By BENTLEY CHALI
It is not uncommon to see dangerously malnourished cattle in some rural areas of the country during the dry season.
This is partly because grazing lands are burned to make way for fresh grass at the onset of the rainy season.
Shockingly, some farmers still burn their fields after harvesting, thereby depriving their cattle of feed, and even destroying soil fertility. When pastures are scarce, the local cattle breeds are resilient and able to survive by going into the biological survival mode.
However, small scale farmers could do more to keep their animals healthy by making hay from readily available grasses, maize stalks, and haulms from leguminous plants like groundnuts and beans, among others.
The thrust of this premise is that grasses grow naturally in the wild, making them an economical raw material for hay. Furthermore, the raw materials from agricultural produce are purely leftovers that are more often than not discarded as waste.
Hay production is a real prospect because traditionally, livestock production and agriculture are practiced side by side in Zambia. It is imperative to note that agricultural residue should be used sparingly on hay so that part of it could be used in conservation farming.
Moreover hay is, in this context, merely supplementary feed given to animals on a regular basis during the dry season.
Hay is any growing plant harvested during the growing season and preserved by drying for use at a later stage. The best times to cut hay are January/ February during the rainy season. Hay can be in form of grass mixed with residue from leguminous plants like beans, ground nuts, soy beans etc to make a relatively balanced diet when feeding animals. Since grasses are high in carbohydrates, it is important to mix them with legumes which are rich in protein.
Hay making is one aspect that many small scale farmers overlook for various reasons. It is vital to note that this is one of the practices that small scale livestock farmers ought to adopt if the sector is to be revolutionised. The importance of nutrition to the health of cattle cannot be overemphasized. After all livestock farming is business, and it should go on even during the driest months of the year.
“Good nutrition helps in good reproduction. A farmer would want to have a calf every year. If there is no good nutrition the reproductive cycle will be prolonged”, said Sinda District Veterinary Officer Dr. Lazarous Tembo.
Dr. Tembo added: “The other negative effect is that malnutrition affects even the immune system of the animal. Disease challenge will be on the higher side in a malnourished animal compared to that animal which has all the nutritional values which it needs.”
Mr. Christopher Shawa from Kambauwa village in Sinda said cattle farming can be very challenging during the dry season due to depleted pastures.
“We as farmers walk long distances during the dry season in search of grazing land for our cattle. For example we move from Kambauwa to somewhere near Chassa High school (about 15 kilometers) everyday for us to find pasture. It is a very difficult time to rear cattle,” he said.
“I have never tried to make hay before… maize bran and sunflower cake are too expensive for me as a small scale cattle farmer,” Mr. Shawa added.
Hay could be made from thatching grass (Hyperrhenia filipendula), guinea fowl grass (Rottboellia exaltata), Rhodes grass (Chloris Gayana), star grass, velvet beans, sorghum, and maize among others. The grass should be cut just before it flowers to retain nutritional content. It should be spread on the ground for two or more days to dry and turned once per day.
A pit measuring 90cm long, 45cm wide and 60cm deep should be dug. A wooden box with the same measurements can be made for convenience’s sake. Two ropes should be put in the pit, and grass must be laid on top and compacted with feet to form a bale.
Then the bale should be tied and left in the sun for a few days. The bales should be collected for storage in a dry place. Quality hay is green in colour, soft and is free of foreign matter. A hay ‘sandwich’ can be made, using the aforementioned method, by placing legumes in the middle of grass, while sprinkling salt at feeding times to add flavour.
Ms Fada Zulu from Mnyamanzi compound said she did not know how to make hay but regularly feeds her cattle on sunflower cake and maize bran.
“I don’t know how to make hay-I just see hay bales on farms when I travel around. Farmers should buy feed for their cattle so they can sell their healthy animals at reasonable prices”, she said.
Senior Livestock Production Officer, Grace Lungu said most small scale cattle farmers in Eastern Province are yet to adopt haymaking.
“Most farmers in Eastern Province feed their livestock using maize bran and sunflower cake, when they have.
“The farmers leave agricultural residue in the fields for animals to feed on. So when the residue is finished, the livestock have nothing to eat”, she said.
This means farmers have to buy maize bran and sunflower cake from millers. This type of supplementary feeding is not sustainable because of the cost involved. Farmers pay for milling services and end up buying the by-products.
The Ministry of Agriculture and Livestock will soon launch a project in Eastern Province to teach farmers fodder production. This will be an opportunity for farmers to learn and improve nutrition for their animals.
Cattle play an integral part in the lives of small scale farmers by providing draught power, transport, manure, and milk, among others.
Ms Fada Zulu, who was referred to earlier, aptly described her cattle as a “moving bank”.
It is therefore vital that cattle farmers take good care of their “moving banks” if they are to get maximum profit on their investments by providing them with hay, and other supplementary feeds. -NAIS