AFTER many years of confusion and wrong-headed policies, the Federal Government appears to have finally grasped the imperative of adopting fresh thinking in growing the cattle industry. A plan unfolded recently by Audu Ogbeh, the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development, that will hopefully end the primitive practice of cattle perennially traversing hundreds of kilometres for pasture, signposts a paradigm shift that should be pursued with urgency and uncommon vigour.
According to the minister, a special grass cultivation programme is planned under which nutrient-rich forage will be available for cattle and other livestock. It calls for the supply of grass from across the country, including the southern states, to feed the large population of cattle, goats and sheep found in the northern states. Significantly, this is just one plank of Ogbeh’s solution to the age-long problem of cattle herding that has resulted in permanent warfare between herders and farmers/local communities and frozen animal farming in its primitive state.
Ogbeh’s progressive policy direction is a welcome departure from the politicking and self-serving response to incessant and increasingly violent clashes between Fulani herdsmen and farming communities across the country by successive administrations. The envisaged commercial production of grass in the southern states to feed cattle borrows from the successful practice in a place like Saudi Arabia that imports grass from Sudan and the United States, according to the minister, enabling it to create one of the world’s largest cattle ranches with 153,000 cows, selling milk to other Persian Gulf states.
We are gratified that our persistent advocacy to replace the archaic, unproductive grazing system with modern ranching and land rehabilitation in the northern states has found a progressive voice in the minister. The problem of cattle herders and their nefarious ways have defied successive governments. According to an October 2015 report by SMB Intelligence (a research NGO), over 2,000 people were killed that year in clashes between Fulani herdsmen and local communities in Benue, Nasarawa and Plateau states. Largely due to drought, deforestation and degradation of their traditional grazing lands in the upper Sahel of West Africa, Fulani herders have been moving ever southwards, bringing them into constant conflicts with farmers whose farms and crops are ravaged by grazing cattle. The United Nations Food and Agricultural Organisation says Nigeria loses 2,168 kilometres of cattle rangeland each year; 400,000 hectares of arable land are lost to deforestation annually.
Human Rights Watch details how Plateau, Benue, Taraba, Gombe, Nasarawa and Kaduna states have become killing fields, as conflict over grazing/farming lands morph into ethnic and sectarian animosities. Such conflicts have extended to many southern states like Edo, Osun, Oyo, Ogun, Cross River, Enugu and Delta.
On the economic front, cattle grazing as the Fulani undertake it is antiquated. The FAO’s last census put cattle population in Nigeria at 11.5 million and 22 million goats, but the cattle population is estimated at 15 million today. Because they trek for long distances in the arid zone, our cows give only one litre of milk per day, says the MARD, compared to 10 litres per day in the Philippines, 40 litres per day for Israel’s “super cows” where technology application has made the Middle Eastern country the global leader in dairy production.
For too long, our policymakers have allowed partisan considerations to guide their response to the Fulani herdsmen menace. They have also failed to seek the immense economic potential in modernising the livestock industry that contributed five per cent to GDP in 1993, compared to less than two per cent in 2014. The average Nigerian consumed five grams of animal protein in 2006, while the FAO recommends 35g per day, and experts project the creation of another two million direct and indirect jobs when ongoing reforms like the grassing programme and ranching take root.
The northern elite unwisely press for grazing routes and reserves in the South instead of afforestation, irrigation, ranching and mechanised technology. An ill-advised bill for this purpose has scaled through a Second Reading at the Senate. The southern states occupy Guinea forest zones, including swamps which are traditionally unsuitable for livestock (save for special breeds), being tsetse fly-infested and lacking the expansive grasslands and shrubs of the Northern savannah and sahelian zones on which livestock thrive.
The FAO has recommended a swift transition from peasant farming and the roaming bands of herdsmen, resource-poor small-scale farmers, to large-scale farming and ranching. Such initiatives have been applied in the United States, Canada, Mexico, Argentina, Brazil, Australia and South Africa. Five countries – Uruguay, New Zealand, Argentina, Australia and Brazil – now have more cattle than people. Brazil initiated reforms and ranching that have made it the world’s largest exporter of cattle meat with 213 million cattle, generating $1.2 billion in 2012 and providing 360,000 direct jobs.
To truly transform the industry, the federal and northern states’ governments should collaborate to create and limit grazing routes and reserves to their zone, encourage ranches and large farms, provide extensive extension services and reclaim deforested lands, using modern irrigation schemes. Israel has applied this and technology to become the world’s number one in dairy yields per animal.
Ogbeh should persuade President Muhammadu Buhari and the National Assembly to drop their doomed fixation with routes and reserves in the South, deploy the 11 river basin development authorities and adopt modern techniques of animal farming. The future lies in large-scale ranching and transport in refrigerated railway coaches and trucks from production centres and abattoirs in the North to population centres nationwide.