Tag Archives: forages

Brachiaria grass, a climate-smart ‘wonder grass’ for livestock farmers

In this interview, Mwihaki Mundia, BecA-ILRI Hub’s Communications Officer, sits down with Sita Ghimire, who heads the Brachiaria research and development program at the Biosciences eastern and central Africa – International Livestock Research Institute (BecA-ILRI) Hub, to talk about the origins of this important grass and how it contributes to more milk and meat production in livestock.

Mundia: Maybe you could start by sharing a brief history of Brachiaria grass?

Sita: Brachiaria grass is a tropical forage that is native to Africa. It was introduced to America and Australia in the 1800’s. Through Australia, many species were later introduced to Asia and the south Pacific region. The use of Brachiaria for commercial pasture production only began in Africa at the start of the twenty-first century.

M: How many Brachiaria species currently exist in Africa?

S: There are seven species of African origin, namely, B. arrecta, B. brizantha, B. dictyoneura, B. decumbens, B. humidicola, B. mutica and B. ruziziensis. These are all used as fodder for livestock.

Sita Ghimire, in the Brachiaria grass field at Kapiti reasearch station in Machakos county, Kenya

M: Why did BecA-ILRI Hub choose to work with Brachiaria grass as a means of improving livestock productivity in sub-Saharan Africa (SSA)?

S: Low livestock productivity has plagued sub-Saharan Africa for a long time, creating amongst other things, a severe food shortage for one of the fastest growing human populations in the world. Some of the major factors that contribute to these are feeds shortage and low-quality feeds. Brachiaria provides a solution because it produces a large amount of high-quality biomass that improves the availability of quality feed, its high nutrient value increases livestock productivity of meat and milk and reduces the overall carbon footprint of the livestock production system. Brachiaria additionally tolerates extreme climatic conditions and grows well in low fertile soils. It makes for a great substitute to other forage grasses such as Napier grass which is widely cultivated in sub-Saharan Africa.

M: Would you recommend Brachiaria grass over other forage crops e.g., Napier grass that has been a popular forage for a long time in East Africa?

S: Though Napier grass is very popular in East Africa, its productivity has been on the decline over the years due to smut and stunt disease attacks. The introduction of Brachiaria grass has provided an additional forage option to farmers and helped to bridge the livestock feed supply gaps especially during the dry seasons. Brachiaria grass is one of the top-ranked tropical forages for nutritive value, livestock productivity and climate change adaptation. It is suitable for both grazing and cut and carry systems.

M: What are the main activities that the Climate-smart Brachiaria program at BecA-ILRI Hub carries out?

S: The program provides technical support to National African Research Systems (NARS), non-governmental organizations, and the private sector on Brachiaria grass production and forage biosciences; carries research on Brachiaria grass diseases management; develops Brachiaria-legume cropping system for soil fertility management; identifies Brachiaria seed production niches in Africa; and discovers and uses plant beneficial microbes to enhance resilience and productivity of Brachiaria grass in sub-Sharan Africa.

Sita and an ILRI casual staff measure the length of a fully matured Brachiaria cultivar at the Kapiti research station

M: Most livestock farmers in SSA are small-scale producers who do not have much land to grow their food let alone grow fodder, how do you encourage them to adopt Brachiaria grass?

S: The transformation of the livestock sector in Africa depends on intensification of livestock production systems. Improved forages like Brachiaria grass are a great resource that play a major role as a source of high-quality feed at a low cost. Planting Brachiaria grass in farmlands improves feed availability, enhances livestock productivity, and generates income for livestock farmers. It also protects soil from erosion and sustains soil fertility. Due to these benefits many livestock farmers especially those with smaller land sizes are dedicating more land under Brachiaria grass, with some farming it in place of staple food crops.

M: How many varieties/cultivars of Brachiaria are available to farmers in Kenya and how many other countries in SSA have benefitted from the Climate-smart Brachiaria program?

