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Case Study 13. Dry-season feeding: A case study from Nicaragua

1. Based on material contributed by Ir. Pascall Eleegert.

Nicaragua, with an area of 130 700 km2, lies between Costa Rica and Honduras. The capital, Managua, is at 12° 06' N and 86°18' W. Three agro-climatic zones are distinguished: the Pacific, the Central and the Atlantic zones.

The Pacific zone, with an area of 28 000 km2, has an annual rainfall between 600 and 1800 mm, distributed over 6 months (May till October); 90% of the area receives under 1000 mm per year. Soils are derived from volcanic material and are deep, sometimes with impermeable horizons. Soil texture is mainly sandy loam, except for some limited areas with clay soils. The topography is characterized by hilly terrain with gully formation. Average annual temperature varies between 25.5°C at 1 000 m) and 28°C at sea level.

Figure 62. Temperature and rainfall patterns, Managua, Nicaragua

This study is from the Pacific zone. Livestock production is still in crisis due to the civil instability and political upheavals of the 1980s and early 1990s. During the "golden period," between 1975 and 1979, livestock and livestock products comprised 30% of GNP. In 1975, the cattle population was estimated at 2.5 million; now - in 1997 - it is estimated at between 1.5 and 2.5 million (the agricultural census scheduled for 1997 should provide more exact data). In the Pacific zone, 29% of the animals are kept in 21.4% of the national territory. The animals are mainly general-purpose cattle. No specific breed description can be given, due to indiscriminate crossing of the indigenous breed (Criollo) with Pardo, Brahman and, to a lesser extent, Holsteins. Some typical production parameters are: first calving at 4 years; calving interval 18 -24 months; average milk production 2.5 litre/day (calf suckles one teat) for an average of 8 months; and average daily weight gain 250 - 300 gram. Sheep or goats are insignificant in the Pacific zone.

The farming system is predominantly mixed farming, cultivating maize (Zea mays) and beans (Phaseolus vulgaris) for home consumption, with any surplus sold on the local market. Other important crops are sorghum (Sorghum bicolor) for the poultry feed industry and sesame seed (Sesamum indicum) as an export product. In recent years, the big farmers have begun to grow soybean (Glycine max) for oil extraction, and groundnut (Arachis hypogaea) for export. A typical small-scale farmer has, roughly, less than 4 ha; a medium-scale farmer, between 5 and 40 ha; above 40 ha is considered to be large-scale farming.

Animal husbandry is an important component in the farming system of the small- and medium-scale farms of the Pacific zone. Among domestic animals, bullocks are the most important; they are used for transport in the rural areas, carrying firewood, and drawing water from wells more than 100 m deep. Furthermore, bullocks are the essential draught power for the small-scale farmer during cultivation, facilitating activities like land preparation, sowing, weeding, earthing up and carting the harvest. Dairy animals are kept by small-scale farms for milk and dairy products (cream, butter and a fresh cheese named cuajada) for home consumption. Medium sized farms, with over 20 ha of land and more than 10 animals, manage to earn a partial or sole income, in the case of a specialized dairy farm, by selling fresh milk, dairy products and every now and then a live animal.

The predominant feed is pasture and fodder trees. (Garcia Guillen, 1996) The animals are usually kept year-round on open pastures dominated by natural species, which include aceitillo (Aristida jorrulensis), zacate torcido (Heteropogon contortus), zacate rosado (Rhynchelytrum roseum), grama bahia (Paspalum notatum), pata de gallina (Eleusine indica), pasto ilusión (Panicum trichoides), zacate gallina (Cynodon dactylon), and pendejuelo o salea (Digitaria sanguinalis). Since the 1980s, improved pastures have been sown with gamba grass (Andropogon gayanus), star grass (Cynodon nlemfuensis) and Napier grass (Pennisetum purpureum) in the sandy loam soils, and with Angleton (Dichanthium aristatum) on clay soils. To a very small extent, the more advanced farmers are using King grass (Pennisetum purpureum ´ P. typhoides) and sugar cane (Saccharum officinarum) as a cut fodder for dry-season feed. With regard to fodder trees, the jícaro (Crescentia alata) in the clay pastures is highly valued for its fruits, which are available in the dry season. The seedlings of the jícaro trees are for this reason tended and sometimes protected (animals are responsible for the distribution of the seed).

