Under the conditions that prevail in developing countries, poor-quality feed (of low digestibility and low nutritive value) is one of the major factors limiting dairy production. Dairy animals are often fed on fibrous feeds – mainly crop residues and low-quality pasture – which are deficient in nitrogen, minerals and vitamins. Camels, small ruminants, water buffaloes, yaks and equines are more able to use low-quality forage than cattle are. For example, water buffaloes are known to be better at digesting poor feeds than cattle, while horses and donkeys are more efficient in urea recycling.
Small-scale milk producers in developing countries generally use locally available feed resources, such as natural pastures, crop residues, cut-and-carry grass, forage crops and local feedstuffs (including agro-industrial by-products). Communal grazing of livestock is a common practice throughout developing countries. Grazing fields often lack conservation practices and are of poor nutritional quality. Grazing without supplementary feeding is widely practised in Latin America and some regions of Africa. In much of Asia and the Near East, dairy animals are largely fed on straw from cereal crops, with and without supplementation with oilseed cakes and other by-products such as brans.
The use of supplements (energy- and/or protein-rich feeds) is particularly important for dairy animals, as milk production is a high energy consuming process. Small-scale dairy producers cannot generally feed conventional supplements such as grain-based concentrates, oilseed cake and minerals, because of their high cost and scarce availability. Small-scale producers’ milk output therefore depends mainly on seasonal fluctuations in the quality and quantity of natural forage. Conservation of forage as hay or silage permits the production and sale of milk during periods of feed shortage. Milk producers in Africa and Asia are increasing their use of forage from trees and shrubs (fresh, dry or processed) to overcome the high costs of dairy feeds and deal with seasonal fluctuations of other sources of fodder.