challenges many of the traditional approaches to the constraints of fodder scarcity. For example, diagnostic studies for project planning have investigated the existing linkages between relevant organisations rather than the technical determinants of fodder scarcity. Baseline studies to monitor and evaluate impact have not only had to characterise farming and livelihoods, but also to reveal how different organisations work - how participatory they are, who they work with - as that is where changes in innovation capacity will be apparent.

The problem of fodder scarcity is as old as the practice of livestock keeping itself (WRENmedia)
The problem of fodder scarcity is as old as the practice of livestock keeping itself

Whilst this fodder 'innovation systems' research is taking a different approach, it is nevertheless using the lessons learned from developing and promoting fodder technologies, particularly in the focus countries of India and Nigeria.

However, exploring the policies, other rules and the incentives required to ensure innovation not only takes place, but does so in a way that also helps vulnerable livestock keepers, will not result in providing recommendations or technology packages to solve fodder scarcity. Rather a set of principles will be developed to help bring about the groupings of organisations needed for fodder innovation and how to stimulate the policy and institutional changes needed in the national fodder systems in each country to support this.

"The research is at a very early stage," Hall concludes, and will only start its action phase in 2008. "But we hope that this new focus for research will enable us to move forward on a problem that is as old as livestock itself: fodder."

With contributions from: Andy Hall, Link Co-ordinator, UNU-MERIT

Date published: January 2008


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