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Constraints and prospects for small ruminant research and development in Africa

A.A. Ademosun

P. O. Box 182. Ile-Oluji, Ondo State, Nigeria

Research and development


Small ruminants have a great potential to affect the socio-economic development of the majority of African rural communities. This paper discusses the constraints on small ruminant production and the future prospects for small ruminant production.

Contraintes et perspectives de la recherche-développement sur l'élevage des petits ruminants en Afrique


Les petits ruminants peuvent apporter une contribution considérable au développement socio-économique de la majorité des communautés rurales de l'Afrique. Cet article examine les contraintes qui pèsent sur l'élevage de petits ruminants ainsi que les perspectives d'avenir.


Africa has a population of 205 million sheep and 174 million goats representing approximately 17% and 31% of the world total, respectively (FAO, 1990). Within Africa, the distribution of these small ruminants varies widely, with a higher concentration found in dry areas than in humid areas. These animals serve primarily as sources of meat, but also provide milk, skins and manure. Sheep and goats produce only about 16% of the world's meat, despite their high contribution to the total world livestock population. Milk and skin production show similar figures. African small ruminants produce only 14% of the world's milk and 15% of the world's skin.

The ownership of small ruminants in Africa differs from that of cattle. Only a small percentage of the population own cattle, and rear them mainly in the arid and subhumid zones. Most people in rural areas own small ruminants.

The ownership of small ruminants is regarded as an investment. They are sold to meet compelling family financial obligations or slaughtered for consumption at home or-at festivals. The size of the animals makes them ideal for families. Little capital investment in buildings or other materials is required for their upkeep, and space and maintenance requirements are low. They are suitable for family consumption in the absence of refrigeration for storage, or adequate transportation (Ademosun, 1988), and their reproductive efficiency is high. However, the animals are given little attention.

Until recently, small ruminants were not a priority in the research activities and development programmes of African governments. This has changed with the establishment of international research institutes under the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research, particularly ILCA (International Livestock Centre for Africa). The broadening of the base of livestock research in National Agricultural Research Systems has also boosted small ruminant research, which has taken its place besides research into cattle, pig and poultry production.

The new orientation of research can be attributed to a number of factors. These include a new awareness of the potential of the small ruminant, the need for increased meat production, pressure on land, urbanisation, disease problems with other traditional livestock species and increasing feeding costs for non-ruminants.



A serious constraint on small ruminant production in Africa has been the high prevalence of diseases and parasites, particularly in the more humid areas. This causes high mortality amongst kids and lambs, diminishing the benefits of their high reproductive performance.

Preweaning mortality of up to 40% has been recorded with kids and lambs in Nigeria. However, preweaning mortality under the extensive system of management may be underestimated. Births which occur when animals are bush grazing and result in the death of the offspring usually go unnoticed. In addition, further losses are caused by abortions and stillbirths.

One of the most serious diseases of small ruminants, peste des petits ruminants (PPR), was first recognised as a contagious "rinderpest-like" condition in goats in Nigeria in 1930. It was first described in Côte d'Ivoire in 1942 and later in the Benin Republic during 1944. The disease has been difficult to quantify due to the lack of precise statistical records. However, it has been stated that it is the most destructive viral disease among small ruminants (Bourdin, 1983). Goats are more susceptible to PPR than sheep and young animals are more susceptible than adult ones. The use of tissue-culture rinderpest vaccine (TCRV) is effective in the control of PPR.

Parasitism ranks high among the factors that limit the productivity of small ruminants although its effect is often underestimated. Akerejola et al (1979) have estimated that the losses from parasitic diseases in Nigeria's subhumid zone are higher than those attributable to PPR. Helminthiasis was the most prevalent condition encountered. Assoku (1980) studied the helminths of sheep and goats on the Accra plains of Ghana. He found that 80% of the sheep and 88.3% of the goats were infected. The problem of parasitism is compounded by the fact that, under the traditional system, livestock are usually reared extensively. This increases infestation and makes control measures difficult. Young animals are the most affected and parasitism could aggravate other conditions such as nutritional stress and susceptibility to disease.

About 46% of tropical Africa is infested by tsetse flies, with the highest infestation in the humid (90%) and subhumid (68%) zones. It has generally been believed that small ruminant breeds adapted to the humid zones are trypanotolerant. However, cases of trypanosomiasis have been recorded amongst indigenous breeds in these zones. In a village survey of south west Nigeria, trypanosomiasis was responsible for more of the diseases recorded than any other (ILCA, 1982). Kariuki and Jacobsen (1980) also reported trypanosomiasis in sheep in Kenya. Close attention needs to be paid to this disease as it frequently occurs among animals under stress, especially nutritional stress. Animals imported for upgrading indigenous stock are also susceptible.

