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Feed resources in Ethiopia

Alemayehu Mengistu

Animal and Fisheries Resources Development, Main Department
Ministry of Agriculture, P. O. 62347, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

Present livestock production systems
Feed resources and status
Feed development constraints
Strategy for feed development


Ethiopia lies in the horn of Africa between 3° and 18° north and 33° and 48° east and has a land area of approximately 1.23 million km². It borders on the Sudan in the north and west, Kenya in the south, Somalia in the southeast and Djibouti and the Red Sea in the east.

Out of the total land area, 846,100 km² is agricultural land of which 137,000 km² is cultivated land 651,000 km² pastureland, and 88,000 km² forests. Swamps cover 57,800 km² are barren land and 120,000 km² water and water courses.

The topography consists of a high central plateau ranging in altitude from 1,800 to 3,000 m, the Rift Valley that divides the country from south to north with altitudes ranging from 1,000 to 1,800 m, and the extensive lowland plain areas to the south and south-east with varying altitudes but often less than 1,000 m. These are the areas occupied by nomadic people.

The soils vary from black cotton soils (vertisols) and red soils (artisols) to desert sands. Vegetation cover varies from rain forest to savanna. The originally fertile soils of the high and medium altitudes have been intensively cultivated for centuries and are now degraded in some places.

There are several large rivers such as the Blue Nile, Wabe Shebele, Omo, Baro and Gibe, and many smaller rivers, streams and lakes whose potential is as yet untapped.

Large parts of the country have adequate rainfall which has a bimodal pattern. The small rains occur from March to May and the big rains from late June until the end of September in the high and mid-altitudes. The rainfall pattern is different in the lowland areas for there the rains start in early July and end in early September. Temperatures vary with altitude, ranging from less than 10°C in alpine areas to 35°C and higher in lowland areas.

Agriculture is the backbone of the country's economy with the raising of crops being the major activity. Coffee is the major exportable agricultural commodity and it earns the largest proportion of foreign exchange. Livestock also play an important role in Ethiopia's economy being the second largest earner of foreign exchange after coffee.

Present livestock production systems

Domestic livestock herds and flocks include 29 million cattle, 24 million sheep, 18 million goats, 1 million camels, 7 million equines and 53 million poultry, distributed throughout the country. The greatest concentration occurs in the highland where 70% of the human population live. Although there are few data on the animal population, it is generally accepted that there are about 5 livestock units (LU)* of grazing animals per capita in the lowlands and 1 LU per capita in the highlands. In addition, almost all rural households, with the exception of nomadic ones, own some chickens.

*1 LU is equivalent to a 250 kg animals

The heterogeneity of Ethiopia's topography, climate and cultural conditions make it difficult to generalize about livestock production systems in the country. The following are the major livestock production systems in the country, however.

Highland Livestock

Here animals are part of a mixed subsistence farming complex. Animals provide inputs (draught power, transport, manure) to other parts of the farm system and generate consumable or saleable outputs (milk, manure, meat, hides and skins, wool, hair and eggs).

Lowland Livestock

Where animals are kept by pastoralists they do not provide inputs for crop production but are the very backbone of life for their owners, providing all of the consumable saleable outputs listed above and, in addition, representing a living bank account and form of insurance against adversity.

Parastatal and Commercial Livestock

Commercial livestock are mainly held by state farms, co-operatives and some private individuals and produce milk and eggs for local sale and meat for export. Only a very small proportion of the animals in Ethiopia fall into this category.

Feed resources and status

In Ethiopia livestock obtain feed from:

1. Grazing and browsing on natural pastures;
2. Crop residues and agro-industrial by-products; and
3. Cultivated pasture and forage-crop species.

Grazing and Browsing

The availability and quality of native pastures available to livestock vary with altitude, rainfall, soil type and cropping intensity. The total area of grazing and browsing is 62,280 million hectares, of which 12% is in the farming areas (more than 600 mm rainfall) and the rest around the pastoral areas (Tables 1 and 2).

Afro-alpine vegetation, found at altitudes above 3,000 m, is characterized by heaths and Lobelia with cold-resistant short grasses. Much of this area is overgrazed. The highland areas (between 2,200 and 3,000 m) as characterized by grass and legume pastures with the legume component decreasing with decreasing altitude. The area available for grazing is determined by the intensity of annual cropping and in southern Ethiopia, by the areas sown to coffee, Ensette (pseudo-banana, a carbohydrate source), and chat (Cata edulis, a narcotic leaf which is chewed). There are extensive grassland plateaux and areas of seasonally waterlogged soils. Active plant growth is restricted to periods during the short rains, where these occur, and to one or two months after the small rains. Pastures are generally overgrazed and many areas are invaded by Pennisetum spp. Overgrazing is less severe in areas with lower cropping intensity. The lower-altitude farming areas are characterized by grass-dominant pastures and production varies with rainfall, which in some areas is poor and erratic overgrazing is common in settled farming areas.

