By Sharon Atieno

Forages of African origin have been instrumental in the transformation of the livestock sector in tropical America, Australia and East Asia. However, the potential of native forages to alleviate livestock feed shortage in the continent remains underexplored.

According to Dr. Sita Ghimire, a plant scientist at the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI), 95% of commercially cultivated tropical grass originates from Africa including the Brachiaria pasture which is significant in intensifying beef production in Brazil.

In livestock productivity, Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) ranks lowest with the United Nation’s Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) estimating that livestock production contributes 25 percent to the agricultural GDP of the region. Seasonal availability and low quality forages are to blame.

Over the years, Napier grass, has been the preferred grass by most farmers in East Africa. However, it has faced two major challenges: Napier stunt and smut resistance and diseases, which have led to low yields.

In a bid to increase livestock productivity by exploring native forage in East Africa, the Biosciences eastern and central Africa-ILRI (BecA- ILRI) Hub initiated a collaborative research project on Brachiaria in 2012.

Comparing the 10 varieties of Brachiaria which are commercially grown in Brazil, to Napier grass and Bermuda grass, the researchers found that Brachiaria was more drought tolerant.

Through the farmer’s participatory variety evaluations in 9 sites in Kenya and Rwanda, five Brachiaria varieties (B. brinzatha cv. Marandu, B. brinzatha cv. MG-4, B. brinzatha cv. Xaraes, B. brinzatha cv. Piata and B. decumbens cv. Basilisk) were identified as suitable for East Africa.

All but Marandu were successfully integrated into mixed crop-livestock farming systems in both countries.

In a study carried out in Kenya, the researchers found that feeding animals on Brachiaria grass increased milk production between 15% and 40%.

Brachiaria grass is good for both high rainfall and dry areas where the rainfall is 700 mm yearly and the dry season is not more than 4 months.

” For areas with rainfall that is less than 700mm, other grasses should be considered,” he said.

Dr. Ghimire recommends that in the first year of planting, the grass should be given five or six months to establish itself before harvest, after which harvesting can be carried out after every 8 weeks.

“If you put manure yearly and the dry season is not very extended, the grass can regenerate up to 20 years without replanting it,” he notes.

Brachiaria has high biomass production hence provides a good alternative for making silage and hay to be used during drought. It is palatable and nutritious to livestock and has high protein which is good for animals’ immunity.  In addition, it does well even in poor soils.

Currently, the climate-smart Brachiaria project is implemented in 12 countries in SSA and the varieties identified by the project are grown in 18 countries.