External parasites cause extensive losses among small ruminants, especially in humid areas. The two most serious vectors are ticks and mites. The irritation and dermatitis that accompany mange infestation can reduce the value of the skins for sale to the leather industry and the meat with skin for consumption as food. Haemoparasites transmitted by ticks are quite common. Assoku (1979) studied the incidence of bloodborne parasites of sheep and goats in southern Ghana. He found moderate to heavy infestation of tick-borne parasites in both species. Extensively reared animals showed greater infestation than semi-intensively kept ones. Dwarf breeds were less infested than long-legged breeds, but infestation increased with age.

Other diseases that have limited the productivity of small ruminants in tropical Africa include pneumonia, coccidiosis, contagious caprine pleuropneumonia, ecthyma, caseous lymphadenitis and brucellosis. Individually, these diseases might not constitute serious problems, but combinations of them or their occurrence under marginal conditions could result in serious losses.

High standards of sanitation and good management are essential to control disease. Table 1 shows the incidence of diseases at the goat unit of the Obafemi Awolowo University in south west Nigeria. When the flock was started in mid-1981, animals were kept mainly on concrete floors spending four hours a day on pasture. A change in management practices, including slatted floors, zero-grazing and once-a-year vaccinations against PPR with TCRV reduced cases of disease. The goat population increased from 57 in 1982 to 216 in 1985.

Table 1. Incidence of disease among the goat flock at Obafemi Awolowo University Farm, Nigeria in 1982 and 1985.


No of cases









Tick borne diseases












Caseous lymphadenitis









Localised inflammation






Hoof problems









Retained placenta










Inadequate feeding is a major limiting factor to small ruminant production in tropical Africa. Fodder is of poor nutritional value for most of the year due to the rainfall pattern. In the arid and semi-arid zones, rainfall is less than 600 mm and between 600-1000 mm per year, respectively. The management system is nomadic or transhumant pastoralism. Animals have to trek great distances in search of fodder and water. The quality of available forage is low and browse species which can provide higher levels of proteins and carbohydrates are sparsely dispersed. In the humid and subhumid zones, up to six months of the year can be rainless, resulting in poor quality forages. The rapid buildup of cell-wall materials and decline in crude protein (CP) content with maturity reduces the nutritional value of the forages. Little is known about the nutritional value, distribution, palatability, seedling vigour and seasonal production of the forage species that characterise the natural grassland. This is particularly true of the arid, semi-arid and subhumid areas which contain 75% of the sheep and 80% of the goats of tropical Africa and where the rangeland is the most important source of food.

A variety of grasses and legumes have been used to improve pastures and high yields have been recorded. Under station conditions a yield of 20 tonnes of dry matter per hectare (DM/ha) has been obtained with Pennisetum purpureum in the humid zone of Nigeria. Under ranching conditions, with systematic clearing of woody vegetation, Jahnke (1982) reported a yield of 6 t DM/ha with Cynodon dactylon. Results from West Africa indicate annual DM yields of between 10-18 t/ha for Panicum maximum without fertiliser application. Using fertilisers, appropriate cutting regimes and suitable mixed improved pasture species, annual yields of up to 30 t DM/ha are possible in humid areas. However, high yields are not necessarily matched by high nutritional values. Tropical grasses are generally low in C P content. As they grow, the lignin content and other cell-wall materials build up rapidly, adversely affecting digestibility. Studies have shown that the use of a grass such as Panicum maximum or Cynodon nlemfuencis alone is not adequate to allow optimum production in sheep and goats (Ademosun et al, 1985). The use of browse and other feed sources has proved satisfactory. Browses such as Gliricidia septum and Leucaena leucocephala have been successfully used for small ruminant production systems in alley farms (Sumberg, 1985) and intensive feed gardens (Ademosun, 1988).

Besides the use of browse, other strategies can be employed to improve the feeding of animals. During the dry season, the quality of available herbage is so low that, unless the animals have access to supplementary feeds, they lose weight. These supplementary feeds can be obtained from agro-industrial by-products such as residues of oil extracted from oil bearing seeds (groundnuts, coconut, palm kernels, cotton seed, soyabean etc), by-products of grain processing (maize, rice, wheat, sorghum, millet etc), peelings of crops (yams, cassava, potatoes, plantains etc) and industrial by-products (brewers' dried grains, fruit cannery by-products, molasses etc). The types and quantities available tend to be location and season specific.

