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The sub-Sahara African rangeland resource

Ralph E. HODGSON *

(*) Chairman, Board of Trustees, International Livestock Centre for Africa.


Improvement in production and more effective marketing of locally produced livestock from the sub-Sahara rangelands can be an effective way to increase the food supply. The vast range resource currently supports a large population of domestic ruminants - cattle, sheep and goats.

The only use of the rangelands is for animal production. The productivity of the animal population is low and inefficient. A significant cause is the low and deteriorating productivity of the rangelands.

The rangeland is a most important resource in terms of local food production. It should become a high national priority to preserve and improve this resource and, through this action, increase the efficiency and output of livestock production.

A great need is for the training of people at all levels to accomplish this objective. A high need is for competent workers, in consort with livestock raisers to develop and employ practies to improve the management and use of rangeland vegetation and to effect animal management procedures to control grazing and increase per animal unit productivity.

The vast arid sub-Sahara region of Africa comprises a setting of varying types, kinds, and conditions of rangeland, the primary use of which is livestock production. It is difficult to see any other use for this resource than livestock production. Great numbers of animals - cattle, goats, sheep, camels, and also numerous species of wild ruminants - derive their sustenance from this rangeland.

The rangeland has limited capabilities in vegetative production due primarily to adverse environments including low and seasonal rainfall; moisture gathering winds; varying degrees of poor soil; soil erosion; a lack of, or inadequate forage and grazing management; and overstocking rates in terms of what the available vegetative cover can provide for reasonable animal sustenance and production. Much of the rangeland is utilized by nomadic family groups who move their herds and flocks over extensive areas during the course of the year to find water and grazing for their livelihood. The family units and their livestock who inhabit this range area depend on it almost exclusively for their well-being. Milk and meat provide a high percentage of the family diet. Under normal conditions, if there be such, productivity and offtake by marketing outside the area are extremely low. The occurrence of periodic droughts is more devastating to the maintenance and productivity of range vegetation than it would be under more favorable circumstances. The herd units are overstocked, in many instances, with the wrong kinds of animals; and herd management practices therefore are poorly matched with forage resources available. An objective is to have enough cows sheep, or goats in lactation to provide milk for the family throughout the year. Little or no effort is made to complement the range forage with harvested crops, grains or by-products to carry the animals through periods of scarce grazing. The marketing schemes are poorly developed - mainly trekking - and this, along with social customs, beliefs, and practices promotes overstocking. The family units strive for self-containment, with nearly all food and other needs coming from the livestock, supplemented with a few food crops they can grow.

The rangeland has deteriorated over time, and has markedly worsened in recent years. As a result, the contribution of animal foods to the national supplies is not keeping pace with population needs.

Some people wonder whether the conditions have become so severe that the rangeland is beyond saving. Others wonder whether or not the range area deserves the attention, the cost, and the effort it will require to restore and develop it into a viable food-producing resource. The question is whether social changes that would seem necessary to effect desirable range development and utilization could in fact be accomplished.

World attention is focused on increasing the production of food to sustain and prevent starvation among the world's increasing population. A great food deficit area exists in the countries that enfold this rangeland that we speak about.

One of the greatest needs is for more high quality protein. This may not be so among the people who inhabit the range area itself, since their diets are made up primarily of milk and meat from their own herds, but it is true of the non-livestock-raising populations.

The produce of animals - milk and meat - contains proteins of the highest biological quality. Virtually the only use of the rangeland is for this production. The overwhelming need in countries that have rangelands within their borders is to take all action necessary, and with all the help they can get by working together and with the assistance of others, to effectively restore and develop this resource to the extent possible. Such an approach will pay huge dividends in increasing essential food production and national economic wealth, and in bringing the rangeland human populations into the viable part of the economy.

A recent National Academy of Sciences report (1) suggests that the African permanent rangeland supports some 110 million head of cattle and 180 million head of sheep and goats, in addition to an unknown number of other ruminants, including wild species. The annual offtake of cattle is about 10 percent, the animals weighing 230 to 320 kg.

(1) African Agricultural Research Capabilities. Report of the Committee on African Agricultural Research Capabilities. National Academy of Sciences, Washington, D.C. 1974.

Of cattle alone, if we assume an average weight of 275 kg and a live weight protein content of 20 percent, each animal can contribute 55 kg or 55,000 grams of protein to the food supply. This is enough protein (at a requirement of 55 grams per adult person per day) to provide the needs of 2.74 persons for a year.

By increasing the offtake through range development and improved range and stock management from the current 10 percent to only 15 percent, enough additional beef protein would be produced to supply the yearly needs of 1.5 million people. If half the dietary protein came from beef, it would provide for about 3 million yearly. This possibility ought to stimulate interest in the need for range improvement. The forecast does not take into account other benefits, especially increased milk production, that would derive from such improvement. The point being made here is that because the size of the rangeland area is so great, even small improvement results in a tremendous benefit in terms of production of food protein.

What will it take to get this job of range improvement and better management of this vast resource done ? There are many facets to the problem, the solution of which will take the time, efforts, and resources of many countries and institutions of various kinds, and the efforts of many talented and dedicated people.

The first requirement would seem to be for responsible representatives in national governments to recognize that rangeland is an important national asset; that improvement is an important national problem affecting many of their people and their local food supplies; and that something can and should be done about it. Since the rangelands and their manner of use cut across national boundaries, appropriate cooperative efforts on policies and actions toward improvement programs should be developed by government officials.

The development of national rangeland policies is needed to promote, guide, and coordinate rangeland improvement. Policies might include items of zoning, ownership and administration of public and private lands, land distribution and supervision, water and watering rights and use, fencing, stocking rates, brush control, financing and credit, taxation, marketing systems development, etc. Policy and development procedures must take into account and involve participation of the populations that are the users of the rangelands.

Policy implementation ought to be logical, fair, effective, and fully coordinated by personnel who are qualified to do the job for which they are given responsibility. Of primary importance in applying rangeland improvement policies and programs is the need for appropriate education and understanding by the people involved at all levels, particularly the livestock people who use the range. Education, extension, and research are key elements in the success of a rangeland improvement program. Administrative officials, educators, extension and research workers need to be specially trained for their respective tasks, and they need to understand and be able to work effectively with livestock people on the land. In whatever agency of government they are employed, their activities need to be coordinated and cooperative with those of others - within countries and, where appropriate, across countries. Special training courses need to be developed to train workers at all levels. Likewise the livestock people need education to permit them to understand and accept improvement innovations.

One of the first needs is to survey the present condition of rangelands. Such detailed survey studies will provide the basis for action. It can identify where improvement programs can be emphasized; whether it be reseeding, stock control, sociological restraints, water development, brush control, or whatever. Surveys provide a sound basis for identifying gaps in present knowledge and pointing out where further research is needed. Associated with survey work is the need to bring together all possible information from previous surveys, research findings, statistical data, etc., and to glean from it information that is useful to new programs for range improvement.

The task ahead for rangeland improvement in sub-Saharan Africa is a large and difficult one. The time is now to begin this task. The benefits for the future provide the challenge to move forward with the task.

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