More Than Just Hay: Investing in Quality Forage to Improve Rural Livelihoods and Nutrition
Investing in quality forage benefits farmers and the communities they serve.
Over one million smallholder dairy farmers in Kenya together produce about 80 percent of the country’s marketed milk, and the majority of these farmers are women. In dairy farming, the cost of feeding a cow represents 65 to 70 percent of the total cost of raw milk production. Investing in quality forage and strengthening the full forage value chain can transform food systems and improve a farm’s productivity, income generation, resilience, and environmental sustainability.

The model established by the Nourishing Prosperity Alliance (NPA) aims to empower 8,000 women smallholder dairy farmers in Kenya and improve animal nutrition by strengthening forage markets and providing training to  smallholder farmers on forage planting, harvesting, conservation, and nutrient analysis. NPA is a partnership that brings together Corteva Agriscience, the largest U.S.-based global agricultural technology company, Land O’Lakes Venture37, an international development non-profit with extensive expertise in dairy, Forage Genetics International, one of the only companies in the world devoted solely to forage, and the International Livestock Research Institute, a global livestock institute to specifically target the forage value chain in a shared value model that is improving smallholder farmer access to forage markets.

What Do We Feed Cows, Exactly?

Dairy cows can be fed varieties of grasses, legumes, perennials, or maize/corn, turning vegetation into a healthy source of essential nutrients for humans — milk — which is key to addressing the significant challenge of child malnutrition in Sub-Saharan Africa. For a cow to get the most nutritional value out of these crops, forage should be harvested at the optimal time for maximum yield and quality, and then conserved for feeding throughout the year by drying or “ensiling,” a process that preserves forage through partial anaerobic, acid fermentation by keeping the chopped forage in tightly packed, airtight silage bags. Cows should be fed a ration of primarily forages combined with a commercially produced supplement to meet gaps in protein, fats, vitamins, and minerals to optimize milk production. Quality forage is the foundation of dairy cow nutrition; commercial feed alone will not increase milk yields. When the foundation of animal nutrition is weak, animal productivity, nutritional outputs, and farmer incomes are all negatively impacted.

Across many livestock systems, feeds comprise the majority of production costs. The economics of obtaining quality forage are extremely important for a smallholder farmer, as sufficient quality feed is also the main constraint in achieving optimum production. Moreover, a recent global study found that COVID-19 caused major disruptions in animal nutrition supply chains, whereas local commercial feed operations and forage supply chains demonstrated greater resilience in this period of shock.

Despite the essential role of animal nutrition in the dairy value chain, forage has been given little attention by stakeholders in agricultural development. There is a need to strengthen all segments of the forage value chain to improve productivity, farmer livelihoods, and resilience. The benefits of focusing on forage are particularly being felt by women, who make up the majority of smallholder dairy farmers.

A Closer Look at the Forage Challenge in Kenya

Productivity is extremely low, averaging seven to nine liters of milk per cow, per day, which is less than a third of the yield of the average dairy cow in the United States. Most commonly, a smallholder farmer may graze their cow on roadside grass varieties of low nutritional quality or grow Napier grass on their small plot of land, supplemented in dry seasons with locally purchased hay of poor quality. Ninety-three percent of smallholder farmers report seasonal fluctuation of feed availability, with forage generally unavailable or prohibitively costly in the off-season, a situation that is exacerbated by a changing climate and unpredictable droughts.

Farmers who are in a position to grow their own forage have limited access to improved forage seed varieties, harvesting machinery, adequate storage, and supplies, as well as testing facilities that would enable data-driven decision-making about when to harvest and how to feed forage to cattle. In addition, growing fodder can require a different skill set than animal husbandry, and there is a great need for technical training on best practices for establishing forage plots, harvesting, and conserving different forage varieties.

Expanding Access to Quality Forage Through the Nourishing Prosperity Alliance

The NPA model provides technical assistance to smallholder and emerging (pre-commercial and early commercial) farmers for growing, harvesting, and conserving improved forage varieties and integrating animal nutrition concepts into a balanced feeding program for their cattle. NPA has established demonstration plots of forage crops including maize varieties, lucerne, millet, and sorghum on land from smallholders, emerging farmers, and dairy cooperatives. On each plot, a local team conducts soil sampling and testing, advises on appropriate forage varieties, designs a management plan, and tests forage dry matter before harvest and conservation. By collecting data from soils, to the forage value chain, and to the final ration offered to cows, NPA is building an evidence base to present to farmers and generating proof-points for building commercial markets for improved varieties. Ultimately, farmers are encouraged to make a behavioral shift to invest in the land and labor for growing forage, and data allows farmers to make a clear assessment of the return on that investment.

On demonstration plots, nearby smallholder farmers are invited to attend field days to participate in training sessions on technical topics. Training sessions on animal nutrition concepts are led by alliance members — which include providers of forage seed, fertilizers, crop protection products, mechanization equipment and testing services — and the NPA team.

Improved Animal Nutrition Has Cascading Consequences for Smallholder Farmers and the Communities They Serve

Improving the nutrition of cattle on women-led dairy farms also has ripple effects across the dairy value chain and local communities.

Animal and Human Nutrition: Animal health and welfare is a noble goal in and of itself, and prophylactic care can prevent the need for antibiotics. Because animal nutrition is a major driver of productivity, improving access to quality forage is a key component of meeting the growing demand for dairy in Kenya. Child stunting rates are high in Kenya, ranging from approximately 25 to 40 percent across the region. Dairy products are an important source of nutrients and essential fatty acids required for healthy growth, and regular dairy consumption has shown to improve nutritional outcomes particularly in the first 1,000 days for children. Most rural families own one or two cows to feed their families, and surplus milk is sold to other members of the community when it is available. By increasing local production through use of improved forage, smallholder farmers can contribute to meeting the nutritional needs of their communities.

Sustainability: Efficiency of animal feeding also has outsized impacts on greenhouse gas emissions from livestock. An FAO lifecycle assessment of the dairy sector found that as a region, Sub-Saharan Africa has the highest emissions per kilogram of milk produced; 93 percent of emissions occur at the farm level, and digestibility of grass is the largest contributor to methane emissions from milk production. Improving the efficiency of feeding operations reduces the emissions per liter of milk produced, while improving access to nutrient-dense forages also builds resiliency of farmers adapting to a changing climate through reliable access to animal nutrition.

Prosperity: Dairy is also an essential source of year-round income for female smallholder farmers and their families who earn less than five dollars per day. Yet most have not been trained to consider these farms as a business, and have the skillsets required to make data-driven decisions about return on investment. Providing training on the benefits of quality forage and increasing reliability of access to forage helps to smooth out seasonal fluctuations in production and reduce costs per liter of milk – ultimately improving the livelihoods of smallholder farmers and contributing to dietary diversity.

When it comes down to it, quality forage is the foundation for producing quality milk. Animal nutrition is fundamentally linked to human nutrition and ultimately, rural prosperity.

View this video learn more about NPA's work:

Banner image caption: A farmer supported by the Nourishing Prosperity Alliance feeds her cow.
By Krista Maruca 09/15/2021