The higher rainfall areas of the pastoral zone (300-600 mm rainfall per annum), are characterized by dense thornbush with a low carrying capacity and more open vegetation with understory grasses having a higher carrying capacity. Open desert with annual rainfall below 300 mm is characterized by sparse vegetation, including early maturing annual grasses. Carrying capacities vary from 8 to 15 ha per LU.

In the farming system, permanent pastures provide 85% of the feed resources available to livestock and in the pastoral areas grazing and browsing provide 100% of such resources. (Table 1 and 2).

Productivity studies indicate that in the lowland areas native pasture yields 1 ton dry matter ha or less in intermediate and high areas on freely drained soils yields are 3 tons dry matter ha-1 and in seasonally waterlogged fertile areas 4-6 tons dry matter ha-1.

Table 1. Feed Resources Available Annually to Livestock in the Highlands

Feed source

Area (millions ha)


dry matter

Total dry matter







Crop residues



Aftermath grazing



Pulse residues








Table 2. Feed Resources Available to Livestock in Pastoral Areas

Rainfall zone (mm)

Area (millions ha)


Dry matter h-1

Total dry matter (million t)













Thorn bush areas







Sources: Tables 1 and 2, Ministry of Agriculture, 1984


The highlands are rich in pasture species, particularly indigenous legumes. The proportion of legumes tends to increase with increasing altitude and particularly above 2,200 m there is a wide range of annual and perennial Trifolium spp. and of annual Medicago spp. At lower altitudes native legumes are less abundant and commonly have a climbing or sprawling growth habit which renders them more susceptible to loss through grazing. There is a large variation in the range and density of legumes in wet bottomlands, and this appears to be only partly due to edaphic differences.

Common species

Areas above 3,000 m

The most common grasses are species of Poa, Fectuca, Agrostis and, to a less extent, Andropogon. In the wetter areas, sedges of the genera Carex, Eleocharis, and Mariscus occur. Of the perennial legumes, the most important are the deep-rooted Trifolium burchellianum (var. oblongum and var. johnstonii) and Trifolium acaule which extends to over 4,000 m. Trifolium polystachyum extends to at least 3,500 m and of the annuals Trifolium tembense is the most significant, though it occurs only in the lower range. Of the shrubs, Erica arborea and Hypericum revolutum are common.

Areas from 2,000 to 3,000 m

The most common grasses are species of Andropogon, Cynodon and Pennisetum. Other common ones are species of Setaria, Themeda, Eragrostis, Sporobolus, Brachiaria, Paspalum, Phalaris and Festuca aurindinacea. The only significant annual grass is Snowdenia abyssinica. Productivity may be extremely high during the later part of the wet season but there is little growth after early October. Legumes are prolific in this zone. The most common perennial is Trifolium semipilosum, and other frequently occurring ones are Trifolium burchellianum var. johnstonii, Trifolium, polystachyum, Lotus sp., Trifolium rueppellianum, Trifolium decorum, Trifolium steudneri, Trifolium quatinanum and Vigna sp. are the most widespread of the annuals. In the extremely wet bottomlands sedges are common. Of the legumes, Trifolium tembense is prolific. Arable land left fallow usually has a dense weed cover initially, but with heavy grazing there is always an invasion of grasses, including Digitaria scalarum, Cynodon dactylon and Phalaris paradoxa. With longer-term fallows Cynodon dactylon and Pennisetum sp. become more common. Trifolium semipilosum and Trifolium burchellianum are also found in such areas. Of the browse Erythrina sp. is common.

Areas from 1,800 to 2,000 m

This zone is characterized by tall grasses and a higher proportion of climbing/sprawling legumes, especially in less intensively settled areas. The most common grasses are of the genera Chloris, Cenchrus, Hyparrhenia, Setaria, Paspalum, Cynodon, Pennisetum, Eleusine, Eragrostis, Cymbopogon and Andropogon. The perennial legumes include Neonotonia wightii, Indigofera spp., Crotolaria sp., Desmodium sp., Rhynchosia sp., Vigna sp. and Trifolium semipilosum which grows down to about 1,500 m in wetter western areas and commonly to 1,800 m in central areas. Stylosanthes fruticosa is found in scattered sites, mainly below 1,800 m, and may be common in degraded areas where few other species thrive. Of the annuals, Trifolium steudneri, Trifolium reupellianum and Medicago polymorpha are quite frequent above 1,700 m. Of the browse species, Albizia sp. is common and Sesbania is also prolific on wet lake margins.

