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What livestock eat (and don’t eat) determines how productive, and efficient, they are–PNAS study

Napier Grass

Napier grass (aka ‘elephant grass’), a major feed supplement for dairy cows and other ruminant animals in Kenya (photo credit: Jeff Haskins).

Even though research has shown that [greenhouse gas] GHG emissions from the Western world far outweigh those from the developing world, livestock keeping methods in Africa are increasingly becoming a key subject.

Europe, North America and Latin America are at the epicentre of beef production, with each region producing about 12 to 14 million tonnes per year. By comparison, all of sub-Saharan Africa produces less than five million tonnes of beef annually.

A new study shows ‘that most livestock in the developed world consume feeds of higher quality in form of concentrates and grains, compared to developing nations where livestock rely mainly on low quality natural pastures and crop residues. . . .

A recent International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) study titled Biomass Use, Production, Feed efficiencies and Greenhouse Gas Emissions from Global Livestock Systems established that the high emissions from livestock were linked to poor livestock management on the continent.

An Notenbaert, one of the study’s authors, notes that the factors contributing to this level of emissions are the same ones impeding livestock production and slowing down development in Africa. . . .

“Such studies provide opportunities for countries to identify gaps in their livestock production systems and address those challenges to foster economic growth,” states Dr Notenbaert [a livestock expert who did this work at ILRI and has since moved to the International Center for Tropical Agriculture] . . . .

‘The study shows that most livestock in the developed world consume feeds of higher quality in form of concentrates and grains, compared to developing nations where livestock rely mainly on low quality natural pastures and crop residues.

As such, a cow in North America or Europe likely consumes about 75 to 300 kilogrammes of dry feed to produce a kilogramme of meat protein. But in sub-Saharan Africa, a cow might require between 500 and 2,000 kilogrammes of feed to produce the same amount of meat protein.

‘Dr Notenbaert notes that the quality of feeds consumed by animals determine to a large extent their productivity and amount of GHG emissions they will release into the atmosphere.

‘Thus cattle grazing on low quality pastures in arid lands of sub-Saharan Africa can release the equivalent of 1,000 kilogrammes of carbon dioxide for every kilogramme of protein that they produce whereas the emission intensity in Europe and the US is around 10 kilogrammes of carbon dioxide for very kilogramme of protein produced. . . .

‘Animals take much longer to digest low quality feeds and as a result release more methane and carbon dioxide gas that cause global warming.

‘In Kenya, livestock contributes 10 per cent of the total gross domestic product.

‘Moreover, in the arid and semi arid lands occupying more than 70 per cent of the country, the livestock sector accounts for about 90 per cent of family incomes, according to the Food and Agriculture Organisation.

But Kenya’s population is still growing and if livestock yields remain low, it will compromise government’s ability to adequately feed citizens and guarantee food security in the country, says Dr Notenbaert. . . .

Read the whole article by Sarah Ooko in Business Daily (Kenya): Poor livestock management blamed for increased greenhouse gas emissions in Africa, 21 Feb 2014.

Read the ILRI News Blog story on this study, which was published as part of a series of article on ‘livestock and global change’ in a special feature of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) (this issue was edited by Mario Herrero, who did this work at ILRI and is now at the Commonwealth, Scientific, Industrial Research Organisation [CSIRO], in Australia):
As livestock eat, so they emit: Highly variable diets drive highly variable climate change ‘hoofprints’–BIG new study, 17 Dec 2013

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