Animal Feeding / Feeds / Forages / LIVESTOCK-FISH / Research

Feeding hungry, growing animal populations a priority for Livestock and Fish program


Composite of parts of two paintings: Goat’s head in profile (painted and partially glazed on white plate) by Pablo Picasso, and A Fish, by Jean David (both via WikiArt).

In late-March, the Livestock and Fish Research Program held a virtual review and planning meeting to take stock of progress since 2012, examine the wider science and development environment and devise plans and deliverables for the coming years. The discussions were organized around each of the five research and technology ‘flagships’ of the program, examining strengths, weaknesses and desired results.

The feeds and forages flagship is designing superior feed and forage strategies for smallholders to meet current and evolving demands for more meat, milk and fish as well as agile feed value chains with lighter ecological footprints.

All aspects of feed—its production, processing and trading—are of special import in developing countries, where these activities generate scarce jobs and cash, significantly increase the benefits smallholders get from their mixed crop, fish and livestock systems, and allow many people with few other options to escape poverty by participating in an on-going ‘livestock revolution’ by meeting the fast-rising demand in emerging economies for meat, milk, fish and eggs. Moreover, the work of resourcing feeds and feeding animal stock in developing countries is often a female responsibility, with interventions able to empower women and youth directly.

Feed activities also sit squarely at the interface of both the ‘goods’ and ‘bads’ of animal production; this is where many hard trade-offs, such as water and land use, levels of greenhouse gas emissions and biodiversity conservation or losses, are negotiated and decided on a daily basis.

Feed activities sit squarely at the interface of both the ‘goods’ and ‘bads’ of animal production—an interface where many hard trade offs are negotiated daily – Michael Blümmel.

The flagship in a nutshell
Challenges: Lack of affordable and adequate quantities of good-quality animal feed is a major problem for the world’s smallholder producers, reducing their competitiveness in livestock markets and their earnings from their livestock and fish enterprises. Choice of feeds and feeding strategies can have major impacts on natural resources (growing feed can significantly deplete water sources) and gender equity (the largest proportion of women time’s spent in livestock production is sourcing feed and/or feeding livestock). Use of ‘crop residues’—the stalks and other remains of crops after their grain has been harvested—for livestock feed can compete with mulching and other soil enhancements. And the type of feed given ruminant animals influences the amount of methane, a greenhouse gas, that they emit.

Options: Improving smallholder access to feed of higher quality (chemically, biologically and physically) as well as to breeds better suited to their environments is the main entry point for intensifying smallholder livestock production, which essentially involves shifting feed used for an animal’s maintenance (where the animal neither gains nor loses body tissues) to its production of meat and other animal-source foods. An animal’s consumption of improved feeds raises its productivity while reducing the greenhouse gases it emits per unit of livestock product. Appropriate feed choices need to be linked to efficient management and use of feed and forage production. Well managed forage plants are one of the best agricultural ways of storing carbon and improved forages can grow in stressed environments unsuitable for food crops, thus obviating the need to displace food production.

Feeds and forages flagship snapshots

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Virtual discussion

In his short overview of the flagship, flagship leader Michael Blümmel, an ILRI scientist, gave a short overview of where things stand. Watch and listen to his audio-enhanced presentation below.

Blümmel explained some of the important changes in this field:

  • Increasing realization that the anticipated and projected increasing production of livestock and fish will not materialize without significant increases in feed resources and feeding strategies.
  • More and more difficulty making such feed increases as competition for biomass increases and the natural resources available for feed production decrease
  • Wider understanding that feed resourcing and feeding have decisive effects on the economy, quality and environmental footprint of producing milk, meat, fish and eggs
  • Confirmation that engagement in feed and forage value chains offers critically important  livelihood options for smallholder and landless farmers, particularly when the latter actively participate in the design and development of these value chains.

He argued that responding to these requires that we match feed biomass with demand for animal-source food under different scenarios and mobilize new biological and social sciences to improve feed resources and feeding strategies.



Progress so far …

According to Blümmel, the flagship has already contributed to:

  • Creation and use of a technology platform and participatory toolkit that helps define feed constraints and opportunities
  • Formation of diverse partnerships needed needed to make better use of existing biomass
  • Development of new forage options (selections and breeding lines) and their desirable traits (biological nitrification inhibition, endophytes)
  • Development of ways to increase biomass quantity as well as fodder and forage quality while reducing the environmental footprints of their production
  • Capitalizing on forage ability to improve carbon balances and natural resource management

It has produced:

  • Tools to estimate feed resources, prioritize feed interventions and refine near-infrared spectroscopy (NIRS) platforms have been adopted and taken up by several of the system-oriented CGIAR research programs
  • New approaches make better use of existing feed resources on- and off-farm, such as feed processing and supplementation options
  • New options to increase feed and forage biomass quantities with reduced environmental harm, such as newly developed multi-purpose forage and food-feed cultivars, with demonstration of the general absence of trade-offs between genetic traits for high yields of grain and residues in several crop varieties that can feed livestock as well as people
  • Awareness has been raised of the crucial inter-relationships among feed resourcing and strategies, natural resource uses and environmental footprints, and ways to enhance these links for multiple benefits.
  • On the ground, there now exist much more structured, targeted and interactive approaches to feed resourcing and interventions.
  • Superior food-feed crop cultivars have been adopted and further upgraded through feed processing and supplementation options.

A paradigm shift in crop improvement is happening: Crop aspects of livestock and fish production are getting due attention at last. . . . Proof-of-concept projects on feed and fodder value chains show that sustainable and environmentally friendly livestock and fish production is feasible—Michael Blümmel

Responding to these points, participants pointed to some key notions important to the flagship:

  • Genetic diversity: Genetic diversity can be used not only to generate new forage cultivars – either from grass or legume species – that meet consumer demands but also to replace cultivars that have become sensitive to biotic and abiotic stresses and other constraints. Genetic diversity is essential for addressing new and unpredictable climates resulting from global warming.  Among the existing cultivars of cereal and other food crops (sweet potato, cassava), and probably forages, there remains plenty of existing germplasm diversity controlling feed quality—before we need to think about breeding new cultivars. The links between what fish eat and their nutritional value for humans are very strong.
  • Useful tools: Tools to assess the increased quantity and quality of feed required by genetically improved stock and how these changed feed requirements can be best met with few (or positive) environmental impacts are now being used in a scoping study of yield gap assessments ILRI is conducting with CSIRO and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in Ethiopia and India. TechFit and FEAST are two such tools, which would benefit from more thoughtful and comprehensive integration of gender issues
  • Paradigm shift in crop breeding: Straw and stover quantity and fodder quality have become additional criteria in the release of new crop cultivars because of the rising monetary value of crop residues (sorghum stover is now being sold in local markets for about 50% of the price of sorghum grain) and the general absence of genetic trade-offs between grain and crop residue traits (we can develop crops with an abundance of both).
  • Environmental goods: Some species of Brachiaria, a tropical grass, are cultivated as forages. Originally from Africa, Brachiaria today is the most widely used tropical grass supporting livestock production in Central and South America. The ability of its deep and vigorous root systems to inhibit nitrification in soils and to reduce nitrous oxide emissions makes it a ‘climate-smart’ grass able to enhance the environment as well as improve milk and meat production yields.
  • Integration: Coordinated work on the health, genetics and nutritional status of animals was underscored as critical because each of these influences the other, with much illness due to poor nutritional status, for example, and under-nutrition causing much illness and death of livestock, such as during prolonged droughts. What unlocks the most important productivity constraint in one region may be improved genetics, in another improved feeds, and in another improved health. Development of tools to help determine what is most important where is the aim of a pilot research project Livestock and Fish is conducting with the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences and Wageningen University and Research Centre.
  • Feed quality: ILRI is already involved in helping livestock value chains in Uganda and other countries to improve the quality of their commercial feeds, whose poor quality (and huge quality variations) is partly due to poor regulation of the feed industry and partly due to lack of capacity of feed compounders to develop nutritionally balanced feed rations. Needed is research on feed safety and hazards and the testing of feed training and certification schemes. Ideas for implementing feed certification programs in Tanzania and Ethiopia could be revived


More from this flagship

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