More than a billion smallholders depend on their livestock, and their livestock depend on a year-round supply of food. That’s why 33% of all cropland is used to grow forage for animals.
Livestock and the people who raise them are often counted among the usual suspects in deforestation and climate change. But not all forage plants are equal, and the right ones can make animal-based systems an efficient, carbon-sinking, soil-protecting use of marginal land.
Forages are not a single crop; they are thousands of species of grasses, legumes and trees, which are planted in fields and pastures, grown along farm boundaries and intercropped with food crops. When not grazed directly by animals, farmers harvest them to feed to penned livestock or sell at market.
However, nutritionally poor and inconsistent feed continues to be a major constraint for livestock. Three Crop Trust partners are working to make livestock systems more productive and sustainable by conserving and using the enormous diversity that exists in forage plants.
The International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) maintains a global forage genebank for the highland tropics, with more than 19,000 accessions of a thousand species, and makes productive and disease-resistant forages available directly to smallholders.
The collection at the ILRI campus in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia is different from most genebanks: it often offers seed directly to farmers. The genebank staff have identified 48 “best-bet” species of legumes, grasses and trees that they have multiplied in large quantities and sell at cost through a special Herbage Seed Unit. The customers are not just Ethiopian farmers, but also NGOs, government offices, educational institutes and seed producers.
In recent years, the genebank’s collection of Napier grass (Pennisetum purpureum) played a role in saving the dairy industry in Kenya. An African grassland species, Napier grass grows well on marginal land and is favored by the smallholder dairy farmers who produce most of Kenya’s milk. In the 1990s, however, the fungal disease head smut began to damage this grass and the industry it feeds.
ILRI’s genebank supplied Napier grass germplasm to the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (KARI), which then identified, field-tested and released two smut-resistant varieties. Starting in 2005, thousands of cuttings were distributed, and by 2007 the varieties were already being grown by 13% of dairy farmers in high disease areas.
KARI is currently screening more accessions from ILRI for further sources of smut resistance to bring a broader base of diversity to this protection. ILRI has meanwhile sent the resistant lines to the Brazilian Enterprise for Agricultural Research (EMBRAPA), which runs a Napier grass breeding program, to cross these with its own higher yielding and more nutritious varieties.
The tropical lowland forage collection at the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) is driving efforts to help livestock systems adapt to, and not contribute to, climate change. Researchers are finding that some well managed forages can actually sequester as much CO2 as native forest – or even more.
One of these is Brachiaria grass, cultivated in Latin America and Asia. As animals graze on Brachiaria, carbon is returned to the soil through deep roots and manure. CIAT has found that in areas of high rainfall, the best lines of Brachiaria can sequester even more carbon than an equal area of forest. Some species also produce a unique chemical that halts the microbial process of nitrification, suppressing the release of the potent greenhouse gas nitrous oxide and keeping nitrogen in the soil.
Another species with climate-friendly properties is the Greater bird’s-foot trefoil (Lotus uliginosus). This perennial legume reduces the formation of methane, another greenhouse gas, in the digestive tract of cattle. The protein in its leaves is easily absorbed by cows, allowing them to produce greater quantities of more nutritious milk. Like ILRI, the CIAT genebank also offers this and other forages directly to farmers, who receive more than 9% of its distributions each year.
CIAT scientists have further combed their collection for forages resistant to drought and flooding, preparing farmers and their livestock for future weather extremes. They have found much interesting material among accessions collected in the 1970s and 1980s when the genebank in Cali, Colombia was first being filled. At that time, these were not seen as particularly important, but like any good conservation program, the genebank saved them for a rainy day. Today, their resilience in unpredictable conditions is exactly what many farmers need.
The International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA) conserves forage diversity for the drylands and brings specially adapted plants to more arid regions, from traditional legumes and grasses to spineless cactus.
Livestock, particularly small ruminants like goats and sheep, are central to dryland food production systems around the world. In the past, most were able to graze on open rangelands, but growing populations and overgrazing have changed this. Today rangelands provide less than one-fourth of the feed needed by small ruminants.
ICARDA has worked to introduce – or sometimes re-introduce – forage crops from its collection to make up this shortfall and take pressure off fragile dryland ecosystems. One unconventional solution is spineless variants of the prickly pear cactus (Opuntia ficus-indica). Researchers tested 43 spineless lines originating from Sardinia and Sicily in Tunisia, Morocco and Libya, where the best adapted are now being grown as feed by smallholder livestock owners.
In the Arabian peninsula, ICARDA is promoting native species such as buffel grass (Cenchrus ciliaris) to replace introduced species that require more water. Buffel grass is known as a destructive invader in the drylands of the Americas, but in its native desert it is a nutritious forage that grows with little water. ICARDA is setting up seed multiplication around the region to make the best lines widely available, and is seeing buffel grass reclaim forage production from water-intensive introduced grasses.