S:  Basilisk, MG-4, Piata and Xaraes are the Brachiaria varieties that are being promoted by ILRI and Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organization (KALRO) in Kenya. These cultivars are currently undergoing the registration process in Kenya. The seeds of these cultivars are available in limited quantities in Kenya through KALRO. Hybrid seed cultivars like Mulato II, Cayman and Cobra are also being sold in Kenya.  So far, about 40,000 farming households in 18 countries in SSA are beneficiaries of the Climate-smart Brachiaria program.

Cattle feed on Brachiaria grass at the ILRI farm on the Nairobi campus. The grass has proven to improve milk and meat production in livestock

M: How else can farmers use this “wonder grass?”

S: Brachiaria grass can be used as a bioenergy crop to produce biofuel.

It can also be used in crop protection, soil conservation and has great environmental qualities.

Farmers can use Brachiaria to generate income by producing and selling hay. Additionally, the production of rooted tillers as a means of planting materials has recently emerged as a new avenue for agro-business for youth and women in the SSA region.

M: How long does it take for Brachiaria grass to grow to its full height and nutrient potential after planting?

S: The height and time it takes for Brachiaria to attain it is influenced by various factors such as the variety, altitude, soil fertility and other agro-climatic conditions. At the ILRI Nairobi campus, the grass grows to a full height of 1.8 metres. Most varieties take about four to five months to attain their full height.  The nutritive value of forage declines as it matures, it is therefore important to identify the right harvesting time with the perfect balance of biomass and nutritive value.  For good quality hay, Brachiaria should be harvested prior to flowering.

M: What are some of the challenges that farmers might expect to face while growing Brachiaria grass?

S: The major challenges could be pests and diseases and a decline in soil fertility if manure and fertilizers are not applied on a regular basis.    

Ko Awono promises to improve Brachiaria grass production and marketing to secure farmers’ livelihoods in Cameroon

Cameroon, like other African countries, relies on agriculture as a main economic activity with livestock employing at least 30% of the country’s rural population. The livestock sector in Cameroon is crucial to its economic growth, food and nutrition security, and job creation. Forages of African origin, such as Brachiaria have been instrumental in the transformation of the livestock sector in many parts of the world including tropical America, Australia and East Asia. But the potential of native forages to alleviate livestock feed shortage in Africa has been little explored.

In 2012, the Biosciences eastern and central Africa-International Livestock Research Institute (BecA-ILRI) Hub started the ‘Climate-smart Brachiaria Program’ in partnership with the National Agricultural Research Systems (NARS) and development partners in sub-Saharan Africa. This program aims to increase livestock productivity in the region by providing high-quality and climate-resilient Brachiaria grass.

Paul Ko Awono, an Africa Biosciences Challenge Fund (ABCF) fellow at BecA-ILRI Hub from the Institute of Agricultural Research for Development (IRAD) in Cameroon, is researching how to improve Brachiaria seed production technology in Africa. His study, which is supervised by Sita Ghimire and Kingsley Etchu from BecA-ILRI Hub and IRAD, involves collecting information about Brachiaria seed production systems in the North and Adamawa regions of Cameroon, evaluating agronomic performances of Brachiaria landraces and improved cultivars, and examining the quality of Brachiaria seeds produced by farmers in the country. In Cameroon, Brachiaria seed is often traded as a cash crop and is a source of income for many farmers.

So far, Ko Awono’s research has revealed that the size of the farmlands dedicated to Brachiaria production are smaller (0.25 to 0.5 ha) in the North region compared to those in the Adamawa region (1 to 15 ha). His research also shows that Brachiaria seed yield is low in both regions (≤ 300 kg/ha). Major constraints on Brachiaria production in both regions include weed infestation, wandering animals and lack of market for Brachiaria seeds. Additionally, he has found that Brachiaria landraces mature earlier and are better adapted to harsh environmental conditions than improved cultivars. His research has also uncovered that Brachiaria seeds samples produced by farmers in the two regions are of variable qualities (poor to excellent) and some seeds samples are superior for germination than the improved cultivars.

