Brachiaria forage-livestock system

Farmers' Manual

Brachiaria grass is a new forage option with a high potential to improve livestock productivity in Sub-Saharan Africa. The manual provides information on major attributes of Brachiaria grass and guidelines to farmers and development partners on how to establish, manage and utilize the grass for ruminant feeding to improve the livestock productivity and livelihoods of farmers.

The Farmer's Manual is available as PDF in the Download section, or here for you to read online:

Technical Brief: Brachiaria Grass

What is Brachiaria grass?

Brachiaria is a perennial tropical forage with productive lifespan of about 20 years. This native African grass is well adapted to drought and low fertility soils. Other attributes of Brachiaria grass includes (i) high dry biomass production, (ii) high nutritive value, (iii) deep and large root system, (iv) efficient user of nitrogen fertilizer, (v) mitigates greenhouse gas emission, and (vi) increase livestock productivity (Ghimire et al., 2015). The cultivation of Brachiaria for pasture production has been spurred in Africa following the pioneering work of ILRI/BecA, KALRO and RAB that demonstrated significant benefits of Brachiaria grass on the livestock productivity including 15 to 40 percent increase in milk production (Njarui et. al., 2016).

Figure 1: Brachiaria pasture production in farmer’s field in Kenya

Brachiaria technologies for Sub-Saharan Africa

Three critical factors of successful Brachiaria forage production include suitable cultivars, propagations methods and forage conservation technology.

  1. Farmers participatory evaluation of selected Brachiaria cultivars in Kenya and Rwanda revealed that Brachiaria brizantha cv. MG-4, B. brizantha cv. Piata, B. brizantha cv. Xaraes and B. decumbens cv. Basilisk were the most suitable for East Africa. Basilisk had a high level of drought tolerance and stable biomass production.
  2. Brachiaria propagates sexually (seeds) and asexually (vegetative tillers), and protocols are available for both propagation methods. Initial establishment usually performed through imported seeds, and root splits are commonly used for subsequent establishment.
  3. The hay production technology is available, and farmers are using this technology for conserving Brachiaria grass for dry season.

Upscaling Brachiaria forage technology

The benefits of Brachiaria grass in alleviating livestock feed shortage and improving livestock productivity in East Africa have been well documented (Ghimire et al., 2015; Njarui et al., 2016). Brachiaria technology is currently being promoted by various governmental and non-governmental organizations including
InnovAfrica Project in sub-Saharan Africa. The InnovAfrica is committed to rapid upscaling of Brachiaria pasture to thousands of smallholder dairy farmers in Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda and Tanzania, who can readily realize benefit of the technology. The program engages farmers and other members of multi actor
platform in the innovation process, brings together all relevant stakeholders for synergetic outcomes, capacitates actors of forage-livestock value chain, and leverage the power of conventional and ICT based technologies including village knowledge centres for timely delivery of information. Upscaling efforts will
also focus on job creation by establishing agribusiness along the forage-livestock value, and on advocacy to influence policy to create favourable environment including input supply, credit, infrastructure and market.

Critical steps of upscaling Brachiaria grass

1. Understanding farmers needs 2. Take inventory of related technology 
3. Prepare database on forage and livestock production system 4. Technology validation (participatory evaluation)
5. Capacity development of farmers and other
6. Upscaling and out scaling technology using individual, group and mass approaches
7. Explore new and existing network for
promoting technology
8. Stakeholder meetings and workshops
9. Sharing knowledge using conventional and
new technology e.g. ICT
10. Resource mobilization
11. Agro-business development 12. Advocacy and influence policy 12. Advocacy and influence policy

Key messages

Brachiaria grass is an important forage that has potential to alleviate livestock feed shortage in the sub- Saharan Africa. Adoption of the Brachairia forage technology will improve food and nutrition security, income and livelihood of the smallholder farmers in the region through improved livestock productivity and creating more jobs. Moreover, Brachiaria improves soil and environamental health and enhances resiliences of Afrcian livestock agriculture. 

References & links

Ghimire et al. (2015). Climate-smart Brachiaria for improving livestock production in East Africa: Emerging opportunities. pp. 361-370. In Sustainable Use of Grassland Resources for Forage Production, Biodiversity and Environmental Protection. Edited by Vijay, D., M. Srivastava, C. Gupta, D. Malaviya, M. Roy, S. Mahanta, J. Singh, A. Maity and A.K. Ghos. Proceedings of 23rd International Grassland Congress, 20-24 Nov. 2015, New Delhi, India.

