Jean Damascene Karani, 77, a farmer in Rukomo Sector of Nyagatare District, lost 24 cows in two farming seasons (2015-2016) to prolonged drought that hit the country.
The eastern swathes of the country were the worst affected by the dry spell that ravaged crops on over 23,000 hectares in the region, as well as drying pastures.
According to Gahiga Gashumba, the chairperson of the National Dairy Farmers Federation of Rwanda (NDFFR), at least 1,750 cows died during the prolonged drought in Nyagatare District alone.
“It was so painful that when a cow died, you would give meat to neighbours and they would refuse because there were so many dying. On top of losing your cows, you had to find ways of disposing it off because no one was interested in the meat,” said Karani.
After losing his cows due to lack of pasture, Karani vowed to do everything in his means to never again lose a cow to lack of fodder. His effort seems to have paid off.
“That is why I decided to grow grass last year,” he said.
Karaini said he grew the grass on six hectares of land last year, and plans to grow grass on five more hectares of land in September. He spent about Rwf263,000 on the grass seeds.
The grass varieties that the Government encouraged farmers to grow include two nutritious perennial species: chloris gayana, and penicum maximum, which are rich in energy.
Others are legume species: lucerne and lablab, rich in protein for cows.
“We are prone to dry season in Umutara region (Nyagatare andGatsibo districts), mainly in June through August. The Government advised us to grow grass and we were offered support of tarpaulins, which we use for water storage and long-term preservation of grass,” he said.
Karani said the new practice cushions his cows against drought-associated death.
Edouard Rulangwa, a dairy farmer in Kahi Sector in Nyagatare, said he has realised that such grass growing initiative is profitable, but called for government interventions for better implementation.
“If we get grass seeds close to us that are affordable, we can grow them as they can save our cows during dry spells and also increase milk production,” he said.
Gashumba said farmers need to change old mentality of sending cows to graze without planning for grass that will be needed during dry season, rather that they should grow fodder and properly manage pasture through paddock.
He also said farmers need to be taught proper harvesting system of fodder and warned that if grass is grown late in the season, it will face difficulties resisting dry spell effects.
Meanwhile, Gashumba called for subsidy on grass harvesting machine, which is currently at between Rwf350,000 and Rwf450,000, so that it helps farmers to efficiently harvest fodder.
Speaking to journalists last week, the Minister for Agriculture and Animal Resources (MINAGRI), Dr Geraldine Mukeshimana, said a kilogramme of fodder seed was Rwf12,000, but the Government reduced it to Rwf1,200 through subsidy in order to make it affordable to farmers.
“We even gave free fodder seed to vulnerable families,” she said, noting that farmers can even pass on seeds to others as they harvest the grass.
Fodder storage technique
Evalde Kagwa, animal production technician in Rwanda Agriculture Board’s eastern agriculture zone, said the Government availed a tractor-run machine with capacity to compress dry grass for proper storage, noting that it has capacity to make 100 bales of dry grass weighing three tonnes, per hour.
He told The New Times that Rwanda Agriculture Board workers have so far compressed 39 tonnes and 480 kilogrammes for five farmers, adding that the demand for the service is high.
“About 108 farmers in Nyagatare want to have the service for their grass on estimated 315.5 hectares of land. This service is intended to help farmers keep fodder well to mitigate drought challenges,” Kagwa said, adding that there are farmers in Kayonza and Gatsibo districts who also need the support.
There are about 1.4 million cows in Rwanda, according to figures from MINAGRI, 424,379 of these in Eastern Province.
Milk yield in Rwanda went up from 7,000 tonnes in 1994 to over 700,000 tonnes in 2016, according to data from MINAGRI.