Areas below 1,800 m

These areas, which include the Rift Valley, are covered with Acacia woodland. Today much of the Acacia has been removed as the demand for charcoal has increased in urban centres. Heavy grazing and low-productivity farming have followed the cutting of trees. Common grasses include Chloris pycnothrix, Hyparrhenia anthistiriodes, Setaria acromelana, Aristida keniensis, Cynodon dactylon, Panicum atrosanguineum, Microchloa kunthii, Hyparrhenia dregeana, Cenchrus ciliaris, Heteropogon sp. and Bothriochloa insculpta. Of the legumes, Neonotonia wightii and the less valuable Indigofera spicata are common. Browse species are dominated by Acacia etbaica, Acacia nilotica subsp. leiocarpa and Acacia seyal var. seyal.

Crop Residues and Agro-Industrial By-Products

Cereals and Pulses

Cereal straw from teff, barley and wheat is the largest component of livestock diet in the intermediate and highland areas that is not obtained in situ. Straw is stacked after threshing and fed to animals during the dry season, as are pulse-crop residues (e.g. horsebeans, chickpeas, haricot beans, field peas and lentils). At lower altitudes in the highland areas maize, sorghum and millet stovers occur to a greater extent than at higher altitudes. Teff is grown at intermediate altitudes and barley replaces wheat at the higher altitudes, where pulses are also grown to a great extent. The nutritive values of the different residues vary. Whereas teff straw is equivalent to medium-quality hay, the residue of other cereal crops is only of poor to fair quality. On the other hand, pulse haulms are high-quality roughage with 5-8% protein.

By-Products from Sugar

The sugar industry in Ethiopia has factories at three sites (Wonji, Shoa and Methara). The present area of cane is 13,000 ha and the estimated yield of cane tops is 6 tonnes dry matter per hectare or 78,000 tonnes dry matter per year. Production of molasses in 1981/82 was 51,100 tonnes of which 29,000 tonnes were exported. At present the use of a molasses/urea mixture as a drought-relief feed has been started in a pilot scheme run jointly by the Ministry of Agriculture, the Ministry of State Farms and ILCA.


Oil cakes are an excellent concentrate feed for ruminant livestock. Ethiopia grows most of the temperate and sub-tropical oilseed plants such as linseed, groundnuts, rape, sesame, sunflower and cotton. Neug or niger, a native annual composite, which produces niger seed for oil, is also grown. The processing of oilseeds is widely practiced on a family basis or in small village mills. In some areas (the northwest) neug cakes are currently being wasted rather than being properly used.

Milling By-Products

The various milling by-products obtained through processing wheat are of great interest as livestock feed for state farms, city dairy holders, and to a lesser extent for some dairy co-operatives. Wheat grain is processed in big mills, whereas in the case of teff, barley, maize and sorghum the whole grains are processed and used for food.

Slaughter Products

Large numbers of livestock, mainly cattle, sheep and goats, are slaughtered every year. Of these, only a small proportion of the cattle are slaughtered in abattoirs with processing facilities. The Addis Ababa Municipality, which is responsible for the abattoirs, produces meat, bonemeal and blood. At present most of the meat and bonemeal is exported.

Brewery By-Products

Brewer's grains are traditionally valued for lactating cows because of their palatability and milk-producing property. In addition to commercial beer production at the two breweries in Addis Ababa and one each in Asmara and Harare, small-scale home brewing is also practiced.

Other By-Products

Sisal waste is produced in the southern part of the country. Studies indicate that it has a low protein and high fibre content. Coffee pulp and hulls (about 30,000 tonnes per year) can also be used as a minor feed source in the coffee-growing areas. Since coffee-residue production is seasonal, storage is a problem.

Cultivated Pasture and Forage-Crop Species

Research on cultivated pasture and forage-crop species was initiated in the late 1960s. The leading organizations conducting research were the Institute of Agriculture Research (IAR), Arsi Rural Development Project (ARDP, ex-CADU), and lately the International Livestock Center for Africa (ILCA) and the Forage Network in Ethiopia (FNE). The development programmes were partially executed by the Extension Promotion and Implementation Department (EPID) and the Livestock and Meat Board (LMB), but since 1979 the Ministry of Agriculture, Animal and Fisheries Resources Development, Main Department, has been responsible for the execution of the national programmes. Within the same Ministry, the Department of Soil and Community Forests and the Third Livestock Project are also running development programmes. The Ministry of State Farms, especially the Animal Resources Development programmes. The Ministry of State Farms, especially the Animal Resources Development Department, has large-scale dairy and beef farms.