The feeding quality of the rangelands in semi-arid and subhumid areas can be improved by oversowing the natural grassland with legumes. This has been successful in the subhumid zone of Nigeria (ILCA, 1984). The legume of choice has been Stylosanthes. The ILCA work was with cattle but could be useful for small ruminants. Crop residues also provide good alternative feeds in the dry season. Their feeding value and DM production can be improved if the crops are planted with forage legumes. With the selection of the appropriate legume, grain yield need not decrease (Table 2).

Table 2. Grain and fodder yields of sorghum/forage legume mixtures in the subhumid zone of Nigeria.

Crop mixture

Grain yield

Legume/crop residue

DM (kg/ha)

Total fodder

Total CP

Sorghum alone






Sorghum + S. hamata



2778 (11.4)



Sorghum + S. guianensis cv Cook



2063 (12.8)



Sorghum + M. atropurpureum



1296 (14.2)



Sorghum + C. pascuorum



1204 (14.9)



Sorghum + A. vaginalis



926 (10.8)



Sorghum + M. lathyroides



1481 (16.5)



Source: ILCA (1984).

Figures in parentheses are CP (%) of fodder crop.
S = Stylosanthes; M = Macroptilium; C = Centrosema; A = Alysicarpus.


Small ruminant breeds in tropical Africa are characterised by small birth weights, low milk production, slow growth rates and small mature weights. The West African Dwarf goat has been variously called the Nigerian Dwarf, Cameroun Dwarf, Forest Djallon and Fouta Djallon, which indicate its wide geographical spread. These animals weigh 20-45 kg at maturity, have short hair and attain sexual maturity at about five months. Table 3 shows the production traits of the West African Dwarf sheep and goats in south western Nigeria (Mack, 1983).

Table 3. Production traits of village sheep and goats of the WAD breed in south west Nigeria.




Litter size



Parturition interval (days)



Birth weight (kg)



Preweaning liveweight % gain (g/day)



Live weight at 12 months



Survival index for lambs/kids to 90 days



Source: Mack (1983).

Ninety-nine per cent of the goats and most of the sheep in Botswana belong to indigenous breeds with high variation in conformation, colour and type (Molefe, 1986). Small East African (SEA) goats are slightly bigger than their West African counterparts. According to Mburu (1986), SEA goats are the most numerous in Kenya. Okello (1983) indicated that SEA goats weigh 25 kg at maturity and reach sexual maturity at four months when they weigh 14-16 kg. The local ecotype of the SEA goat in Burundi has recorded a litter size of 1.75 under improved management. Primiparous females have a smaller litter size of 1.3. The South African Bantu (SAB) goat is similar to the SEA. It is, however, bigger and found in the southern parts of the zone. Like the other breeds, it is a meat animal. The Landim goat in Mozambique is similar to the SEA (Rocha, 1986). Dlamini and Lebbie (1986) have stated that 99% of the goat and 81% of the sheep population in Swaziland belong to indigenous breeds.

Attempts to improve indigenous breeds by crossing them with exotic breeds have been unsuccessful due to the inability to sustain initial efforts and lack of coordination. The Black Headed Nungua sheep developed in Ghana and the Permer sheep (a cross between the Persian and Merino) in Nigeria are examples. Teeluck (1986) for Mauritius, Kassahun Awgichew and Getaneh Hailu (1986) for Ethiopia and Dlamini and Lebbie (1986) for Swaziland, have given examples of such efforts. Crossbreeding should be preceded by rigorous selection among the adapted breeds for desirable characteristics and good productivity. Meticulous performance records need to be kept and accurate livestock census data are needed. Each breed must be well defined. Using improved breeds in the production process needs to be backed up by a strong livestock extension service which, at present, does not exist in many countries.

Table 4. Livestock species in households in the humid and subhumid zones of Nigeria.


Eruwa (Humid)*1

Kamerukaje (Subhumid)**2

Ganawuri (Subhumid)**3

















































* Source: Sellers et al (1976).
** Source: ILCA (1985).

1 Total number of households 769.
2 Total number of households 39.
3 Total number of households 41.


Small ruminants in tropical Africa are kept under traditional extensive systems. In the arid and subhumid zones, cattle are reared with sheep and/or goats. In the humid zone, animals generally graze freely, with access to household and kitchen wastes when available. These are supplemented with bush grazing on low quality forages or browses. In some places, animals are tethered and fed kitchen wastes supplemented with zero-grazing. Sheep and goat management under traditional systems has the following characteristics:

(a) stock owners are usually crop farmers (mostly arable crops in the arid and subhumid zones and tree crops in the humid zone) for whom livestock keeping is of secondary importance;

(b) most households keep only a few sheep and goats, also keeping other livestock such as pigs, horses, chickens and domestic animals such as cats and dogs (Table 4);

(c) the flock structures do not reflect good breeding strategy;

(d) veterinary and livestock improvement services are minimal; and

(e) the management systems are not integrated with crop production.

