In a country where specialized forage seed marketing is either absent or still at an infant stage, it is strange to hear and see smallholder farmers allocating their arable lands to forage production.
Recently, we talked to a smallholder dairy farmer who challenged traditions and decided to cover his arable land with alfalfa. This may sound strange given the tradition of using arable land to produce food crops.
Ato Mengistu Abay is a smallholder dairy farmer living in Guila Abenea at the outskirts of Sinkata (Firewoini) in Saesi Tsaeda Emba – one of LIVES project’s action districts in Tigray. Ato Mengistu is an active member of the dairy platform initiated by LIVES. He developed a special interest in green forage and seed production as a business after participating in the LIVES facilitated platform meeting in the summer of 2013. Since then, he confidently allocated his entire arable land to alfalfa production.
He always relies on green feed provision for his 8 head herd of cattle. Unless limited by the absence of a market, he is able to supply up to 50 litres a day of fluid milk to the market, earning 5,000-6,000 Birr a month. Sometimes he wishes to convert the ‘excess’ milk to butter, but the absence of a manual churner in the market always frustrates his entire family, as this implies additional burden to his wife and children.
Coming back to the alfalfa, Mengistu started alfalfa green feed and seed production in 2012 when an extension officer offered him 5 kg alfalfa seeds. Back then, Mengistu’s total land covered by alfalfa was less than 1 ha. It took him 3-4 months to harvest the golden green seeds of alfalfa. With good rains, the plots require no supplementary irrigation. However, when the rainy season is short, 2-3 supplementary irrigation from a hand dug shallow well ‘water bank’ can sufficiently offset the short summer rainfall.
Mengistu harvested 11 quintals of alfalfa seeds in 2012 and 2013, albeit he secured a market for only 4 quintals. He was able to fetch more than 100,000 Birr – a premium value that contrasts with the amount expected from any agricultural produce obtained from the same land size. Though not well connected, his marketing network includes the entire Eastern Zone in Tigray and one-time customers from the Amhara region.
The LIVES project in the Central and Eastern Zones of Tigray has been working with smallholder farmers to strengthen the supply of private forage planting materials and linking with high value livestock production and marketing in the action districts. Technically supported by LIVES, Mengistu also wants to try alfalfa hay and pellets that can be marketed and fed to dairy cows during the dry season.
Subject to further rigorous economic analysis, Mengistu has demonstrated the feasibility of using arable land to improved forage production, just as is being done for food crops. With the expansion of market oriented livestock development, the demand for green feed will undoubtedly grow and ultimately benefit smallholder farmers like Mengistu. A lot remains to be done to encourage specialized forage seed production and marketing in Ethiopia, and the collaboration of many is needed in connecting alfalfa seed producers to markets through intra and inter-regional networks.
Yayneshet Tesfay (LIVES regional expert, Tigray), Dawit Woldemariam (LIVES zonal coordinator, eastern Tigray zone) and
Gebremedhin Woldewahid (LIVES regional coordinator, Tigray)