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The virtues of open grazing in Nigeria

Examination of data on land use will illustrate the logic of open grazing. It is true that population has increased over the years, also more…

Hyenas urinating upwind to stampede the cattle below — African proverb

According to a popular adage when you are in a tunnel, what you need is light, not sound. However, a light at the end of the tunnel on issues relating to cattle husbandry is long time coming, given the ill-tempered and sometimes uninformed exchanges on open grazing.

Self-styled experts are attempting to stampede governments to ban open grazing by advancing fictitious arguments such as no land for roaming cattle, data on land use shows otherwise or that ranching is the global best practice for keeping cattle, while in Sub-Saharan Africa, ranches exist only in parts of Ethiopia, Kenya and South Africa and falsely claiming that ranches have replaced pastoralism in Kenya and Ethiopia, while the Maasai and the Oromos respectively, still practice pastoralism in these countries.

Examination of data on land use will illustrate the logic of open grazing. It is true that population has increased over the years, also more land has been put into farming and infrastructure, but analysis of data shows that for 20 million cattle and 200 million Nigerians, there is more than enough land.

For a start, Kano State, one of the most densely populated states is home to about one million cattle and there is relative tranquility. Nigeria has a landmass of 92.3m ha, with 70.8m ha of agricultural area but only between 34 million to 35 million ha was cultivated last year.

For the sake of discussion, let’s look at maize production. Available data shows that in 2020, only about 12m tons were produced. Research findings have shown that 86 per cent of cereal biomass is made of materials not consumable by humans, but ruminants which cattle etc can convert into high-quality animal protein. The implication is that over 50 million tons of crop residues will be wasted if not consumed by cattle. Not to mention sorghum that accounts for 50 per cent of total cereal production and occupies about 45 per cent of the total land area devoted to cereal production. Add to these, the millions of tons of grasses on fallow land and open range.

To access these fodders, which are mainly available only in situ, cattle must move and openly graze. In most cases, this is done with the expressed permission of farmers for a fee. Cattle generally move along moisture gradients (North in the wet and South in dry season respectively) on international transhumance stock routes recognised under usufructuary rights. This explains why a kilo of beef sells for 1700 Naira. Therefore, until the country has a programme to process these quality fodders, banning open grazing will be a ‘dog in the manger’ policy.

But I accept that rogue elements amongst herders engage in criminalities and the justice system has failed to prosecute them.

I also need to draw attention to a special category of pastoralists called agropastoralists. These are small-scale livestock producers that settle in communities all over Nigeria. They negotiate with members of the host community for land to build their homestead, grow crops and keep cattle. During the cropping season, they kraal animals away from farms. In fact, many of the animals in their herds belong to members of the host communities. Clusters of these types of producers exist in the South, along Iseyin-Igangan axis in Oyo State, in Adada-Nkpologu-Adani- Iggah axis in Enugu State and along Awgu-Nkanu-Abakaliki axis in Ebonyi State to mention a few. Some of these settlements have existed for upwards of 70 years, sequel to veterinary interventions that made it possible for cattle to stay year-round.

Many of these pastoralists are law abiding, they speak the local languages, their children are in schools, their wives engage in trades and have fully integrated into the community. The consensus among livestock experts is that agropastoralism, peri-urban and urban livestock production systems account for over 90 per cent of dairy products in Sub-Sharan Africa. These producers adopt research findings, benefit from government extension services and comply with public health regulations.

A ban on open grazing will destroy this system and uproot these producers. And the reason is simply this. A ban on open grazing literally means changing from agropastoralism to a zero grazing system called turkey. In Zero grazing, animals are kept in stalls and fed entirely on purchased specially prepared rations to enable them to produce plenty of milk or fatten quickly. Agropastoral cows have poor productivity and live on grass and occasional crop residue.

Rule of thumb, a local cow consumes 2.5 per cent of its body weight and consumes about 15 litres of water. The average herd size of agropastoralists is between 20-35 animals. So, for 200kg cow, a herder must cut and carry 110kg of  grass and source 200litres of water daily. This is an impossible task.

So, a law abiding Nigerian trying to eke out a living from cattle business has two choices, stay and lose your means of livelihood or leave town.

The term ranching is not clearly defined in this country, so all intensive or enclosed livestock production systems are categorised as ranching. However, a ranch is a very large area of rangeland that is enclosed where animals roam and openly graze. It is in view of that, the Land Use Act recommends allocation of up to 5,000 ha for livestock farming. So, if state governors genuinely believe in ranching, they should put their money where their mouth is and allocate the recommended hectares to ranchers.

The statement that states go into ranching because there is no land is incongruent. According to FAO, 33 per cent of global land is under cultivation for animal feeds while 30 per cent of the entire earth surface is permanently under pasture to support global intensive livestock production.

Against all odds, open grazing has success a story. Ethiopia has a landmass of 110 million hectares with 60 million cattle, three times that of Nigeria under open grazing. Ethiopia is one of the fastest-growing economies in Africa with livestock production covering 40 per cent of agricultural output and contributing 13-16 per cent of the total GDP.

Without any doubt, cattle production is facing a myriad of challenges associated with husbandry, the misconduct of some herders, climate change and local politics. In today’s world, technology is the weapon of first choice to overcome most challenges associated with livestock production. Nigeria has successfully applied genetics to produce high-yielding day-old chicks, hybrid seeds to increase yields of maize and soybeans for massive production of quality commercial poultry feeds and veterinary sciences to deliver healthcare services to poultry. Bankers eager to make a quick buck saw the huge internal market and the Nigerian spirit of entrepreneurship and massively funded commercial poultry. Today, that industry is worth about N10 trillion (PAN) and is the biggest in Africa. But most significantly, commercial and free-range rural poultry exists in all states thus giving commercial poultry the all-important Federal character.

The poultry revolution did not just happen, it was made to happen by deliberate government policies, public-private sector partnership and the Nigerian spirit of entrepreneurship. The same technology can transform the cattle industry for the benefit of all if only Nigerians can make that conscious and deliberate political decision rather than unhelpful legislation driven by emotions.

Dr Junaidu Maina is a former Director, Federal Livestock Department

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