The cows kept by small-scale farmers in Africa are notoriously unproductive. The average dairy cow, for example, produces about 540 litres of milk per lactation. By contrast, dairy cows in North America that belong to commercial or intensive farmers can produce up to 10,479 litres of milk per lactation.
One of the main differences between the two animals lies in the quality of their feeds and forage. Simply put, the more nutritious cows’ diets are, the more and better quality milk they produce. And small-scale farmers – of which there are about 33 million in Africa, contributing up to 70% of the continent’s food supply – usually cannot afford more nutritious feed.
Brachiaria – the genus name of Urochloa – consists of about 100 documented species of grass of which seven species used as fodder plants are of African origin. This grass may hold the key to improving milk yields from cows kept by small-scale farmers. Why is this an important goal?
First, it will help to meet rising demand for animal-sourced foods – like cow milk – as the continent becomes more urbanised and its population grows. Second, it will provide an economic boon to individual farmers and communities more broadly. Finally, there’s potential for Brachiaria itself to become a money maker. Local seed traders will benefit if the grass seed is commercialised.
Brachiaria has already proven its worth in some parts of the world. It has been instrumental to the beef industry’s success in the tropical Americas. Brazil alone now has some 99 million hectares of land dedicated to Brachiaria grass.
The seed varieties currently used in African agriculture are all imported, most from South America and South East Asia. Long distance transportation and tariffs make these seeds expensive. It would be ideal to develop a quality, climate resilient Brachiaria seed production system on the continent. But where?
We believe the answer lies in Cameroon. Farmers there have long planted Brachiaria seeds, but nobody had ever tested their quality. Our research filled this gap. Though the overall seed quality was poor, we’ve found that improved cultivation practices can address this issue. Now we’re hard at work to turn Cameroon into Africa’s Brachiaria seed hub.