The rangelands of Kenya (Arid and Semi-Arid Lands-ASALs), comprise 23 counties which are mainly used for rearing of beef cattle, sheep, goats and camels, the livestock that provides us with red meat. The rangelands cover about 80% of the country area, and play host to about 70% of the ruminant livestock population and camels which together supply close to 90% of the red meat consumed in Kenya.
Generally, vegetation cover in ASALs is rich in plant diversity dominated by grasses, shrubs and scattered woody vegetation. These plants also provide a natural cover or protection for the soil, thereby ensuring that the soils sustain economic production of feed for livestock and wildlife, besides other indirect benefits. The rangeland ecosystems also act as watersheds and recreation sites, and are home to various wild animals that form the basis of tourism, besides harboring sacred and spiritual sites that have cultural values. The current value of livestock held in the rangelands is estimated to have a capital value of US$ 5.92 billion (approximately KES 592 billion). These livestock contribute 90% of the national annual red meat consumption, estimated at 668,000 metric tons worth KES 334 billion.
The main cattle breed currently kept for beef in the rangelands are Zebu and Boran, which between them make up 90% of the beef herd in the country. There are two major types of sheep and goats reared in Kenya, the hair sheep and wool sheep as well as meat goat and dairy goats. The bulk of the hair sheep mainly Red Maasai, Black head persian, dorpers while the meat goats reared in the arid and semi-arid areas are mainly of Small east African goat and Galla goat breeds. The wool sheep are mainly corriedale and merino, while the dairy goats breeds of German Alpine, Saanen, Toggenburg are reared in the medium and high potential areas of the country.
Today rearing livestock for meat production in the rangelands faces challenges from a high population growth rate and increased human settlements. Livestock ownership at household level is declining, and may result in food insecurity. Land use systems have changed, resulting in land subdivision and increasing farming in wetter areas that traditionally used to be reserved for dry season grazing. This has therefore reduced areas normally used for communal grazing, restricting livestock to drier, less productive areas. The restriction of livestock movement to dry season grazing areas has exerted pressure on available forage, particularly on more preferred species, essentially resulting to overgrazing. The situation is made worse where forage suitable for grazers have already been reduced by unpalatable invasive plant species like Ipomea in Kajiado and neighboring counties. When droughts occur (as they frequently do) there are severe feed shortages that lead to conflicts and losses in livestock and livestock production.
The quantity and quality of available pastures/forage has been adversely affected by prolonged and frequent dry seasons, making feed for livestock insufficient, resulting in live weight loss or slowed gain in livestock weight, especially in young stock and lactating dams (particularly cattle). These weight losses results to slow growth, and a prolonged length of time needed to fatten. This makes animals more vulnerable to diseases and may lower conception rates of breeding herds. Severe feed shortage may result in starvation and emaciation unless livestock keepers can access alternative pastures and feed supplements.
Livestock production in the rangelands is also affected by high incidence of diseases, mortalities in calves, kids and lambs. Pre-weaning mortality rate in traditional beef cattle production system is reported to be 15-20% while pre-weaning mortality rates for small ruminants is 25-30%. The average birth weight of indigenous cattle breeds reared in the rangelands is about 18-20kg with a weekly growth rate up to weaning is about 1.5kg/week. Typical daily growth rate for kids and lambs up to eight months of age is 50-100g under traditional management.
Calf rearing in ASALs is challenged by poor management of young stock in the rangelands also prolongs the time needed to reach breeding and market weights and erodes the livestock keeper’s profit margin. The cost of maintaining an animal in the herd or flock decreases the profit margin. The indigenous livestock breeds kept in the rangeland are inherently more adaptable and have a higher rate of survivability albeit of low production, longer maturing age and slow growth rate.
Measures to increase meat production is through breeding and better herd management through better feeding, better herd health management, disease control and improved marketing. This article focuses on improved feeding.
The introduction of crosses breeds or exotics to replace or breed with indigenous stock of cattle, sheep and goats, is meant to achieve faster growth in livestock, which at maturity should weigh more and yield more meat. However, this upgrading of the stock means that livestock keepers have to change and adopt management strategies that provides a continuous supply of adequate quantity and quality of feeds.
To assure availability of adequate, quality feeds it is necessary to improve production of natural pasture and fodders through adoption of better management practices. This is because traditional movement of herds of livestock in the rangelands is increasingly becoming untenable (from increasing settlements in communal lands) while supplementary feeding of a large herd is not feasible. The land areas are vast and intensive pasture production may not be cost effective in-view of moisture scarcity and high cost of inputs coupled with protection of the sites.
Feed availability in the rangelands can be improved by undertaking rangeland pasture/fodder development through promotion water harvesting technologies such as micro catchments. Natural pasture regeneration, controlled grazing and reseeding in key sites where adequate moisture for plant growth is available
Currently in the rangelands, livestock keepers (the pastoralists) have started practicing natural pasture regeneration rangeland reseeding, fodder production and forage conservation. However, knowledge on when pasture can be harvested or stored is still limited among the livestock keepers, posing a major challenge on the appropriate stage to harvest pasture and how to sustain growth. It should be noted that the longer the period from one cutting or grazing of forage to the next, the lower will be the digestibility of the plant material, and this will lead to reduced forage intake and poorer animal performance.
Grazing animals can acquire minerals through young leafy grass grown on fertile soil should have adequate mineral levels for good animal growth. Native range grasses, harvested or grazed at growth stages of between 8-12 weeks after sowing or after re-growth for hay provides adequate levels of Phosphorous and Calcium.
Legume forages are important feed resources in the rangelands with better feed value because of their higher levels of crude protein, phosphorus, calcium and magnesium than grasses in both leaf and stem. They are important sources of minerals from pods and leaves, those that make roast goat meat particularly tasty. Different legume species exist in ASALs, these ranges from large perennial trees like acacia, shrubs, creeping plants, to low lying herbs. Legumes are generally more digestible than grasses and are more palatable to livestock. Adding even 5% legume to a diet of poor-quality grass can significantly improve animal performance
Mineral blocks or salts can be used to balance mineral supply but they may not be available, however in some rangeland areas natural salt licks may be available. It is important to note that.
In order to produce quality meat, livestock need proper nutrition that depends on stage of growth, development, production and reproduction. Livestock producers have to provide, in a cost-effective way, various feed ingredients combinations that satisfy these nutrient requirements. For livestock to record sufficiently good weight gains and increased off take rates, they must be well fed. The amount of feed an animal consume is affected by the quality of feed provided, (fresh feeds vs dry feed), rate of digestion, rate of feed intake and water intake. Several factors affect feed intake among them being:
- availability of adequate feeds availed to the livestock,
- environmental stress including heat stress,
- limited access to water,
- palatability of plant species,
- moisture content of feed;
- wetness of grass after heavy rains;
- dryness of grain concentrates,
- mineral content of feed, where supplements of salt increase intake.
This, together with value addition and access to high end markets, form the key aspects that determine the profitability of any livestock production activity. Hence it is critical to manage feeds and feeding for range cattle to increase intake.
By FREDRICK ONYANGO ALOO
Assistant Director of Livestock Production
The writer has a background in Food Security and Natural Resource Management.
This article first appeared in the Saturday Nation of June 12, 2021.