Njarui et al. (2016). Climate smart Brachiaria grass for improving livestock production in East Africa – Kenya experiences. Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organization, Nairobi, Kenya, p. 271.

Innovation Brief: Climate-smart brachiaria grass

Why Brachiaria grass?

Seasonal availability and low-quality forages are attributed to a low livestock productivity in several low- and middle-income countries (LMCs). Overgrazing, land degradation, and frequent and extended droughts have dwindled the productivity of many cultivated forages. To alleviate these challenges of livestock production, InnovAfrica project has been promoting Brachiaria grass as a new forage option to farmers in Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda and Tanzania. Brachiaria, a native African grass, is well adapted to drought and low fertility soils, produces high amount of nutritive biomass, improves livestock productivity and confers multiple environmental benefits e.g. reduction in greenhouse gas emission and ground water pollution. Brachiaria grass is suitable for both grazing and cut and carry systems of livestock production, and it can be fed to livestock as fresh or conserved as hay and silage for dry season feeding. 

Brachiaria grass fields in Kenya

Where to grow Brachiaria grass?

Brachiaria grass can be grown in almost all soil types in the tropics and sub-tropics within an altitude range from sea level to 2,400 m a.s.l and annual rainfall of above 700 mm but no dry spell of longer than 4 months. Brachiaria grass is more productive when grown in fertile soils with irrigation. Brachiaria grass does not perform well in areas with frost problem.

How to grow Brachiaria grass

Brachiaria grass can be grown from seeds and from the rooted vegetative tillers (RVTs). For one hectare 5 - 7 kg seeds or 80-160 thousand RVTs (spacing of 0.5 m x 0.25 m) are suggested. For successful establishment, application of phosphorus at a rate of 250 kg Triple super phosphate is necessary or well cured manure at a rate of 10 to 12 t/ha. Brachiaria grass cultivars promoted by InnovAfrica project are Basilisk, MG-4, Piata and Xaraes. The cost for growing Brachiaria grass in the first year would be similar to that of planting Rhodes grass, and the cost will reduce by 30 to 40% from the subsequent years. A well-managed Brachiaria grass with regular nitrogen fertilizer topdressing (100 kg N/ha per year) can yield up to three-folds higher net profits than Rhodes grass.

Brachiaria grass seeds (left) and rooted vegetative tillers (right)

What is the productive lifespan of Brachiaria grass?

This is a perennial grass and if well-managed, it can be harvested every 8-12 weeks. However, during the dry season it would require a longer period to accumulate herbage biomass. The productive lifespan of Brachiaria grass is about 20 years in a well-managed condition.

Impact on livestock productivity

Brachiaria grass has high biomass production potential (30 tons dry matter ha-1 year-1). Its nutritive value is often higher than those of the most tropical grasses. For example, in the highlands of Central Kenya, and low rainfall and sub-humid areas of Rwanda, most Brachiaria cultivars had a mean crude protein content of 14 - 17 % when harvested at 6 to 8 weeks. All cultivars met the minimum level of crude protein required for ruminant maintenance (7%) and milk production (11%). Feeding dairy cows with Brachiaria grass has been proven to increase milk production by 15 to 40% compared to feeding them on local forages. Similarly, substituting Napier grass with Brachiaria in feed increases daily body weight gains in cross bred heifers from 375g to 580 g in Rwanda.

Expected outcomes

  • Increased availability of quality forage
  • Improved milk and meat production
  • Increased income and improved livelihoods of livestock farmers
  • Provides business opportunities and creates employment
  • Improves soil quality and the environment

Main recommendations

  1. Brachiaria grass is a forage suitable for all types of livestock producers and livestock production systems in the tropics and subtropics.
  2. Production of Brachiaria hay and/or silage and rooted vegetative tillers are profitable agri-business for youth and women farmers.
  3. Scaling of Brachiaria grass is imperative for the transformation of livestock sectors in Africa and other low- and middle-income countries.
Cattle grazing on Brachiaria pasture (left) and bales of Brachiaria hay

Practical guideline on Brachiaria grass production and feeding