Animal Feeding / ASSP / Dairying / Ethiopia / Feeds / ILRI / LIVES / Tigray

Private alfalfa seed supply: A marvelous jump towards high value irrigated feeds in Tigray

alfalfa seed  (Photo:ILRI\LIVES regional team, tigray) 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. Alfa alfa farm_eastern tigray zone (Photo:ILRI\LIVES regional team, tigray)

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.

Contributed by: 

Yayneshet Tesfay (LIVES regional expert, Tigray), Dawit Woldemariam (LIVES zonal coordinator, eastern Tigray zone) and
Gebremedhin Woldewahid (LIVES regional coordinator, Tigray)

5 thoughts on “Private alfalfa seed supply: A marvelous jump towards high value irrigated feeds in Tigray

  1. We received an email request from a Ugandan farmer to chip in a piece of advice on how to obtain and grow alfalfa seeds in Uganda. For the benefit of others we preferred to respond to such request by posting our responses on LIVES blog. We have no country specific information on the first issue and agri-hub Uganda may provide some clues. The following description addresses the second issue.

    Alfalfa is a highly productive perennial forage crop that continues to grow for several years after planting. It grows in areas with more than 500 mm annual rainfall, elevation as high as 3000 meters above sea level, and in neutral to slightly alkaline soils with good drainage. Once established it is drought tolerant. It is planted by direct seeding on a well prepared seedbed at 8-10 kg/ha (sometimes 12-20 kg/ha) for pure stands and 5-6 kg/ha as mixture with other crops. Alfalfa seeds are small in size (1-2 mm) and depth of planting should not exceed 1 cm on heavy and 2 cm on light soils.

    The cutting frequency largely depends on the availability of soil moisture. Care should be taken to avoid frequent and intense cuttings, as these negatively affect long term stand persistence. As a rule of thumb, up to 30 days cutting frequency and cutting height as low as 10-15 cm can be applied in the absence of specific recommendations. Farmers need to be cautious about their cutting management decision, and should avoid too early and late harvests, as yield and quality are generally inversely related-a phenomenon often referred to as yield/quality tradeoff. Maximizing returns from either quality or yield is usually not readily apparent. Alfalfa cut at immature growth stages (i.e., pre-bud or early bud) has high forage quality but yield suffers, conversely alfalfa cut in the bloom stage is higher yielding but lower in quality. Farmers need to choose a prudent strategy to cut their alfalfa crops-either sequential or staggered. Sequential harvest requires dividing the entire field into smaller plots, and establishing a constant harvest order/sequence to be followed at each harvest schedule. With the staggered strategy the cutting sequence is alternated at each cutting schedule so that some of the plots are cut at early stage to maximize quality and some of the plots are harvested late to maximize yield. This is accomplished by varying the harvest order so that plots cut first on first cutting will not be the first ones to be cut on the second cutting schedule.

    Alfalfa can be fed fresh or dried and made to hay and silage. When feeding fresh alfalfa, care should be taken to feed it with other fibrous feeds to reduce the danger of bloating. When the cut alfalfa is dry enough, the hay is raked and a simple manual baler can be used to compress it into manageable sizes. Alfalfa can also be made into silage at mid to late bud stage when the moisture content is 60-70%.

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