Paul (middle) with his supervisors at Brachiaria experimental plots at Garoua, North Cameroon

Paul’s research revealed that the size of the farmlands dedicated to Brachiaria production by a farmer were smaller (0.25 to 0.5 ha) in the North region as compared to Adamawa region (1 to 15 ha). His research also indicated that Brachiaria seed yield was low in both regions (≤ 300 kg/ha) and the major constraints of Brachiaria production in both regions were weed infestation, wandering animals, and lack of market for Brachiaria seeds. Additionally, Brachiaria landraces were earlier in maturity and were better adapted to harsh environmental conditions than improved cultivars. His research also uncovered that Brachiaria seeds samples produced by farmers in North and Adamawa region were of variable qualities (poor to excellent) and some seeds samples were superior for germination than improved seeds.  

Ko Awono recognizes the role of the ABCF fellowship, which he received in 2019, has played in his work as a forage researcher. ‘It gave me several opportunities: I learnt how to write research proposals, set up agronomic trials, and collect, analyse, and interpret data.’ He also learned several techniques related to seed quality determination in the laboratory and greenhouse settings.  ‘The training and mentorship I received at BecA-ILRI Hub has played a key role in my work. It helped me to improve my scientific skills, which has made me a better researcher. ‘I am using the skills and knowledge I gained to help Cameroonian farmers increase the quality and quantity of Brachiaria seeds, which will improve their livestock production, incomes and livelihoods,’ he concludes.

Kenyan farmers reap rewards of the amazing Brachiaria grasses

K24 Journalist Violet Otindo highlights the changing fortunes of dairy farmers using Brachiaria grasses to feed their animals in Kenya.

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Preliminary data from dairy farmers participating in on-farm evaluations of Brachiaria grasses in Kenya shows that the nutritious grasses contribute to increased milk production.

The on-going research program on Climate-smart Brachiaria Grasses to Increase  Livestock Production in East Africa conducted by the BecA-ILRI Hub in collaboration with the Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Institute (KALRO); Rwanda Agriculture Board (RAB) ; International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT), Colombia; and Grasslanz Technology Limited, New Zealand has engaged smallholder farmers in cultivating the grasses as major livestock feed sources and as a source of household cash income through the seed production.

The Swedish funded program has been successful in, together with farmers, identifying best bet varieties for different agro-ecological regions and creating awareness among the farmers, researchers, extension agents, policy makers and politicians on the significance of Brachiaria grasses to support a growing dairy industry. Through the project, farmers have discovered that the Brachiaria grasses not only preferred by animals but  also grow better than most forage in marginal soils of semi-arid and sub-humid environments that are common in most of Sub-Saharan Africa.

In this four minute video, K24 journalist Violet Otindo talks to Albanus Nduva from Kanzalu village of Machakos County in eastern Kenya, one of the 1200 farmers in Kenya who have been involved in participatory on-farm evaluations of Brachiaria grasses as pasture and recording the milk production data Otindo also gets insights from BecA-ILRI Hub scientist Sita Ghimire who leads the program and Donald Njarui from KALRO, Kenya as to why Brachiaria grasses are good for the environment.

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Read related stories:

Welcome home Brachiaria! Home coming of Africa’s “super” grass

“The hitherto overlooked Brachiaria grasses have returned home to Africa and have been warmly embraced by smallholder dairy farmers in eastern Africa.”

Presenting a paper co-authored by nine scientists from seven institutions including the BecA-ILRI Hub, Dr Brigitte Maas from International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) gave an overview of the research, successes and challenges of adopting improved Brachiaria hybrids Mulato and Mulato II in the African context during the 6th All Africa Conference of Animal Agriculture in Nairobi on 27 October 2014.

