Brachiaria grass, comprising more than 100 species is native to Africa yet the continent trails in livestock production.
How did Africa, therefore, miss the opportunity to exploit Brachiaria’s potential despite the grass’s good track record in Australia and South America that adopted it?
Dr Sita Ghimire, forage scientist at BecA-ILRI Hub, notes that until recently, livestock farming in Africa was of a subsistence nature.
Most households did not expect much from animals so long as they provided some meat and milk to meet dietary needs of families.
Any surpluses could be sold to neighbours, sometimes at modest prices or exchanged for other food products.
Farmers were, therefore, content with just grazing animals in open fields and relying on natural pastures irrespective of nutritive values.
But the advent of modern life coupled with population growth and rural urban migration led to a massive demand for livestock products, especially milk and meat.
African nations such as Kenya woke up to this reality and began taking the livestock industry seriously to propel economic growth.
“Farmers now know that you have to feed the cow well to get the desired quantity and quality of products that meet market demands,” explains Dr Donald Njarui, a senior research scientist at Kenya Agricultural Research and Livestock Organisation.
Perception among farmers is rapidly changing. Aside from just feeding cows with ‘anything’, they have been sensitised to know that animals require a balanced diet (carbohydrates, protein, vitamins and minerals) — just as human beings — to boost their productivity.
Consequently, a lot of research is ongoing in sub-Saharan Africa seeking to identify suitable animal forages that can enable farmers to boost their livestock yields.
This has led to the introduction and commercialisation of grasses such as Napier and Rhodes. Brachiaria is the new ‘kid’ on the block. As trials begin for any promising forages, Dr Njarui explains that farmers have to be involved from the start to the end of these research projects.
They are the targeted beneficiaries hence their participation in identifying and selecting appropriate forages is extremely important.
“You can’t impose anything on them. They have to be involved to understand the significance of these forages.”
As more and more farmers grasp the link between forages and productivity, many are specialising in livestock farming whilst choosing to dedicate a huge portion of their land to growing animal feeds as opposed to food crops like maize which market is saturated.
In arid and semi-arid areas where soils are not suitable for food cash crops anyway, the huge tracks of land there offer opportunities for cultivating drought tolerant forages like Brachiaria hence improving livelihoods of communities there.