More than 200,000 Rwandan farmers have received free cows under the Rwandan Governments’ One cow per poor family programme since it was introduced in 2006. The move has kick-started small scale milk production, bringing new income streams for cash-strapped farmers, as well as providing manure to fertilise crops, and meat and milk for improved nutrition and food security.
But milk, meat and manure are only as plentiful as the fodder cattle eat. With land under severe pressure to feed a rapidly growing population and traditional fodder sources failing during times of drought, farmers are struggling to feed their livestock. A research project investigating high quality grasses is giving hope to millions of small farmers in the country and across the region.
In Bugesera District in the Eastern Province of Rwanda, dairy cattle owned by a farming cooperative of 10 genocide orphans grow painfully thin. Jean-Claude Karachi, a member of the cooperative, says: “We have trouble feeding our cows and the milk they produce is not enough to sell.”
Rwanda has hardly any unused land. The average farm size is among the smallest in sub-Saharan Africa at just over half a hectare, from which farmers must grow their household food, cash crops and livestock feed. As a result, planted forages are scarce year round and land is overexploited, increasing land degradation and reducing soil fertility. The problem is exacerbated in the dry season.
It’s dusk at Kigabiro milk collection centre 70 kilometres away. A steady stream of young men arrive with milk pails strapped to their bicycles, fresh from the evening milking.
Farmers receive around 220Rfr (GBp£0.20 or USD$0.32) for one litre of milk, depending on the season. The money is paid into their bank account every month. Most of the milk from Kigabiro is sold to Inyange Industries, a local milk processor.
Kigabiro’s resident vet, Clementine Mukakibibi, tests the milk before it is accepted. She has worked at the collection centre for two years, serving 170 farmers with veterinary care and advice. She says: “In the wet season the farmers bring up to 3,000 litres of milk per day. In the dry season it drops by almost half because of the lack of cattle feed.”
Napier grass is the fodder of choice for most Rwandan smallholders, but it does not provide enough green foliage or nutrients in periods of drought. When Napier grass and other local forages fail, farmers usually resort to crop residues, but these do not contain enough nutrients for dairy cattle to produce much milk. And if their crops fail, farmers also risk losing their livestock.
In the dry months, only five per cent of cattle in Rwanda are fed adequately, making them susceptible to disease, and affecting milk production and thus, farmer food security and incomes.
Farmers need new sources of forages to provide them with a more stable income and improved food security.
Scientists from CIAT, BecA and KARI are working with farmers and the Rwanda Agricultural Board (RAB) to identify drought adapted forage grasses, including a drought resistant hybrid grass – Brachiaria cultivar Mulato II – which has been shown to produce higher milk and meat yields in cattle. In South-America, cattle fed on Brachiaria Mulato produce up to 10 times more meat per unit land area than if the animals grazed on native savannah grass. Its deep rooting system can also tolerate infertile soils and help prevent soil erosion, additional challenges faced by farmers in the land of one thousand hills.
Originally from Africa and improved in South America, Brachiaria grass is credited with helping to revolutionise the Brazilian beef industry.
Mulato II is a hybrid developed by CIAT in Colombia, which can deliver huge increases in milk and meat production and help mitigate the effects of climate change. Researchers are measuring its ability to improve soil fertility through carbon sequestration, which under adequate pasture and livestock management is second only to that of forest carbon capture. They are also measuring its ability to reduce greenhouse gas emissions including methane from animals – because it is high-quality and easily digestible, animals fed with Brachiaria emit less methane per kilo of meat produced.
At the Karama research station, in Bugesera district, RAB is testing 80 germplasm accessions of Brachiaria grass and growing 10 hectares of Mulato II for seed multiplication. After harvesting the Mulato II seed, the grass is cut and dried for hay. Both are sold to local farmers at reasonable prices.
Joseph Gasana, Head of Karama research station, RAB, says: “We are promoting the establishment of forages because we consider livestock production to be as important as agriculture. Grazing in Rwanda is difficult because of limited land. However, with limited space you can harvest a lot of grass and legume forages when it is properly managed. We conduct a lot of training to make farmers aware of cattle feeds and feeding, and basic management practices and we are very optimistic that this project will relieve so many farmers.”
Mokamorigo Tamali, a smallholder from Okara Sector, harvests Brachiaria from her field to feed her cattle – a cow, a heifer and a calf. She grows Brachiaria in partnership with RAB, harvesting the seeds for multiplication.
Tamali is one of many farmers who has benefitted from One cow per poor family. “There is a big improvement in my life. Before I had the cows, I was buying some milk for the children. Now instead of buying I sell, drink and give it to my neighbours. I benefit from the manure of the cows to fertilise my field. And with the extra money I have managed to improve my house.”
Silas milks Tamali’s cow twice a day for 4,200 Rfr (US$6.25 / GBp£3.67) a month. He has 11 other clients.
While researchers are evaluating the contribution of Brachiaria Mulato to livestock productivity, Tamali is already noticing a difference. “Before I got nine litres of milk each day from my cow – five in the morning and four in the evening. Now that I feed them Mulato, I get eight litres in the morning and seven to eight litres in the evening. And the quality of the milk is better compared to other forages. It smells and tastes better.”
The Climate-Smart Brachiaria project is also training farmers in forage conservation, encouraging them to make hay or silage to feed their cattle in the dry season.
For some, forage conservation is also providing new income opportunities. Garambi Faru from Rwamamgana district started growing Brachiaria Mulato four years ago. He now dedicates nearly half of his farm to growing forages and earns 1,000 Rfr (US$1.50/GBp£0.87) for each bale of hay sold.
The pressure to sustain – and improve – livestock production in Rwanda is increasing. Livestock is already the highest contributor to agricultural GDP (at 40%), and the demand for milk and meat is expected to rise as the population increases and becomes more urbanised. Farmers, researchers, public actors and the private sector are joining hands to meet this challenge, and importantly introduce farming practices that mitigate the effects of livestock production on climate change as well as adapt to it.
Brachiaria Mulato cannot feed Rwanda’s livestock revolution alone but, integrated into well-managed local farming systems, it could benefit millions of smallholders like Tamali and Garambi.
About the Climate-Smart Brachiaria Programme
Climate-Smart Brachiaria Grasses for improving Livestock production in Africais a $6.4million research programme funded by Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida) led by the Biosciences eastern and central Africa-International Livestock Research Institute (BecA-ILRI) Hub. The partnership brings together collaborators from International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT), Colombia; Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (KARI); Rwanda Agricultural Board (RAB); and Grasslanz Technology Ltd, New Zealand.
Writing and Photo credit: Stephanie Malyon/CIAT
First published on the CIAT blog 8 September 2014.