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    Why we are importing grass by Minister of Agriculture

    The barrage of comments, criticisms, questions and name-calling on the social media that have trailed the announcement of an intention to import grass to improve the business of production of cattle, sheep and goats in Nigeria is rather incredible. Too many of such comments smacked of hasty, hollow and inappropriate responses that betrayed a lack of understanding of the subject, the enormity of the problem, the benefits embedded in the planned intervention and the urgency of the need to adopt that measure. I want to put some facts in public domain and in the right perspective for the public to know.

    The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development, Chief Audu Ogbeh, has repeatedly announced that he was changing the system of ruminants (cattle, sheep and goats) husbandry in Nigeria, replacing the time-worn method of nomadism and roaming of animals with intensive and better organised system of keeping animals in paddocks and feedlot. I am aware it will take some knowledge of what is wrong in the livestock industry to understand and appreciate what the minister is talking about. He has said the constantly moving animals don’t grow as they should. He has spoken of availability of grasses of low nutritive values. It is not enough for the animals to eat grass. They need to eat grasses of high level of nutrients. This is the crux of the matter.

    Animal rearing in Nigeria is far behind the age we live in, and the system warrants an urgent change. If livestock production is to be truly treated as a business, then sound science must be the bedrock, with improvement of the quality of the existing varieties of grass and of the growing conditions. Those will entail the introduction of better varieties and a deliberate enrichment of the soil so the grasses would meet the nutritional needs of the animals for optimum growth and performance. They make production more profitable, increasing the quantity of meat and milk available to the growing populace.

    On the social media, everyone appears to be an expert on all subjects. Serious issues are trivialised, and trivial issues inordinately exalted. Even the least informed commentator proffers solutions to problems on the cyberspace having no bearing with reality. Here, however, is one sensible response among a flurry of criticisms and comments from Vanguard newspaper social media site, in response to the write-up that asked that “must we import grass?” The writer noted that: “As an agronomist and soil science expert there is nothing bad in importing grass if they can be cross bred with local breeds to produce better cultivars for local use. What matters is the cost- benefit to the value chain in livestock production.”

    Nigeria has an estimated 15 million cattle, 34 million goats and 22 million sheep that need to be fed daily. Compare these statistics with Nigeria’s population of about 170 million and think of how many cows, sheep or goat per person. Think of the slow growth and retarded development of the indigenous breeds fed on poor quality grass. Considering the short duration of rainy season in most parts of the savannah regions of middle belt and north of Nigeria where animal rearing is done mostly the traditional way, Nigeria has been glossing over some threats and opportunities. One of the threats to the existing system is that of climate. Uncontrolled grazing by animals is capable of exposing fragile land to erosion and land degradation. This is in addition to the well-known crisis and conflicts that have become associated with incursions of roaming animals into crop farms, leading to human fatalities. If there were enough grasses on the vast landscape these conflicts would have been non-existent.

    The opportunities being ignored in settled animal husbandry are enormous, assuming the statistics are right. Taking a median price of N40,000 per cow alone, we have an industry of N600 billion that does not show under Nigeria’s economic radar. This estimate ignores goats and sheep. The operators are unknown to government of any state in particular because they are constantly on the move. The government does not earn appreciable revenue from their activities, except those that pass through control posts, en-route to terminal markets. To borrow from Peter Drucker’s dictum, an industry that cannot be measured cannot be controlled. It is time we controlled the cattle, sheep and goat industry, and one way to start is to provide them guaranteed supply of feeds.

    We need to have a reliable record of how many animals there are, their population growth rate, their productivity, birth rate, death rate (by slaughter, disease, or any other cause) and their economic value. We need to know the quantum of meat and milk they produce, where and when. These animals therefore need to be kept in fixed and definite locations where they will have access to grass, water, veterinary services and ready markets. Part of the problems of unregulated livestock industry is in their markets, animal slaughter and meat sales. Two cross sectional studies illustrate the losses to the industry through the slaughter of pregnant animals.

    A study conducted in Makurdi Abattoir, Benue State, showed a total of 45, 742 were slaughtered in the abattoir, with a total of 1,508 (3.9 per cent) foetuses recovered from 1997 to 2002. A much more recent study (2015) elsewhere confirms the continued practice of slaughtering pregnant animals, leading to foetal losses. A 2015 international journal publication published a report on foetometrics and economic impact analysis of reproductive wastages in ruminant species slaughtered in Maiduguri, in a study carried out between March and April, 2012 in Maiduguri.