Brachiaria grasses have higher nutrient content than most commonly used forages. They are adapted to drought and low fertility acidic soils. These grasses are good for the environment as they enhance nitrogen use efficiency, sequester carbon, and reduce greenhouse gas emission and ground water pollutions. These attributes make Brachiaria one of the most widely cultivated forages in South and Central America, and Australia where they have been shown to increase milk and meat yields in cattle.

Farmers participatory selection of brachiaria grasses

Farmers select their preferred variety of Brachiaria grasses at the KALRO-Katumani experimental plot in eastern Kenya. (photo credit: ILRI/Samuel Mungai)

Re-introducing Brachiaria grasses to their native home
Despite the fact that they are native to Africa and that they occur plentifully across many regions of sub Saharan Africa, these grasses are yet to be explored and fully utilized as forage on the continent. However, thanks to the implementation of a Swedish funded research program “Climate-smart Brachiaria grasses for improved livestock production in East Africa” which is led by BecA-ILRI Hub in partnership with CIAT; Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organization (KALRO); Rwanda Agriculture Board (RAB); and Glasslanz, the anonymity of these “wonder grasses” is coming to an end. The heightened publicity of the importance of Brachiaria grasses and as a strategy to mitigate the effects of climate change has resulted in substantial interest in these grasses among farmers, researchers and policy makers across the continent.

While improved varieties developed in Latin America are being tested in Africa, challenges from pests and diseases have been observed on these imported varieties. The grassed developed in South American conditions have already been observed to be vulnerable to spider mites; sorghum shoot fly, and a number of fungal diseases that are currently in the process of identification. This has necessitated a deeper investigation into locally available diverse genetic resource in Africa to identify the pest and disease resistant varieties.

Finding the best local varieties for the African context

Dr Sita Ghimire, lead scientist in the BecA-led project on Brachiaria, examines one of the varieties under testing at the KALRO-Katumani experimental field. (photo credit: ILRI/Samuel Mungai)

Dr Sita Ghimire, lead scientist in the BecA-led project on Brachiaria, examines one of the varieties under testing at the KALRO-Katumani experimental field. (photo credit: ILRI/Samuel Mungai)

Since Africa hosts a high genetic diversity of Brachiaria, the way forward would be the utilization of this untapped genetic resource to breed varieties that are suitable to the African context. The BecA-ILRI Hub-led project is exploring local ecotypes and gene bank accessions of African origin for drought tolerance, pests and disease resistance and biomass yields. This program consists of four main components – evaluating Brachiaria genotypes for drought tolerance and adaptation to marginal soils; evaluating varieties for biomass production, animal nutrition (including feeding experiments) and seed production; identification and use of phytobiomes for potential agricultural applications as bio-fertilizers, bio-pesticides and bio-yield enhancement agents; and the building the capacity of African scientists to conduct research on Brachiaria grasses.

This collaborative research effort is giving renewed hope to millions of smallholder livestock farmers across eastern Africa who operate smallholder crop-livestock mixed farms on less than 10 ha and are at pains to increase their production in a set up where natural grazing is limited or no longer available

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Read related story: Climate-smart Brachiaria Grasses: livestock feed, household cash
View a poster on the project here:  Climate-smart Brachiaria Grasses for improved livestock production in East Africa

 

Climate-smart Brachiaria Grasses: livestock feed, household cash

A Swedish funded research program led by the BecA-ILRI Hub is improving the adaptation of Brachiaria grasses, an indigenous East African forage crop, to drought and creating forage seed production enterprises to benefit resource poor smallholder farmers in the region.

During the 22nd International Grasslands Congress held in Sydney, Australia from 15-19 September 2013, Sita Ghimire, a plant pathologist and senior scientist with the “Climate-smart Brachiaria grasses for improving livestock production in East Africa” program presented a poster about the possibilities that these highly nutritious grasses present.

