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Agribusiness: Optimising production, health of Malawi Zebu

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Agriculture with a business perspective in mind is what the late Dr. Hastings Kamuzu Banda had in mind when 50 years ago an agricultural training centre was opened on July 29, 1966 at Bolero, Rumphi.

This was part of the Turkish Tobacco Development Scheme financed by the Federal Republic of Germany.

Bolero, located an estimated 15 kilometers north-west of Rumphi boma, along the dusty road to Hewe and Nyika National Park, is known for those species of trees good in nitrogen fixation in the soil – one of them is a leguminous one that shades more leaves – a symbol of rich organic material that mulch the soils with leaves to improve soil texture with lots of humus. These indigenous tree species; associated with abundant savanna grassland and plenty water have been of benefit to the local populace and domestic animals particularly cattle as a source of forage over the years.

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Today, a sharp contrast of the past scenario exists, according to paramount Chief Chikulamayembe who holds the thirteenth mantle of the chieftainship.

He acknowledges that there are problems now because of the increased human footprint as a result of population boom.

According to Chief Chikulamayemba, more people now means more land originally reserved as catchment area is being cleared for cultivation.

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In essence, it means land for grazing cattle is slowly being chocked and hence putting the animals at a huge disadvantage. Not surprising, that those hard hit in terms of water access as climate change takes its toll are domestic animals. Animals have to travel long distances to access water – a development negatively affecting related products such as milk, meat and calves.

TAPP in livestock value chain research Professor Leonard Kamwanja, Director of Trustees Agriculture Promotion Programmes (TAPP) a local non – governmental organisation with a focus on scaling up crop and animal husbandry explains how his organisation is changing the landscape and shared insights about the genesis of their own innovative thinking.

According to Kamwanja, the Royal Norwegian Embassy in the wake of emerging challenges brought by climate change supported the Lilongwe University of Agriculture and Natural Resources (Luanar) on knowledge enhancement through research as part of cushioning some of the challenges.

The higher institution of learning then called for proposals on initiatives that are geared towards addressing climate change as part of a broader national component. TAPP was one of the organisations that were funded under the Capacity Building for Managing Climate Change in Malawi (CABMACC).

“We are trying to find out how things have changed in terms of livestock productivity over the years due to climate change and also the use of indigenous knowledge by local communities,” Kamwanja said during an exclusive interview after a crew of Norwegian students from University of Life Sciences (NMBU) went to the project site to collect samples for laboratory analysis on Malawi Zebu at the Central Veterinary Laboratory in Lilongwe.

He explained that TAPP, other than working alone, recognises the need for synergies with other stakeholders on the “Livestock value chain, food security and environmental quality sustainability: Transforming rural livelihoods through community based resilience indigenous livestock management” which aims to develop, test and validate community based indigenous livestock management practices. This initiative tackles community resilience with consideration of the significance of indigenous knowledge as a tool for adaptation to climate change.

“We have several partners that are working with us. These include NMBU in Norway with Professor Olav Resken and School of Veterinary there. Locally, we are working with Find Your Feet, Department of Agricultural Research Services, Social Scientists from Luanar and the Department of Animal Science which assist us on this particular project. We also have another strategic partner, Central Veterinary Laboratory who will be analysing some of the samples collected from Zebu cattle to find out what pathological infestations the animals possess,” Kamwanja narrated in an interview.

Scope of the livestock value chain Olav Reksen, Professor at the Department of Production Animal Clinical Sciences at NMBU narrated in a separate interview that the two tertiary institutions of higher learning are working on the optimisation of health and production in cows, and the underlying mechanisms are quite similar in both countries. Besides the objectives of the project related to improving milk yield, calves growth, reproductive function and milk composition, Norwegian students have participated in obtaining blood samples to determine the disease situation in Malawi Zebu population in the area.

Reksen adds that the general idea of the current activities is to empower farmers with knowledge such that the dry period has less impact on the Zebu cattle. After all, a significant part of meat and milk in Malawi comes from Zebu. In the course of the research, scientists use community based resources such as leaves from leguminous trees and maize bran for feeding of zebu cows during the months of October and November. Additional feeding will help to maintain the body condition and thereby production of the cows during a prolonged dry period.

“There is a need to build a robust population of Zebu to encounter prolonged periods of drought and healthy animals are a prerequisite for robustness. The Central Veterinary Laboratory has been kind enough to take on the task to train the students in certain diagnostic techniques that they seldom encounter in Norway, so knowledge exchange goes both ways,” explains Reksen during a recent visit to Malawi.

“Currently farmers do not have leguminous trees but seedlings are being distributed by our project,” says Reksen adding. “We have purchased dried leaves from leguminous trees and we are training farmers to use it as a feed additive. Cow’s loves this new feed that we bring it in by trucks, and the farmers become motivated to plant their own trees. So I would claim that we are already seeing mitigation of our activities,” elaborated Reksen.

Researchers are also studying the effect of distance to water on the parameters; milk yield, calves growth, reproductive function, milk composition and more.

“This way we will be able to give the farmers scientific based advice on the best approaches to keeping of Zebu cattle, and we add to the body of knowledge within the scientific community. Also of importance is the fact that we can supply policy makers with knowledge on the production and health limits of these animals, such that water dams are being restored and leguminous trees are being planted on the right sites and with adequate capacity,” narrated Reksen when asked to explained about some of the parameters used.

Programmes Coordinator and Associate Professor of Environmental Sustainability at Luanar David Mkwambisi told the media that CABMACC is jointly coordinated together with NMBU supported by the government of Norway.

The livestock value chain he said is one of the research activities in the quest to manage climate change ills through innovative ideas. Mkwambisi further indicated that building resilience and productivity of the livestock sector can be the innovative way of sustaining the crop farming sector.

“The initiative tackles community resilience with consideration of the significance of indigenous knowledge as a tool for adaptation to climate change. Outputs will assist in reducing dependence on conventional practices and promote the use of local knowledge,” Mkwambisi says when asked to explain more on the outputs. One example is use of locally available materials to produce disinfectants like dip that can treat ticks in cattle.

Results lead to action Mphatso Chipandula, TAPP Field Officer at Bolero said results based on feacal and stool samples taken for diagnostics analysis to the Central Veterinary Laboratory confirms that at least every Zebu cow is rarely de-wormed by farmers. Such treatment even passes more than two years without being administered. This has a bearing on productivity leading to low income and hence food insecurity. The cumulative years without administering drugs means more chemicals which farmers cannot afford in the long term.

CABMACC approach therefore fits well in the National Adaptation Programmes of Actions for the least developed countries to identify priority activities that respond to urgent and immediate needs to adapt to climate change – those for which further delay would increase vulnerability and cost at a later stage.

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