These management practices are not ideal. Mortality rates (particularly amongst the young) and losses from accidents, theft and predators are high. Research innovations and extension services have little impact on the production systems, and the benefits of an integrated crop/livestock production system are lost.

Research and development

The major problems of small ruminant production in Africa can all be tackled with the appropriate research. In order to be effective, research must be targetted at the smallholder farmer. It must also be systems oriented, practical and adaptable. The most prevalent diseases in each locality should be given priority. This can substantially improve animal production, as demonstrated by ILCA in the control of PPR and mange in some villages in the humid zone of Nigeria (ILCA, 1984).

The nutritional problem is a serious one, particularly during the dry season. This situation will be worsened if livestock productivity and population increase. Research into providing good quality, year-round feed for the small ruminants is therefore very important. Adapted forage species can provide nutrients for small ruminants. The agronomic characteristics of these forages need to be explored in order to achieve maximum benefits from them. Fertiliser requirements, frequency of cutting, cutting height, grass/legume mixtures and other factors affect the yield and nutritional value of forages. These need to be studied. Browses occupy an important place in small ruminant feeding, particularly during the dry season. This is because most browse species are drought resistant and provide proteins, vitamins and minerals which are lacking in the herbage species in the range. The use of browse in the various locations needs to be investigated. Household and kitchen wastes and agro-industrial by-products provide valuable supplementary feed. Their feeding value and rates of incorporation need to be determined.

If further processing is needed by foodstuffs before their use, it must be simple, adaptable and adaptable. For example, the use of sodium hydroxide on straw and other poor quality roughages may not be attractive due to its cost and the hazards involved in its handling. However, the use of ash from various farm wastes may serve as an alkali source and achieve the same objective. The nutrient requirement tables of the ARC (Agricultural Research Council) and NRC (National Research Council) still serve as references for sheep and goat requirements in tropical Africa, despite the fact that various workers have established energy and protein requirements of tropical sheep and goats. There is a need to collate this information and extend it to include vitamins and minerals.

Research into the traditional husbandry system for sheep and goats is a priority. Researchers must be aware that small ruminants are usually reared with cattle in pastoral systems, flock sizes are small and farmers in agro-pastoral and village systems see rearing small ruminants as secondary to farming. Research into integrating crop and animal production is essential, especially for the areas where crop production is the farmers' primary preoccupation. In wetter areas, simple and inexpensive structures can be designed to provide shelter. This will help reduce high mortality rates amongst kids and lambs, which are partly due to their exposure to inclement weather conditions. Structures developed at Obafemi Awolowo University in Nigeria based on local materials are already being adopted by farmers to provide protection for goats.

ILCA's alley farming with the use of Leucaena and Gliricidia in the humid zone and fodder banks involving oversowing the natural grassland with legume (Stylosanthes) in the subhumid zone are good adaptable programmes.

The FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations) has shown an interest in alley farming in some West African countries. It links crop and livestock production. The legume browses provide mulch which improves soil fertility, checks erosion and shortens the fallow period. They also provide fodder for small ruminants on a cut-and-carry basis.

Management systems need to be improved in order to improve livestock performance.

The reproductive performance of small ruminants is high, therefore research into this area need not be a high priority. Selecting for desirable traits could be used to improve breeds. Cross-breeding should be kept between adapted breeds. Imported exotic breeds are usually more susceptible to diseases, parasites and the harsh tropical environment. Selection and breeding work is slow, expensive, painstaking, tedious and requires large populations. It should only be embarked upon when the resources are adequate, and must be systematic, consistent and aimed at developing breeds that will succeed under field conditions.

Institutional support for livestock development programmes is generally weak. Many African governments make minimal budgetary allocations to livestock development. Existing government agencies may need to be reorganised to operate more effectively. Routine vaccination against PPR is cheap. Control of tsetse flies and other disease vectors should have a high priority in small ruminant development programmes. The marketing of small ruminants and their products is largely unorganised and leads to exploitation of the primary producers. Lack of credit has hampered small ruminant production in many places. Organising farmers into cooperatives and establishing fattening schemes run by smallholders will enhance productivity. Conferences, workshops and seminars for sub-regional groupings will establish and enhance communication channels among interested groups.


Tropical Africa has a high population of small ruminants but productivity is low with low contribution to the total GDP. The ownership pattern of small ruminants is widespread and the previously neglected animals are gradually gaining a respectable place in research and development programmes. The constraints to production and strategies to enhance development are discussed.


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