Ethiopia has one of largest livestock populations in Africa and the Amhara region has the second largest population of livestock in the country. Livestock, especially cattle, in Amhara region are kept not only for their meat and milk but also to supply draught power and as assets. Mostly, these animals are fed through traditional free grazing practices, which are now threatened by takeover of communal grazing lands by food crops farming and attempts to conserve soil and water in many degraded rangelands. Increasing human population and urbanization are also putting pressure on land forcing many smallholders to abandon traditional grazing. In many areas of Amhara region, cut-and-carry feeding systems now dominate.
Year-round short supply of feed is a significant challenge for livestock keepers in the region and even though controlled (cut-and–carry/zero grazing) feeding has various biological and economic benefits over free grazing, its need for additional labour for mowing and transporting forage and for fetching water from distant rivers is a key problem, particularly for smallholder farmers. Indoors feeding of animals also suffers when, in dry seasons, there is shortage of harvestable forage for stall feeding, which forces farmers to rely on crop residues, which may not be of optimum quality, to meet livestock feed needs.
These challenges are forcing many farmers in Amhara region to cull their cattle and small ruminants, which in some cases is threatening the quality of breeding stock. For instance, large numbers of heifers and ewe lambs are sold, during holiday seasons, in Bahir Dar and Adet livestock markets as holidays are good times of the year for better pricing of their animals. The quality of meat from younger animals is superior to older ones, however, from a production point of view farmers are losing young animals that could be used for future breeding purposes. Selling heifers and ewe lambs may have negative consequences on the future livestock populations in the region and could also endanger the livelihoods of smallholders by reducing the amount of income they get from feedlots and abattoirs.
To ensure sustainable livestock production in Amhara region, there is a need to maintain stable livestock numbers and increase their meat and milk production. To achieve higher production and productivity, genetic improvement and forage development are pre-requisites. Thus, there is a need to supply improved genotype of livestock to smallholder farmers. An affordable way of improving the genotype of cattle is by cross-breeding already existing local cows/heifers in farmers’ hands with exotic sires.
The Livestock and Irrigation Value chains for Ethiopian Smallholders (LIVES) project team in Amhara region has started demonstrating and introducing improved fodder to smallholder farmers. The project is also setting up training programs on feed conservation, genetic improvement and culling strategies of dairy cattle for farmers, development agents and agricultural experts. In the future, LIVES and partner organizations hope to focus on developing water sources for livestock, scaling out of feed development and processing technologies and improving efficiency and coverage of artificial insemination services. Awareness creation forums are being arranged for smallholder farmers to discuss consequences of indiscriminate culling of breeding stock.
Read a related story on Estrus synchronization of dairy cattle takes off in Amhara region
Written by Zeleke Mekuriaw (PhD) with contribution from LIVES team in Amhara.