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Opinion: The Virtues of Open Grazing in Nigeria

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According to a popular adage, when you are in a tunnel, what you need is light, not sound. However, light at the end of the tunnel on issues relating to cattle husbandry in Nigeria is a 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, there is no land for roaming cattle, while data on land use shows otherwise; or that ranching is the global best practice for keeping cattle, whereas in Sub-Saharan Africa, ranches exist only in parts of Ethiopia, Kenya and South Africa, and hence it is false to claim that ranches have replaced pastoralism in Kenya and Ethiopia, while the Maasai and the Oromos respectively still practice pastoralism in these countries.

The examination of data on land use in Nigeria will illustrate the logic of open grazing. It is true that the population has increased over the years, also more land has been put to farming and the building of infrastructure, but analysis of the data shows that for 20 million cattle and 200 million Nigerians, there is more than enough land. For a start, Kano, one of the most densely populated States in Nigeria, is home to about one million cattle and there is relative tranquility. Nigeria has a land mass of 92.3 million hectares, with 70.8 million hectares of agricultural area, of which only 34-35 million hectares had been cultivated as at last year. For the sake of discussion, let’s look at maize production.

Available data shows that in 2020, only about 12 million tons were produced. Research findings have shown that 86 per cent of the cereal biomass is made of materials not consumable by humans, but ruminants (cattle, etc.) can convert this into high quality animal protein. The implication is that over 50 million tons of crop residue will be wasted, if not consumed by cattle. Not to mention sorghum that accounts for 50 per cent of the total cereal production in the country 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 lands and open ranges. To access these fodders, which are mainly available in situ, cattle must move and openly graze. In most cases, this is done with the expressed permission of farmers for a fee.

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Cattle generally move along moisture gradients (the North in the wet season and the South in dry season, respectively) on International transhumance stock routes recognised under usufructuary rights. This explains why a kilo of beef sells for N1,700 in Nigeria. 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 who settle in communities all over Nigeria. They negotiate with members of the host community for land to build their homesteads, grow crops and keep cattle. During the cropping season, they kraal the animals away from the farms. In fact, many of the animals in their herds belong to members of the host communities. Clusters of these type of producers exist in the South, along Iseyin-Igangan axis in Oyo State, in Adada-Nkpologu-Adani-Iggah axis in Enugu State and along the 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 in one place, 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 communities. 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 the following.

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A ban on open grazing literally means changing from agropastoralism to a zero grazing system, cold 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.

As the 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 a 200-kilogramme cow, a herder must cut and carry 110 kilogrammes of grass and source 200 litres of water daily. This is an impossible task. So, a law-abiding Nigerians trying to eke out a living from the 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 graze openly. It is in view of this that the Land Use Act recommends the allocation of up to 5,000 hectares for livestock farming. So, if State governors genuinely believe in ranching, they should put their monies where their mouths are, and allocate the recommended hectares to ranchers. The statement that herders should go into ranching because there is no land is incongruent. According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation (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.

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Against all odds, open grazing has been a success story. Ethiopia has a landmass of 110 square kilometres, with 60 million cattle, three times that of Nigeria, which are into open grazing. Ethiopia is one of the fastest growing economies in Africa, with livestock production covering 40 per cent of the 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 misconducts 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 the 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 (Poultry Association of Nigeria) and is the biggest in Africa. But, most significantly, commercial and free-range rural poultry exist 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 legislations driven my emotions.

Junaidu Maina is a former Director of the Federal Livestock Department

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