New breed of shrubs boosts milk production

A new breed of shrubs that are easy to tend, but return impressive results for livestock, including lifting the milk production of cows by up to 2 litres a day, is transforming the livelihoods of more than 200,000 dairy farmers in East Africa who have invested in the shrubs.

To invest in the fodder plants, farmers typically spend $11 in the first year raising and transplanting the seedlings, according to the International Centre for Research in Agro-Forestry (ICRAF). In subsequent years they earn on average $95-$120 from increased milk production.

ICRAF argues that the shrubs are easy to grow and, by fixing atmospheric nitrogen, also improve soil fertility. They can withstand repeated pruning, do not compete with food crops, and mature in about 12 months, after which they can be pruned and fed to livestock for up to 20 years. It takes about 500 shrubs to feed a cow for a year.

“The shrubs also provide fuelwood, stakes for supporting tomatoes, bananas and climbing beans, and their flowers provide forage to the bees for honey production. In addition, planting shrubs on field contours prevents soil erosion,” said Esther Karanja from ICRAF.

A major advantage of Calliandra, the favourite of the shrubs, and other fodder shrubs like Trichandra and Mulberry, is that farmers do not have to stop growing other crops to make room for them. The shrubs are grown in hedges around the farm perimeter or along contours to reduce soil erosion.

Researchers recommend pruning the shrubs to a height of about one meter to avoid shading nearby food crops. The leaves and pods of the Calliandra, also known as the 'milk shrub', are rich in protein offering 40-60 per cent of livestocks’ nutritional needs. Typically, by volume, they contribute 25 per cent of animals' diet, compared to elephant grass and other grasses which contribute 8 to 10 per cent.

The widespread uptake of the shrubs has demonstrated how science can turn around the fortunes of local farmers boxed in by the effects of climate change and spiraling input costs.

Napier grass is the most common dairy feed in the country, but its protein content is not high enough to sustain adequate milk yields.

High protein commercial dairy meal - containing maize and wheat bran, cotton seed cake, soybean meal and fish meal - is difficult to transport and is too expensive for most farmers with prices of one of the preferred commercial dairy feeds ranging from Sh1600 to Sh1800 for a 90kg bag that lasts a week if fed to one cow.

Mary Gikuni one of the female farmers who has cultivated the shrubs is now distributing the seeds commercially to ther farmers. She cuts from each shrub every 8-12 weeks and feeds at least six kilos of fresh foliage each day to her three cows, goats, rabbits and even chickens since she invested in the shrubs five years ago.

Mary is now earning at least Sh32,000 a year for the milk from each of her cows, compared to around Sh7,000 a cow five years ago, and additional cash from selling seeds.

“In five years the milk production has more than tripled. Now I get more 22 litres per cow daily, up from a paltry 12 litres in 2005," she said. "The customers that I sell my milk to say the milk has more protein and butter fat." Moreover, as her yield improved her spending on inputs went down by more than 75 per cent.

An occasional paper released last year titled The impact of fodder trees on milk production and income among smallholder dairy farmers in East Africa by the World Agroforestry Centre found that the overall impact of the trees in terms of additional net income from milk was $19.7m to $29.6m in Kenya over the past 15 years.