Malawi: Fodder trees bring hope to dairy farmers

| September 8, 2014

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It is four o’clock in the morning, but Chrissy Kimu is already warming water to wash her two dairy cows’ udders. She pours lukewarm water into a bucket, then wakes her husband to help her in the cowshed.

Mrs. Kimu is a small-scale dairy farmer from Chilenga, a village about 90 kilometres south of Lilongwe. Dairy farming has become her main source of income, and allows her to support her family.

Back in 2007, she almost gave up the dairy business. High feed costs were eating up her profits. She recalls, “I lost hope since I could not manage to buy expensive feed from shops, and I started experiencing a decrease in milk production.”

Rather than quitting, she was advised by an extension worker to plant “fodder trees” in her maize field. The seeds and leaves supplemented her cows’ diet and improved milk production. She no longer had to rely on expensive commercial dairy mash feeds.

A 50-kilogram bag of commercial dairy feed costs about $25 U.S., and each cow can finish one bag a week.

Within two years of planting the fodder trees, things had started to change for the better. Mrs. Kimu was incorporating the leaves and seeds from the maturing fodder trees in her cattle feed. She says: “[These trees] are incredible because they have rekindled hope in my family life. When I started feeding them to my cows, I started experiencing an increase in milk production.”

Mrs. Kimu planted the white-ball acacia (Acacia angustissima) and a Mexican species known as Leucaena pallida. She mixes dried leaves and seeds from the trees with salt, maize husks, soya and other ingredients to make feed.

Before the fodder trees, each cow produced between eight and 15 litres of milk a day. Now, their yields have nearly doubled and Mrs. Kimu is making a profit.

In 2010, she joined a local milk bulking group, which buys milk from farmers for 25 U.S. cents a litre. Because of the increased milk yields, Mrs. Kimu now makes about $300 U.S. per month.

She says, “Other farmers in the group were amazed seeing how [much milk] I was able to sell … without buying feed from the market.” Several group members planted fodder trees for themselves after seeing Mrs. Kimu’s success.

Levisoni Chimpesa is also a dairy farmer. His cows mainly eat maize husks and other crop residues. He planted fodder trees last year after seeing Mrs. Kimu cash in. His trees are still immature but he’s looking forward to the coming years. He explains: “Because I do not have proper feeds, I get 10 to 15 litres of milk from my cow per day, which is low compared to what Mrs. Kimu gets.”

Alfred Siliwonde is the agricultural veterinary officer for the area. He says poor feed management often affects milk production. Many farmers depend solely on crop residues in the dry season and grass in the rainy season.

Mr. Siliwonde adds: “Now that they have seen the benefits of fodder trees … it is very important to encourage farmers and equip them with knowledge and skills in managing these trees.” He advises farmers to take good care of the fodder trees. After the maize harvest, the trees are often exposed to damage by bushfires and roaming livestock.

Mrs. Kimu advises dairy farmers who are struggling with high feed costs to plant fodder trees. She says: “Some farmers are over-relying on expensive purchased feed [and] as a result they do not make a profit. Farmers should plant [fodder trees], which have helped me to pay school fees and buy an ox cart.”