Photograph — Wikimedia

The diet of a milk-producing cow is perhaps the most important consideration of any dairy farmer. The reason is that the quantity and quality of milk extracted from cows is somewhat dependent on the quality of what they feed on.

Substantiating this, the farm manager of Rosedale Dairy Farm in Kwara state, Nigeria, Zora Langton told a group of visiting students of Obafemi Awolowo University that the farm tries different feed formulas in order to improve their cows’ milk production but some of these formulas don’t achieve the desired output.

According to Zora, during the dry season, the farm resorts to silage–fodder harvested while green and kept succulent by partial fermentation as in a silo–to feed its cows. Obviously, dairy farmers have challenges getting fresh feeds for their cows during the dry season when there is little water and more importantly, feeds that are of better nutritional values are difficult to come by.

Now, dairy farmers may have to worry less about the concerns that comes with feeding their cows. A new analysis by experts at the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) has found out some new varieties of high-quality, drought-resistant forage grasses that could “boost milk production by 40 percent and generate millions of dollars in economic benefits for dairy farmers.” CIAT is a component of the Consortium of International Agricultural Research Centers (CGIAR).

The study which discovered this, assessed the potential economic impact of the development and release of improved forage varieties of Brachiaria grasses in six East African countries using an economic surplus model. The varieties turned out to “have the potential for positive return on investment.” The six countries include: Kenya, Tanzania, Ethiopia, Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi.

There is an estimated figure of two million small-scale dairy farmers across these six East African countries. Most of these farmers struggle with chronic low productivity due to the lack of quality feed options with high nutrient content. “Right now, many dairy farmers here are spending much of their day collecting wild grasses that do not give animals the nutrition they need. This takes time away from other jobs farmers could be doing, and at the same time results in a higher greenhouse gas footprint,” said Solomon Mwendia, CIAT’s forage expert in Nairobi.

According to a senior scientist at the centre, Steven Prager, the latest research “shows that Brachiaria grasses could be the cornerstone of productive and resilient livestock systems that quickly provide more milk and money for small-scale dairy farmers.” The grasses were developed by CIAT plant breeders to survive harsh growing conditions, while providing considerable nutritional benefits for livestock.

The new varieties are high-yielding, nutritious and, because they are easier for cows to digest, animals produce far less of the greenhouse gas methane per litre of milk produced. The grass has other climate-friendly qualities: its deep roots help it capture carbon and store it in the soil, while also preventing soil erosion. Given its many benefits, Brachiaria grass has become the most extensively used forage in the world, with seed production already commercialised in big cattle-producing countries like Brazil.

Although Bracharia is a native plant to Africa, it has taken CIAT’s plant breeders in Colombia decades of work to improve the performance and nutritional qualities of the grasses.  At the moment, the seeds are imported, but CIAT said it is now working with public and private sector partners to increase the commercial availability of improved Brachiaria seeds in Africa and in the future, ensure the establishment of a commercial seed production centre in Africa.

This development is a commendable break through for dairy farmers. It will usher in better times for dairy farmers in Africa, particularly in those in the eastern part of the continent. With time, as the farmers get familiar with these improved varieties and cultivate them, the pressure arising from demand for the seeds will make the establishment of a commercial seed production in the region imperatively feasible.

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