Forage Production Boosts the Resilience of Pastoral Communities
By Mengisteab Teshome
Ethiopia is on the state of a forage revolution
Livestock are an important component of smallholder farming systems throughout Sub- Sahara Africa elsewhere in the globe. Direct benefits include: income from the production of offspring, meat, milk or eggs. Even less visible are the significant benefits to crop production from the application of manure to fields. Another often overlooked advantage of owning livestock is their role as a form of medical insurance or as absence of interest on a loan. Unfortunately, animal feed resources are often scarce and unless farmers grow their own forages, animals can suffer from lack of feed or malnutrition. Forage crops are important assets for animal productivity.
Ethiopia’s pastoral lowlands are bisected by a number of major river systems like the Awash River in Afar, which runs throughout the arid region. Awash and systems like the Wabe Shabelle which begins in Oromia and the Omo in Southern Nationalities Nations and People’s Region (SNNPR), sustain entire communities along their banks, shielding hundreds of thousands of agropastoralist livelihoods from infertile and often unforgiving drylands.
“Historically, irrigated farming has mostly focused on crop production with crop residues being sold to local livestock keepers in times of drought,” said Dr Gizachew Lemma, Livestock Specialist at the Ethiopia Country Office of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. Dr. Lemma has supervised FAO’s distribution of fast-growing forage seed for Sudan Grass and other improved varieties, to thousands of households in Ethiopia’s agropastoral areas.
Ethiopia is on the state of a forage revolution. In the last few years, agropastoral households in Afar, Oromia and Somali States have begun growing forage crops for on-farm use as well as sale to local householders. Locally-produced forage is almost half the cost of most imported feed – testament to its potential to reach the most vulnerable livestock-owning households. For agencies, like FAO, that are seeking to rapidly increase food availability, locally-grown varieties are favoured as they have proven to be more easily distributed and allow for better quality control. In contrast, imported grass-hay from the highlands, improved forage, when produced locally in lowland areas, tend to be fresher and more nutritious.
“During the drought, we saw a huge potential to enhance forage production activities, particularly where households have access to some form of irrigation. FAO took advantage of the fact that these agropastoral households are somewhat experienced in crop production. This makes forage production much easier for these families,” said Dr. Lemma. In Afar, women’s groups are generating income from the sale of forage seeds. Irrigated forage produced in Somali State is typically sold to urban smallholder ‘dairies’ who sell milk in urban markets. In times of drought, however, pastoralists also compete for forage to maintain core breeding animals.
In 2015 and 2016, an El Niño-induced drought ravaged the pastures of Ethiopia’s lowlands, causing widespread feed deficits across the livestock-dependent regions of the country. With imported feed much more expensive, many families were unable to purchase this livestock-saving resource.
As a result of these shortages, as well as an absence of drinking water, hundreds of thousands of animals were lost during the drought. Though animal body conditions have since recovered to a significant extent, animals such as oxen are noticeably weaker; this further complicates the preparation of farmland for the upcoming meher or summer season. While milk production has improved in some cases, it has largely not returned to pre-drought levels in pastoralist areas.
Since the drought, FAO has provided smallholders with fast-growing forage seeds and materials, with the goal of enhancing the nutrition and food security of more than 7 600 of the worst-affected households. Forage seed distributions are ongoing throughout the country. “These forage production activities transcend the immediate feed crisis by transferring the skills of growing and managing cultivated forages to communities. This is essential in order to create household-level feed security,” Dr. Lemma explained.
Sadique Walino an agropastoralist in Afambo, Afar State, grows fodder for his animals on a small but efficient plot of land near his homestead. “At the end of the day, when we milk our cow, it produces more milk,” Walino said. The father of five credits switching to home-grown forage production for the significant improvement in the output of his animals. When asked if he would return to other types of animal feed, Walino remarks, “One who has tasted honey will not taste another thing.”