The land of milk: Eastern Province farmers seek ways to cope with drought

The plane fields of the Eastern Province have since time immemorial been known in Rwanda as a cattle corridor and, thus, the land of milk. The land has been given names that still resonates with wealth like, “a land of both cattle and men.” But those were days of years past when people ate where they worked.
Rwabushayija explains how bean silage (in the background) helped him increase milk production at his ranch. / Kelly Rwamapera.
Rwabushayija explains how bean silage (in the background) helped him increase milk production at his ranch. / Kelly Rwamapera.

The plane fields of the Eastern Province have since time immemorial been known in Rwanda as a cattle corridor and, thus, the land of milk.

The land has been given names that still resonates with wealth like, “a land of both cattle and men.” But those were days of years past when people ate where they worked.

 

Today, real life versions ushered in the possibility of working elsewhere and eating what farms provide.

 

Since the late 1990s, this part of the country has been leading in milk production. It kept country’s hopes of stopping importation of milk alive.

 

But with the increased demand of milk in an increasingly unpredictable climate, experts warn if people are not ready to think outside the box, the country might end up relying on milk imports again.

Geoffrey Rwabushayija, a livestock farmer, said, previously, several farmers lost cattle to drought and milk production greatly dipped.

Today, drought still hits the area.

However, a new way of handling the situation is being embraced.

Farmers started cutting grass in April and kept them as recommended by Rwanda Agriculture Board.

Rwabushayija says although the dry season has persisted and affected food security, the effects on his cattle have been contained.

“Previously, we could lose cows during dry season and the remaining ones gave us milk only for home consumption,” he said.

“But after storing some grass during times of plenty for use during dry season, the cows produce more milk than they could during wet seasons,” added Rwabushayija.

According to provincial governor Odette Uwamariya, “such a situation calls for ranch holders to collaborate with the government to change the way of rearing cattle in order to be able to deal with the effects of climate change.”

Growing grass and making hay

When the stored grass got finished due to the prolonged dry season farmers resorted to maize and bean stocks they had harvested and stored.

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Left: Farmers are showed how to use irrigation equipment, while, right, a farmer carries hay for his cattle. / Kelly Rwamapera.

Their cattle are now healthy and productive than never before, they say.

Governor Uwamariya said: “The Government is giving out seeds and stems for elephant grass that will produce more fodder than the indigenous grass and all ranch owners are called upon to seize this opportunity.”

Hay requires enough water for cattle. When dry season sets in, it means absence of both water and grass for cattle.

The province of 9813.3617km2 is home to 18 water bodies. In recent years, the Government set up dozens of dams to supplement the water bodies.

Unfortunately, many of the dams disappeared due to deposited soils, according to Norbert Sendege, the Rwanda Agriculture Board director for the province.

However, the Government intends to rehabilitate the dams and construct 59 more. Some are complete and others will be completed before April rains next year.

These dams will harvest water that is left to flow away during rainy seasons, to be used during dry seasons.

Uwamariya says with this water, farmers will irrigate both crops and grass on ranches and provide water to animals.

“The Government pays 50 per cent of every irrigation equipment a farmer buys. We, therefore, encourage farmers to rush for irrigation equipment, which we believe are cheaper than ever before,” she said.

According to data from Rwanda Natural Resources Authority, only 6 per cent of the water we receive during wet seasons is harvested a year, a situation Premier Anastase Murekezi, on his recent visit in the province, said the Government was ready to change.

According to the 2012 ranch regulations by the Ministry of Agriculture, a fourth of every ranch should be designated for hybrid grass growing.

Farmers’ response

Steven Safari, who owns a ranch in Murundi Sector, Kayonza District, says he is willing to embrace government initiatives to ensure his cattle produce enough milk to meet current demand.

“There is nothing better than seeing the Government willing to come to our help. I already ordered for irrigation equipment,” Safari said.

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