The Jameel Observatory combines the local knowledge and concerns of communities facing on-the-ground threats of hunger with innovations in data science and humanitarian action;  teaming up to devise solutions that can help predict, prepare for and overcome climate-related food security and nutrition challenges in dryland areas.

This post is one of a series illustrating expertise that partners bring to the Observatory. It introduces research on livestock feed strategies in Kenya that can guide year-round production and help pastoral and smallholder communities counter climate and other shocks. It draws from work at the University of Edinburgh and its partners

Why livestock diet composition is important

 For 50 million pastoralists and agro-pastoralists in the Horn of Africa, livestock-rearing is the main source of livelihoods as well as meat and milk. Livestock diets (type, quality and quantity of feed) – directly impact the yield of meat and milk that can be achieved. Diet composition varies seasonally (often there is not enough feed in the dry season) as well as geographically. However, there is little reliable data on livestock diets in East Africa and almost none in extensive systems where livestock are left to graze in fields for most or all of the year.

When rains fail and drought hits, this lack of detailed information on livestock diets and feed availability means that – at best – yields of meat and milk are negatively affected and at worst livestock die, leaving their owners hungry and poor, and, in the longer term, struggling to rebuild their livelihoods.

These droughts are increasing in frequency – according to Chris Funk of the Climate Hazards Center: “Before 1999, a drought – when there is poor or a failed rainy season – might happen once every five or six years. But since 1999, poor March to May rains are coming every two or three years.”

For food security reasons it is important that we are able to better understand how and what livestock are being fed across a year so that when a drought event occurs action can be taken to get the right types of responses to the right places at the right time. 

High resolution Earth Observation estimates of feed composition

Drone image showing cattle within bomas/enclosures at Kapiti, Kenya. [credit: ILRI/Victor Odipo]

So far, livestock diet data has only been collected in a few areas and this information has been combined with Earth Observation data in various forms to estimate the amount and type of feed fed to livestock.

These approaches are limited in two ways: (1) they do not consider the seasonal changes in feed availability and instead produce a single estimate at a point-in-time snapshot, and (2) the models are often global in scale and lack detailed maps of feed types, instead having to generalise feed into broad categories. This is problematic considering for example that there are many types of forages available in livestock diets and these have wide ranging differences in nutrition quality and resistance to drought or other shocks.

This project of the University’s Global Academy of Agriculture and Food Systems is examining: (1) the determinants of livestock feed choices in Kenya; (2) the different types of feed used at different times of the year, and (3) combining this with 20-m spatial resolution Sentinel-2 data to examine if and how we can improve the estimated diets of livestock in smallholder livestock farms in Kenya. These results can then be fed into early warning systems in the region.

More information

 Contact: John Mutua and Gary Watmough

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