The cows stored by small-scale farmers in Africa are notoriously unproductive. The common dairy cow, for instance, produces about 540 litres of milk per lactation. By distinction, dairy cows in North America that belong to industrial or intensive farmers can produce as much as 10,479 litres of milk per lactation.

One of the principle variations between the 2 animals lies within the high quality of their feeds and forage. Simply put, the extra nutritious cows’ diets are, the extra and higher high quality milk they produce. And small-scale farms – of which there are about 33 million in Africa, contributing up to 70% of the continent’s meals provide – often can not afford extra nutritious feed.

Brachiaria – the genus title of Urochloa – consists of about 100 documented species of grass of which seven species used as fodder vegetation are of African origin. This grass might maintain the important thing to enhancing milk yields from cows stored by small-scale farmers. Why is that this an necessary objective?

First, it can assist to fulfill rising demand for animal-sourced meals – like cow milk – because the continent turns into extra urbanised and its inhabitants grows. Second, it can present an financial boon to particular person farmers and communities extra broadly. Finally, there’s potential for Brachiaria itself to turn out to be a cash maker. Local seed merchants will profit if the grass seed is commercialised.

Brachiaria has already confirmed its value in some elements of the world. It has been instrumental to the meat business’s success within the tropical Americas. Brazil alone now has some 99 million hectares of land devoted to Brachiaria grass.

The seed varieties presently utilized in African agriculture are all imported, most from South America and South East Asia. Long distance transportation and tariffs make these seeds costly. It can be best to develop a high quality, local weather resilient Brachiaria seed manufacturing system on the continent. But the place?

We imagine the reply lies in Cameroon. Farmers there have lengthy planted Brachiaria seeds, however no person had ever examined their high quality. Our research crammed this hole. Though the general seed high quality was poor, we’ve discovered that improved cultivation practices can deal with this challenge. Now we’re exhausting at work to show Cameroon into Africa’s Brachiaria seed hub.

A top quality grass

Brachiaria’s forage high quality was recognised by scientists in the 1950s. It has a excessive biomass yield potential and is adaptable to low-fertility soil. South American farmers, particularly in Brazil, began utilizing Brachiaria on a large-scale within the early Nineteen Seventies and it’s recognised as being key to the region’s booming beef industry.

In Africa, nonetheless, curiosity within the grass grew extra slowly. It was not till the early 2000s, when the continent started to feel the effects of inhabitants progress and urbanisation that increased demand for animal-sourced meals piqued renewed curiosity in methods to enhance agricultural yields.

As a plant scientist primarily based on the International Livestock Research Institute, I’ve researched Brachiaria grass since 2013. Through varied partnerships, colleagues and I’ve labored on a climate-smart Brachiaria programme to check the varieties already developed in Australia and South America in varied African contexts. They carried out nicely independently, however the subsequent step was to combine them into the blended crop-livestock methods typical of the continent.

Farmers responded enthusiastically to the grass: it considerably elevated milk manufacturing by up to 40% and triggered substantial physique weight acquire in livestock, by as a lot as 50% in heifers. Its recognition grew as main journals and media retailers publicised its advantages. However, the seeds that made all this analysis doable had been nonetheless unavailable on the continent. We needed to import them, an arduous and dear course of due to laws and distance. So we knew that, going ahead, we had to take a look at native seed manufacturing.

A close-up view of many small seeds all clustered together.
Brachiaria seeds. Sita Ghimire/ILRI

It was additionally essential to seek out the perfect nation for the duty at hand. While our work in Kenya and Rwanda was promising, it wasn’t as profitable as we might have hoped, presumably on account of these international locations’ proximity to the equator; the truth that night time and day are of equal size affected varied phases of seed growth in species that favour longer days.

Why Cameroon?

Cameroon is usually known as “Africa in miniature”. It represents the continent’s main climatic zones, creating an ideal place for seed analysis.

During a go to to Cameroon, I famous that farmers had been rising Brachiaria grass for over 50 years and concurrently producing the seed for home makes use of.

They additionally promote surplus seed to neighbours, and seed merchants from the Central African Republic and Nigeria. However, the standard of seeds produced in Cameroon was not established till our study.

There are ten areas in Cameroon; Brachiaria grass is usually grown in 5. Our workforce collected seeds from these 5 areas to find out their high quality: trueness to selection, germination proportion, purity, vigour and look. The high quality was typically too low to fulfill worldwide requirements, however with improved cultivation practices this hurdle will be overcome.

Production hub

We are presently engaged in actions that might make Cameroon Africa’s Brachiaria seed manufacturing hub. Achieving this could considerably enhance seed availability to farmers, cut back the price of the seeds and facilitate the scaling of Brachiaria grass manufacturing throughout the continent.

To this finish, my analysis workforce at International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) and researchers from the Institute for Agricultural Research and Development in Cameroon have been working to doc the standard of Brachiaria seeds produced within the nation’s completely different areas of Cameroon. We’re additionally fine-tuning agronomic practices to enhance seed high quality, in addition to coaching native farmers on improved agricultural practices for the manufacturing of high quality Brachiaria seeds.

We hope that this partnership between the 2 institutes will develop Cameroon into the continent’s Brachiaria seed manufacturing hub within the subsequent three to 5 years. This could have quite a few financial advantages and make high quality seeds accessible within the African continent at a a lot cheaper price.

Mwihaki Mundia, BecA–ILRI Hub as Communications Officer, contributed to this text.

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