By Rachel Gathoni
As Kenya totters in boosting livestock production—poor nutrition is hurting productivity. Across counties, a majority of the animals kept by small holder farmers are not getting adequate feed both in quantity and quality, yet nutrition has the most impact on animal health, production and reproduction. Livestock produce milk and meat according to their genetic potential, when fed a nutritionally balanced adequate ration, in addition to proper husbandry.
According to the National Livestock Policy, livestock feed accounts for 60 – 80 percent of the production costs in livestock farming in Kenya, depending on the intensity of production. It is therefore clear that animal feed is the single most important input in livestock production and a key determinant of the economic viability of any livestock business.
Livestock feed mainly consists roughage (fodder/pasture), concentrates, minerals and vitamins. Roughage constitutes the bulk of the diet and it includes grass and browse and farm by-produce. A balanced ration should provide energy, protein, minerals, and vitamins and of course water. For those who interact with farmers, it is common to hear complaints such as ‘’something is wrong with my cow’’ and on probing you are often told ‘’ I have heard the amount of milk this breed should produce however my cow is giving less than half‘’. The truth is that more often than not, the animal is not well fed (quantity and balance of the nutrients) and so it has no surplus to produce milk, reproduce or gain weight. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), imbalanced feeding leads to poor growth, low milk production, long calving intervals and a short productive life.
It is worthwhile to note that quantity of feed and balance of nutrients is not a linear relationship and it is common for farmers to increase the amount of feed expecting a change only to be shocked at the overall lack of improvement in the animal’s output. In such an instance the animal is usually receiving an imbalanced diet and the common culprits are inadequate protein, minerals, vitamins and in some instances water. It is therefore important for farmers to strive to learn more on balanced feed rations of what they feed their animals be it pasture, farm by- products or commercial preparations.
So what is the cause of the inadequate/imbalanced feeding? Well, several issues are at play including inadequate information, high cost of feed, unpredictable weather patterns, over reliance on rain-fed agricultural production, challenges caused by land subdivision and land use and limited agricultural extension services just to name a few. The national extension staff to farmer ratio is estimated to be 1:1200 against a recommended 1: 400 (Ministry of Agriculture Livestock and Fisheries)
Knowledge on the nutritional value of feed that ensures a proper mix of nutrients (energy source, proteins, vitamins and minerals) to optimize productivity needs improvement especially amongst the small -holder farmers. Greater attention shall be required where animals are fed on farm by products, since animals are likely to be fed on one crop. Pesticide contamination is common and due to poor storage animals are sometimes fed with rotting mouldy matter which is of low nutrition value and may even expose animals to harmful toxins that may reduce absorption of nutrients.
The cost of feed both fodder and concentrates is high and it is common to feed animals sparingly to save on costs. The frugal feeding is common if the farmer consistently gets low returns from the animals since the argument is why incur high costs when very little is coming back and this leads to a vicious cycle. In pastoralist areas, drought and overgrazing have degraded pastures and reduced the quality and quantity while in the highland areas fodder competes for land use with food crops. Land subdivision has also impacted cultivation of animal feeds since very little land is set aside to plant fodder. During wet seasons when pasture is lush, poor storage and lack of sustainable preservation methods and facilities have led to losses as fodder goes to waste in boon time.
Water is required in large quantities by livestock yet, water is not readily available in all homes and animals must compete with other domestic needs hence water is stingily administered. Lack of sufficient clean fresh water significantly reduces the animal’s feed intake, milk production and overall performance and the effects are worse in animals exposed to direct sunlight throughout the day.
Concentrates and commercially prepared minerals/vitamins are expensive but unfortunately not all formulations in the market provide the nutrients in the quality and quantity required. Some manufacturers knowingly cut corners and skimp on the expensive inputs while others are small cottage industries with manual systems that result in inconsistent produce batches and farmers’ pay the price literally.
There are many other challenges contributing to the feed problem in the country and to help turn this tide the sector stakeholders must work together to address them. To begin with Livestock keepers must be proactive in learning more about the nutrients provided by the locally available feed and to plan for pasture in their land use to avoid over reliance on fodder markets. For instance the KCB Foundation is working with livestock keepers in Mulot in Narok County to establish commercial fodder production to earn the yearned for handsome returns and as better use of their land. Still on the fodder, improved storage and preservation methods must be employed to take advantage of the abundant fodder during the wet seasons to minimize waste.
Increased investment in agricultural extension services is required. County Livestock Production Officers hold wealth of knowledge however their extension services are limited and very few counties have adopted technology to reach farmers with information and extension services. Baringo County has made strides in this area and they have most of their farmers in a database and are able to reach them through text messages with important information. More counties need to embrace technology to provide some of their extension services to reach more farmers faster and affordably.
Good research is constantly churned from our academic institutions and there is a wealth of knowledge on animal feed management, efficiency and effectiveness. Detailed information on improved husbandry, improved varieties of fodder crops and trees is available however the information is not known to those who need it most. As a country we are still struggling to convert research into action in all fields. The State Department of Livestock under the Ministry of Agriculture Livestock and Fisheries should find a way to funnel the information and new technologies being discovered to the farmers in a timely manner and to distill the information to provide the actionable stuff.
The national government needs to regularly assess the commercially prepared concentrates, vitamins and minerals to ensure that farmers get what they pay for both in quality and quantity and to take prompt legal action on the manufacturers defrauding farmers. In addition, alternatives to maize as the key ingredient to concentrates needs to be reviewed and again a lot of academic work has been done however turning it into action is tragically missing.
This writer is the Manager, KCB Foundation currently implementing the Mifugo Ni Mali Project.