For millions of people in sub-Saharan Africa, livestock are indispensable. Yet, they are often blamed for damaging the environment and contributing to global greenhouse gas emissions.

By switching what animals eat and improving management practices, farmers can transform their meat and milk production, boosting their incomes – and reducing the environmental footprint of the animals they keep.

Our research gives an idea of the potential impact of improved varieties of high-quality, drought-resilient forage grasses called Brachiaria. They could help boost milk production by up to 40 percent and bring millions of dollars to struggling East African dairy farmers, if widely adopted.

Dr. Steven Prager, a senior scientist at CIAT and co-author of the study, said the study assessed benefits that could accrue to East African dairy producers from adopting new varieties of Brachiaria pasture grass

The CIAT analysis focused on the additional milk and money smallholder farmers could deliver for an estimated two million small-scale dairy farmers across Kenya, Tanzania, Ethiopia, Uganda, Rwanda, and Burundi.

It found that investing in forage quality – and in getting new forages to farmers – can be a low-risk investment, yet likely to generate benefits in the order of tens of millions of dollars.

The grasses were developed and have been improved through decades of research by CIAT plant breeders to survive harsh growing conditions, while providing considerable nutritional benefits for livestock.

“Farmers could benefit more from surging consumer demand for livestock products in East Africa,” he said. “Our research shows that Brachiaria grasses could be the cornerstone of productive and resilient livestock systems that quickly provide more milk and money for small-scale dairy farmers.”

What’s next?

  • Research is needed to investigate ways to produce commercial-quality forage seed in Africa. This would result in cheaper seeds for farmers, and help kick-start a homegrown industry for commercial seed production, spreading the benefits to more farmers there.
  • Ex anteimpact studies can help show the potential impact of improved forages and management practices on livestock systems in specific areas. These can help guide investments and the development of incentives to achieve a range of impacts, from boosting livestock production to lower greenhouse gas emissions.
  • Additional participatory research can reveal which forages grow best under different management regimes, how to integrate them into farming systems, and how to encourage adoption by farmers.