Cultivated pastures and forage crops, with the exception of alfalfa and Rhodes grass, have not been used on significant areas outside government stations, state farms and farmer's demonstration plots. Fodder crops are commonly grown for feeding dairy cattle, with oats and Vetch mixtures, alfalfa, Rhodes grass and fodder beet being the most common. There has been widespread acceptance of the use of fodder following an intensive rural development programme; and both an oats/Vicia mixture and fodder beets have been used to a limited extent for draught oxen. Fodder crops have had minimal use in non-dairy production, perhaps partly because seed has been imported and available only in limited quantities. In suitable areas yields of oats/Vicia mixtures are commonly 8-12 tons dry matter per hectare. Introduced fodder trees (Leucaena, Sesbania sp.) have been used only within the soil-erosion control programme and around farmers' homesteads. Due to land scarcity and a crop-dominated farming system there has been no significant introduction of cultivated species into traditional grazing areas.

Key recommendations for plant species to be grown in the different zones are shown in Table 3.

Feed development constraints

Undernutrition and malnutrition are major factors constraining animal production in Ethiopia. Nutritional stress causes low growth rates, poor fertility and high mortality, which is compounded by diseases. About 85% of feed intake is used to meet the animals' maintenance requirements and only 15% is utilized for production. Utilization of the feed resources is therefore highly inefficient. The area of improved pastures and fodder crops is insignificant and natural pastures are overgrazed causing invasion of inferior species. Seasonal feed deficiencies cause the loss of weight gains made during more favourable periods, while fodder conservation to help eliminate seasonal feed-supply fluctuations is rarely practiced. Generally, all stock are grazed together with no attempt to provide special treatment for different classes of stock. Controlled breeding is rarely practiced so that seasonal variation in feed supply and demand are not synchronized. Agro-industrial by-products are often wasted or poorly utilized and crop residues are fed without treatment or supplementation. Transport problems often prevent by-products being moved to areas where they can be utilized effectively. The incidence and effects of mineral deficiencies are poorly understood, although there is an overemphasis on concentrate feeding, even though the supply of concentrates is unreliable. Dairy calves receive poor weaning rations which lead to poor growth.

Table 3. Major Recommended species for different environments

Altitude (m)

Rainfall (m)

Major Species



Buffel, Rhodes grass, Stylosanthes spp., Siratro, green panic, Sorghum almum, Leucaena, pigeon pea.


Rhodes grass, Panicum maximum, elephant grass, Desmodium uncinatum, Siratro, Stylosanthes spp. alfalfa, Leucaena, Sesbania, pigeon pea.



Rhodes grass, Panicum maximum, Panicum coloratum, Setaria, tall fescue, Phalaris, vetch, Desmodium, Medicago, alfalfa, oats, Sesbania, pigeon pea.



Tall fescue, Phalaris, indigenous clovers, Medicago, vetch, oats, fodder beet.


Tall fescue, Phalaris, rye grass, cocksfoot, indigenous clovers, Medicago, vetch, oats, fodder beet, Erythrina sp.

In pastoral areas, feed shortages during drought cause high mortality. There are increasing signs of range deterioration including erosion, bush encroachment and loss of species diversity. Better management of the rangeland is badly needed.

Strategy for feed development

A strategy for feed development/improvement would incorporate reduction of livestock numbers improvement of feed availability and quality, and improvement in the efficiency with which feed supplies are used. A reduction of livestock numbers would concentrate initially on the intensively cultivated highlands where the stocking pressure is greater. The destocking would be accompanied by increased utilization of working oxen bred in the rangeland areas and eventually by mechanized cultivation.

Strategies to improve the efficiency with which feed supplies are used include disease control so that animals can realize the benefits of improved nutrition, and improved feeding management techniques such as rotational grazing, fodder conservation, feeding fresh forage using the cut-and-carry method, and regulating the intake by different categories of stock. The introduction of seasonal calving and lambing would help to synchronize fluctuations in feed supply and demand. Dry-season supplementation with protein-rich feeds would help reduce seasonal losses. Improved use of crop residues and agro-industrial by-products would also be useful. Mixing cereal residues with legumes would be the preferred method of improving the efficiency of utilization of the residues, rather than chemical treatments which would be difficult to apply in Ethiopia. Some agro-industrial byproducts such as cane tops, coffee pulp, oilseed meals, and molasses are currently underutilized or wasted and the scope exists for improving their utilization. Prepared feeds could also be improved by up-grading the existing feed-milling facilities.

Measures to improve the availability and quality of feed include establishment of grass/legume-based permanent pasture, fodder crops, forage intercropping, oversowing, undersowing, use of fodder trees and seed production.

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