Planting of trees for fodder is nonexistent. The use of tree fodder is limited; farmers know and occasionally benefit from the leaves and fruit of trees like guanacaste blanco (Alibiza caribaea), guanacaste negro (Enterolobium cyclocarpum), guácimo de ternero (Guazuma ulmifolia) and genízaro (Samanea saman). Two native trees which both have a high potential for high quality fodder (protein content of 18 - 28%), namely Leucaena sp. and madero negro (Gliricidia sepium), are very little used for animal feed.

Dry-season feeding is survival management. It is estimated that animals lose 50% of the weight gained during the rains. The main animal feeds during the dry season are the residues (straw, stubble and husk) from maize and sorghum. Depending on the rainfall and agronomic practices, between 2 and 3 t of stover is produced by sorghum and maize crops. Farmers with more animals than their own land can sustain have to rent additional agricultural land to graze their animals, paying from US$ 0.05 per animal per day, up to US$ 0.10 in periods of extreme fodder scarcity (when the rainy season starts, after the third week of May). Although very little straw is left after the harvest of the soybean and groundnut crops, these lands are also rented to graze animals. Soya residues are liked by the farmers because they raise production. Farmers are very keen on a daily offering of salt to their animals in order to encourage them to drink much water and a thus resist the dry and hot season.

Additional practices are feeding cane tops and the bagasse collected from the local traditional cane presses. Groundut hulls are collected from the processing factories, and given to cattle after sprinkling the hulls with molasses diluted with water. One high quality and locally available complement is the fruit of the jícaro tree. During the dry season the fruits are collected, left to mature, and then broken to feed the pulp and seeds to selected animals: dairy animals, animals in weak condition, and weaned calves.

There is also a traditional practice, which is the cultivation of guate, a fodder crop of maize or sorghum for dry-season feeding. On the lighter sandy loam soils, maize is commonly used, while on the clay soils, sorghum is better adapted. The crop is sown at the end of the rainy season (September or October), to benefit from the last showers, or in some case the crop just grows on the basis of the residual soil moisture. The soil is prepared using tractor, plough and harrow, and the seed broadcast or in furrows. High seed rates are used - from 60 to 120 kg/ha - for both sorghum and maize, to avoid thick stems in the fodder crop. The production of such a fodder crop is between 5 000 and 10 000 kg/ha of dry feed, assuming a dry matter percentage of 90% or higher, given the lengthy period of field drying. After 90 - 120 days (in December or January), the crop is pulled up, including the roots, and left in the field to dry for between one and two weeks. The material is then collected and made into bundles, using the same material to make a tie. Each bundle weighs 2 to 3 kg, and these are then brought to the farm and stacked, sometimes around a central post, in a shady place or open area. No plastic or other material is used to protect the fodder against the burning sun during the entire dry season. If possible, this fodder is kept until March or April, when they start feeding it either to those animals which the farmers judge to need it most (animals in poor condition and weaned calves) or to condition the bullocks. This fodder is mainly used as a complement, fed dry during the late afternoon in the pen after the animals have returned from the stubble fields.

Protein deficiency in the animal feed supply is very evident during the dry season, and even partly during the rainy season. Concentrates are not used, because they are commonly felt not to be profitable because of their relatively high price - US$ 22 per 100 kg, while milk fetches US$ 0.25 at the farm gate and US$ 0.35 to the consumer in town.

Straw treatment has been tried on a pilot scale by a few projects. Direct costs involved are around US$ 0.80 for N fertilizer, and US$ 2.00 for plastic per 100 kg of straw treated. Urea-molasses blocks were also tried on a pilot scale, costing US$ 13 for the ingredients alone.

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