By using the genetic diversity of Brachiaria grasses and endophytes found within the host (beneficial microorganisms growing within the plants) the research aims to enhance the drought resilience of the grasses; reduce the conversion of soil nitrogen to greenhouse gas, nitrous oxide; and possibly develop microbe based pesticides and fertilizers with wider applications.

See more about the project here: Climate-smart Brachiaria grasses research

View the poster here:  Climate-smart Brachiaria Grasses for improved livestock production in East Africa

Read about what drew Sita out of USA and into Africa to work on this project: Coming to Africa

Coming to Africa: Q&A with Dr Ghimire

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Dr. Sita Ghimire joined the BecA-ILRI Hub in June 2013 as senior scientist for the Swedish funded “Climate-smart Brachiaria grasses for improving livestock production in East Africa” program. Prior to joining the Hub, Sita was a research microbiologist at the Research Triangle Institute (RTI) International in North Carolina, USA.

Find out more about his passion for his work and what drew him out of USA and into Africa in this article.

Q Dr Ghimire, in your online profile, you talk about growing up in a farming family in Nepal. Did your early family life have anything to do with your choice of career?

A When I was growing up, almost 95% of the population in Nepal depended on agriculture for their livelihoods. As a farming community, we all looked up to government employed agricultural officials to solve all our farming problems. They were very highly regarded in the community and it was every child’s dream to graduate from high school, be trained in an agriculture college and become an agricultural official. That was my ultimate dream too. However after joining the agriculture school, my eyes were opened up to so many other possibilities beyond being a local extension official.

Q Can you tell us a bit about your journey from extension official to crop research scientist?

A After my undergraduate studies, I worked in remote villages where people’s livelihoods were based on potatoes. My role there was to support a community based potato bacterial wilt management program funded by the User’s Perspective with Agricultural Research & Development Program, a sister organization of International Potato Center (CIP). The area had a severe bacteria wilt problem and the idea of the program was to alleviate potato losses through the implementation of an integrated disease management approach that included a three year crop rotation with non-Solanaceous crops. The plant pests and diseases problems faced by these farming communities persuaded me to specialize in plant pathology for my Masters’ degree, and later conduct research on potato late blight pathogen as part of my PhD studies.

Q How did you end up in the USA?

A During a period of civil unrest in Nepal (1996-2006), government funding on agricultural research and development was severely affected. Law and order in the country was also deteriorating and as a result many people from Nepal moved to other parts of the world. I moved to USA in 2003, taking up a Post-Doctoral position with the Mississippi State University.

Q Your stay in the US ended up being more than 10 years – what made you choose to come to Africa?

A My greatest desire at the time I responded to the job advertisement was to move from working in a commercial environment, to doing research that I was sure will have an impact for millions of small holder subsistence farmers of sub-Saharan Africa. I was sure I would get more satisfaction from the kind of impact I could have in such a position. Something else that touched me was the fact that Appolinaire, the Director of the BecA-ILRI Hub left his job as an assistant professor in a very prestigious institution in the US to come and work here. I thought – if he could, why couldn’t I?

Q What excites you most about this research program?

A There are so many things that make my work exciting! Over the past several decades, extensive research has been carried out on endophytes (beneficial microorganisms growing within the plants) of cool season grasses, the grasses mostly grown in temperate parts of the world. However, the endophytes of warm season grasses, grasses commonly found in the tropics including Brachiaria are very little researched. This program provides the unique opportunity of studying Brachiaria grasses and their associated microbes in their center of origin – East Africa.

In addition, through this program I see a big opportunity to take the ground-breaking research of Dr Segenet Kelemu (former BecA-ILRI Hub director) and her colleagues to the next level and make it benefit farmers – there is a possibility of developing microbe based pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers with wider applications.

Lastly, since the BecA-ILRI Hub has such a broad mandate to work in eastern and central Africa and even beyond, I look forward to the prospects of developing the Hub into the leading endophyte research center in Africa. I am very hopeful about the future.