    The rate of pregnancy wastage was 15 per cent among the cows and 21 per cent among the does (female goats). The economic cost of the total foetal wastages in the (cows and does) in the Maiduguri study was estimated at US$ 559,440 annually. If this figure applies to all other state capitals, including FCT (ignoring all other major towns nationwide), we could imagine an annual loss of $20.7 million annually, translating to N7.25 billion annually at a conservative exchange rate of N350 to the dollar. This indiscriminate slaughter of pregnant livestock has been observed in Nigeria as widely associated with farmers financial needs and/or incompetence in determining pregnant animals or that pregnancy diagnoses are not routinely carried out in the slaughterhouses, particularly since animals are mostly brought or bought for slaughter from roaming herds.

    Development of modern cattle, sheep and goat value chains is therefore long overdue. To get the downstream aspects of the value chains right, we will have to start with the upstream. We need to stop animals from roaming. We need therefore to produce adequate supply of feeding stuff that will last them through the year, particularly through the period of drought or dry season. We therefore need to create business models around this thinking that will create investment opportunities for all involved. Grass can therefore be grown commercially, but this has to be improved species, varieties and cultivars. Cattle, sheep and goats (generally referred to as ruminants) naturally eat grass. But grasses vary in type, nutrient content, palatability, digestibility and appeal.

    Grass, by definition, is vegetation consisting of typically short plants with long, narrow leaves, growing wild or cultivated on lawns and pasture, and as a fodder crop. Grasses are commonly planted in pastures and almost always play a fundamental role in the diet of grass-fed cows. However, many non-grass plants are also found in pastures, including legumes. Depending on the season and region of the country, 100 per cent grass-fed cows may have eaten a mixed variety of the plants. For cows, a natural diet consists of plants that can be “grazed” or “browsed.” Grazing generally refers to the eating of grasses, and browsing usually refers to the eating of leaves, twigs, or bark from bushes or trees. Cows both graze and browse, but they are definitely more “grazers” than “browsers” and their complicated four-part stomach helps them to slowly digest relatively large amounts of grasses.

    To unlock our livestock potential, we must change our thinking and the way things have been traditionally done. We must embrace new ideas. We must be receptive to positive innovations. We must encourage disruptive thinking, particularly in ways that bring improvement. We must tap into the business opportunities in the latent wealth inherent in the livestock value chains, producing grass commercially for herds in paddocks or in feedlot. We must get interested and read more about livestock feeding and take advantage of the opportunities in it.

    Nigerian cattle produce sub-optimal beef and milk in qualitative and quantitative terms. These, however, are not the peaks attainable, but can be improved upon with better, more organised feeding and general husbandry practices. Research studies show clear nutritional advantages from beef, milk, and milk-derived foods (such as cheese and yogurt) obtained from 100 per cent grass-fed cows. These advantages typically include better fat quality (often involving more omega-3 fats, better ratios of omega-6 to omega-3 fats, increased amounts of conjugated linoleic acid, and higher quality saturated fat); increased amounts of certain vitamins (for example, vitamin E, or vitamin A in the form of beta-carotene); and increased amounts of other nutrients.

    The economics of nomadic animal production have been poorly documented. These are both causes and consequences of poor organisation of the sub-sector. The current status of dairy production in Nigeria shows that 85 per cent of cattle in Nigeria are managed by 12 million indigenous pastoralists who are essentially constantly on the move. The volume of milk produced by a cow in a single year averages just about 200kg in most areas. Compare this with the European cows producing an average of 6,500 kg per cow. Yet, milk production is not growing fast enough to satisfy Nigeria’s expanding milk appetite. Even the milk yield of traditional breeds of cows in Nigeria can be improved with better feeding. To meet the needs of Nigeria, with a population of over 170 million and an annual milk demand of roughly 1.5 billion litres, but less than five per cent of its milk produced locally, requires a new approach.

    Nigeria spends more than $200 million on milk imports from abroad every year. This makes no sense. Yet, the social media critics don’t condemn this. Importation may bridge supply gap in the short term, but it is not sustainable in the long run. We need to develop appropriate husbandry and feeding methods that will boost our dairy production and supply chain, create business opportunities and reduce our dependence on importation. It is estimated that annual domestic and imported slaughtering is around 7.5 million cattle. Because the animals are not reared in an organised manner, the downstream sector remains poorly accounted for. But when animals are kept and fed in paddocks, their statistics become easier to monitor and manage and the value chains can be better organised.

