LIVESTOCK in Nigeria plays a big role in the livelihood of farmers and nutritional needs of the country. Livestock also contributes to farming in many other ways. Animals are used as draught power to pull plows or help weed farmland, and cow dung is an excellent fertilizer.
With so much at stake, farmers could benefit from simple, yet highly efficient ways to increase the health and productivity of their livestock. These factors are often compromised when animals roam free in open pasture, exposed to disease vectors and left to feed on unwholesome grasses and plants.
One technique that can be very effective in maintaining healthy productive animals is a zero-grazing system.
In zero-grazing, livestock is kept in stalls all the time, and feed and water are brought to the animals. Zero-grazing keeps animals healthier. It can ward off diseases such as sleeping sickness caused by tse-tse flies and tick borne diseases, which are so prevalent throughout Nigeria . Zero-grazing also helps farmers increase productivity either from their current livestock or from the purchase of higher-yielding breeds of livestock which would not be able to thrive in an open pasture.
Zero-grazing has side benefits as well. The increased efficiency of this management practice means more weight or milk can be produced per unit of feed eaten. Zero-grazing uses less land to produce more nutritious fodder plants, which allows the farmer to maximize the use of available land. Processes such as milking are easier to perform when the animals are kept corralled and calm. Manure can be collected from the enclosure and used as fertilizer for growing crops. Diseases are minimized because troublesome insects, such as biting and nuisance flies, are easier to control.
Zero-grazing is capital intensive but the benefits are enormous, and can far outweigh the cost of implementing the system. A study by the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute showed that the rate of return on a dollar invested ranged from USD2.60 to USD3.00. Farmers achieved an average gross margin of USD248 and a net profit of USD125 per cow per year. At this rate of return, capital investment was recouped within two years.
In another study of smallholder dairy farming in Uganda by the International Livestock Research Institute, five dairy production systems were compared, from most intensive (zero-grazing) to least intensive (herding). The study found that increasing the level of intensification resulted in a significant increase in milk productivity and percentage of milk sold.
A successful zero-grazing system involves four major components:
Housing (the zero-grazing unit). Building materials for the shed include wood, cement, sand, gravel, posts, and roofing material. Individual pens should be large enough to allow for adequate free movement and the opportunity for animals to exhibit normal behaviour patterns. (A recommended pen size for a cow is 120 cm wide x 210 cm long or 4 feet x 7 feet.) The floor should be made of slatted wood or bamboo floor raised about one metre above the ground to allow slurry to collect underneath and be directed to a slurry pit through a drainage channel.
Maintenance: Animals in sheds must be kept clean (which is greatly assisted by placing them on slatted floors), fed and watered. Livestock should have access to fresh air and natural daylight and the shed should be located near a clean water source.
Feed: A choice needs to be made between the production of fodder or the use of commercial feeds. Using preserved fodder and hay to feed herds reduces the variability in the supply of pasture and fresh feed in dry periods. If the farmer wants to grow his own fodder, he must have ample field to do so.
Breeding: A livestock breeding expert should be consulted when cross-breeding local stock with imported breeds to obtain cattle that produce more milk or meat and are resistant to local disease such as sleeping sickness.
Since zero-grazing is an intensive management system, it does require a farmer to have a reliable source of food for livestock and sufficient labor to cut and carry the field-grown fodder. But farmers can adapt the system to their individual needs and environment. They can also seek the help of agricultural specialists who can educate them on the benefits of a zero-grazing system and help them design one that meets their financial and operational capabilities.
The future of agriculture – as well as a well-fed nation — lies in the hands of farmers who are faced with many challenges. Confining animals will help farmers increase productivity by improving the animals’ nutritional status, maintaining calming conditions, and preventing the spread of diseases.
Zero-grazing is an example of a simple but highly effective initiative that can go a long way towards easing the farmer’s burdens, by helping him produce more food for himself and others.
Dr NELSON MANGO is a rural development Sociologist with Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR).