Time to set up strategic livestock feed reserves

Farmers Making hay in Mwea Kirinyaga county for animal feeds [Standard]

The current prolonged drought following five consecutive suppressed rainfall seasons has seen a severe reduction in vegetation cover in most parts of the country. Arid and Semi-Arid Lands (ASALs) are bearing the greatest burden of it all. Bad as things are, there are many take-home lessons.

Need for strategic livestock feeds

A question that many have been asking is how come the European countries that have winter and summer seasons still maintain a steady supply of livestock feeds when the ground is covered with snow? Simple. Because they intentionally stockpile livestock feeds in summer for use in winter. The advancement in information and communication technology coupled with precision weather forecasting should be utilised in our case to plan in advance.

Waiting for the rain to hit the ground and pastures to sprout relegates us to the hunter-gatherer medieval times. We should be intentional in planning for livestock feeds just like we do with human strategic food reserves. Unlike the storage of human, feeds is intense, pastures only require drying,  baling and storage. While livestock offtakes have worked to a degree, it has not been amenable with the pastoral culture, which endears them more to the presence of their livestock rather than having money in their pockets.

I have been to Isinya, Kajiado and Ngong markets and have seen Maasai’s selecting and buying hay and this helped me decipher that this is exactly what they need – buying hay for their animals and not selling their animals to keep the money. My anthropology lessons tell me that this is what authorities need to do if they have the interests of these pastoralists at heart. Counties should look at how to commercialise pasture production.

Karacha pasture irrigation scheme in Marsabit County is already showing that indeed commercial pasture production is the panacea to the current state of drought, which may not change as the climate is changing. Maybe nature is telling us to change so that we can live to see another decade. It is a time to re-adjust our pastoral clock from hunter-gatherer times to post-agrarian timelines and deliberately farm pastures and not to wait for what nature gives us.  With little water and within a short time we can farm Boma Rhodes on large scales of now idle land in most of our ASALs.

Drought is the absence of water but there is lots of water underneath. Maybe we are bearing the brunt of this drought because we have always perceived that when rains fail to give us water, then we do not have water. The opening sentence in most drought reports is always the consecutive five below average rain seasons. Could this be a bad mindset that is jailing instead of emancipating humanity? Yes, rainwater is not dropping but deep in the belly of our earth lays cool streams of water that can be brought to the surface and thus accessible for agricultural production. Instead of just complaining, we can use the sun’s heat for solar energy that can be harnessed to pump up this water and irrigate thousands of hectares of land to produce millions of bales of hay for our starving livestock. When the rains come, we can harvest the soft water that is often left to flow into salty oceans. The other point that comes to the fore with the prolonged drought is the place of livestock in human nutrition and food security.

The old indigenous knowledge in nutrition among the pastoral communities has gained currency with this drought. Currently, households that still have livestock that is producing milk have managed to remain healthy with a daily supply of milk. 

[Dr Othieno is a veterinary surgeon and currently the head of communications at the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) Kenya. The views expressed here are not necessarily those of FAO]

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