Animal Feeding / Biodiversity / CCAFS / Climate Change / Crop-Livestock / Disease Control / East Africa / ILRI / Livestock

ILRI seeks disease- and drought-resistant forages for livestock kept by smallholders

Alexandra Jorge ILRI genebank managerThe International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) is evaluating drought-resistant, nutritious and palatable varieties of Napier grass to feed dairy cattle in Eastern Africa.

Speaking at a seminar on ‘Napier grass diversity studies and further application to other forages in ILRI, Ethiopia’, ILRI’s genebank manager, Maria Alexandra Jorge, said Napier grass (Pennisetum purpureum) continues to be the major feed for cut-and-carry stall-feeding (or ‘zero-grazing’) dairy systems in East Africa. Napier, commonly known as ‘elephant grass’, constitutes between 40 and 80% of the feed on such smallholder dairy farms.

The productivity of Napier grass in the region is threatened by emerging diseases and recurrent droughts. Jorge said the ILRI Gene Bank has received over one hundred DNA samples of materials from outside the ILRI system (from EMBRAPA, Brazil under the project Africa-Brazil, Agricultural innovation marketplace) whose DNA is being studied to see which ones may have additional diversity comparing to our current napier grass materials. The identified unique materials will be introduced to our collection and further tested in Eastern Africa for the unique characteristics being sought.

Climate change predictions for East Africa may indicate that the region will experience greater rainfall variability and more frequent and/or severe drought in some areas, with associated yield reductions in both feed and food crops. Unless new improved lines of Napier grass are made available, the livelihoods of farmers dependent on Napier grass as the main source of feed for their dairy animals may be harmed.

Jorge presented her findings at a seminar given at the end of a four-month stay at ILRI’s headquarters, in Nairobi, where she was attached to the Biosciences east and central Africa (BecA) hub as a fellow of an African Women in Agricultural Research and Development (AWARD) program. The ILRI Genebank is managed by staff of ILRI’s People Livestock and Environment Theme.

Shirley Tarawali, who directs ILRI’s People, Livestock and Environment Theme, was happy to see Alexandra Jorge successfully complete her rich experience at the ILRI BecA Hub. ‘The new technologies and methods Jorge has learned will advance ILRI’s research to protect and enhance Napier grass and other important feed resources in East Africa. Jorge’s training also strengthens the links between ILRI’s high-tech BecA Hub, in Nairobi, and the institute’s specialized forage laboratory and genebank, located in Ethiopia,’ said Dr Tarawali.

“It was a joy to work with Alexandra. She has demonstrated extraordinary work ethics, maturity and seriousness in what she does. She is also a very fast learner; she takes initiative in learning more things and she has great people’s skills”, said Dr Segenet Kelemu, the BecA hub Director.

The AWARD fellowship is a professional development program that strengthens the research and leadership skills of African women in agricultural science, empowering them to contribute more effectively to poverty alleviation and food security in sub-Saharan Africa. It is offered by the African Women in Agricultural Research and Development (AWARD), established in 2008, as a project of the Gender & Diversity Program of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR).
AWARD Fellows benefit from a two-year career development program focused on establishing mentoring partnerships, building science skills, and developing leadership capacity. The fellowships are awarded on the basis of intellectual merit, leadership capacity, and the potential of the scientist’s research to improve the daily lives of smallholder farmers, especially women.

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