    Improved livestock production is one of the preferred agricultural enterprises into which we could expand, especially as we adopt new ideas and innovative practices. Knowledge of the agronomy of grasses and their feeding value is very important in the new context of animal production as a business. Most, practically all the cultivars in widespread use are old, at least half a century since their introduction and there is a lack of new cultivars. We need new cultivars of other grasses to widen the genetic base of fodders for commercial livestock farm use.

    Open range livestock feeding systems typically comprise rain-fed annual pastures. The grasses don’t supply adequate nutrients needed for optimum production. The same goes with the impact of consumption of wild, natural grasses, which our nomadic cattle are presently exposed to. There is therefore a need for a paradigm shift towards conscious efforts at cultivating grasses while embarking on measurable performance indices. These affect the animals in a number of ways.

    The Nigerian soil map will be a good guide for agriculturists in Nigeria henceforth. The minister is emphasising the use of the information contained in the soil map for taking agronomic decisions. The fact that soil properties vary from place to place is a reason to note that grasses that grow on their own might not have much nutrient quantity for animals’ optimum growth and performance. This is one major error in the years of emphasis on grazing routes all across Nigeria. In the past, grasslands used to be enriched with addition of Nitrogen in countries doing commercial cattle business. But it was found out that this could significantly alter the soil pH and other properties.

    Well-developed pasture can be a major source of feed for goats, sheep and cattle. Energy and protein supplies are the most essential components in animal nutrition and, in many tropical countries, these components are often the critical limiting factors to animal production. Part of the measures to improve the performance of our livestock will require cultivating the species of grass yielding an average of 30 tons of Dry Matter per hectare per year. Such grasses, in addition to providing feeds for animals, can also help in the prevention of soil erosion since they provide rapid ground cover.

    Most of the tropical pastures have crude protein contents ranging from seven to 12 per cent for grasses and more for legumes like Leucaena, which has 25 per cent protein content. But Leucaena has its own demerits in the anti-nutritional factors of tannin. The discovery of grasses that possess as much as 28 per cent crude protein marks the beginning of a breakthrough for grass utilisation for great performance and productivity. These varieties of grasses can be produced commercially and sold to herdsmen year-in, year-out. They can be made into hays during the rainy season and sold during the dry season to keep feed supply constant all-year-round.

    The business of grass cultivation requires agronomic practices applicable to cultivation of rice, sorghum, maize and wheat, all of which are classified as grasses by any other name. The nutritive values of the grasses to be cultivated can be improved with fertiliser, the blend and specification of which will vary depending on the attributes of the soil in particular locations. To this end, the new initiative of adapting blends of fertiliser to suit the specific attributes of soil in specific locations will be applicable. The Nigerian soil map will be of tremendous use in this initiative and investors in grass cultivation will find the soil map pretty useful as a guide.

    Importation of grass for developing Nigeria’s pasture for commercial purpose is not intended to be in perpetuity, or business as usual, but as a short-term intervention. The quantum of grass seeds to be imported to commence the pasture improvement programme and establish Nigeria’s commercial fields is nothing to warrant worries about impacts on foreign exchange. As the seeds germinate and some localised fields are established, multiplication of grass becomes easier locally. Better qualities of grasses will help stop nomadism and the attendant conflicts. Great opportunities exist in this new outlook of agribusiness as roaming becomes outlawed and cattle herdsmen keep their animals in confined environments where they will require supplies of grasses and other forms of animal feeds.

    Brazil shares common geo-climatic attributes with Nigeria, with the Brazilian cerrados similar to Nigeria’s savannah. Grasses that have done well in Brazil are expected to do equally well in Nigeria. Like Brazil, Nigeria can become a notable exporter of beef and producer of high volume of milk through the adoption of the commercial grass production, using improved varieties. These are grasses that have been subjected to upwards of 18 years of research on nutritional qualities. Rather than trying to re-invent, the wheel or beginning a new set of research on grass nutrition, Nigeria can embark on the short-cut, importing the varieties and cultivars of grasses that have helped Brazil rise to becoming a major beef exporter, multiplying them locally and using them to feed the same breeds of cows found in Nigeria.

    Dr. Olukayode Oyeleye is a veterinary doctor,, a veteran agricultural journalist and Media Adviser to the Minister of Agriculture


    Comments expressed here do not reflect the opinions of vanguard newspapers or any employee thereof.