Nigeria: Open Grazing and the Challenge to Its Transition


Open grazing is dead, but how do we bury it? That is the question.

Pastoralism is not sustainable in Nigeria over the long term due to a high population growth rate, expansion of farming, and loss of pasture and cattle routes. At the same time, pastoralism cannot end or be prohibited in the short term, as there are strong cultural and political economy reasons for its existence. It is important, therefore, to develop a plan for a transitional period…

Everybody is saying today that that we must ban open grazing based on pastoralism and establish ranches for animal breeding. What people are not saying is how and over what period. Nigeria currently has about 20 million cattle, most of them in the hand of pastoralists spread throughout the country’s land area. Nigeria does not produce enough livestock for its consumption, so we import significant quantities from neighbouring countries to meet the meat demand of the country. Despite increasing demand for meat and other livestock products, the sector has not been growing sufficiently fast over the past few decades to cope with the demands of a rapidly growing population.

The basic feature of Nigeria’s livestock industry is its very low level of productivity. For too long, we have not invested in modernising the livestock industry, except the poultry subsector. Our national focus has been on supporting crop farmers. The average Nigerian cow produces only about one litre of milk per day, whereas cows in Europe produce up to 50 litres of milk per day. Some African countries like Kenya, Uganda, South Africa and Botswana have invested in the industry and are able to achieve 15 litres of milk per cow a day. Currently, the expansion of violent conflict is imploding the system of pastoral livestock production and cattle rustling, while mass killings between herders and farmers is making the system operationally impossible as well.

No one is defending pastoralism today partly because it is assumed to be an irrational production system, which is far from the truth. Pastoralism can be categorised into nomadic, transhumant or agro-pastoralist forms based on the degree of movement. Transhumance pastoralism, which involves the regular movement of herds between fixed points to exploit seasonal availability of pastures, is the most misunderstood. This mode of production in Nigeria involves sending part or all of the herd to access crop residue in adjacent farms or graze in open range, and in some cases even move further southwards as the dry season becomes more severe, and then return home (North) with the advent of the rains.

Transhumance pastoralism is an enduring form of livestock production involving seasonal and cyclical migration between complementary ecological zones, which is today under threat in Nigeria and indeed in West and Central Africa. Nonetheless, pastoralism is the main livestock production system in much of Africa, where pastoralists live in semi-arid zones. It is a historically developed strategy to cope with the uncertainties associated with climate change, epizootic diseases, the build-up of parasites and other related challenges. It is above all an efficient way of producing livestock at relatively low prices, through the use of non-commercial feeding stock.

With 20 million cattle out there engaged in open grazing, how do we convert that into settled animal husbandry? Here, we confront the political economy challenge. The unproductive cows we have cannot be sustained by buying feed for them, particularly as they produce so little milk and their meat value after four years of breeding is only N120,000 to N150,000.

Historically, pastoralists have been able to meet the meat demand in West Africa with a relatively high level of efficiency, and without government subsidy, for generations. Different methods, through the use of farm residue and open range grazing, have allowed this trend to flourish. Nigeria has a landmass of 98.3 million hectares, and 82 million hectares of arable land, of which about 34 million hectares are currently under cultivation. In crop farming, human beings directly utilise only about a quarter of the total biomass. The other three quarters is in the form of crop residue and low-quality crops, which are not directly useful to people. It is this residue that cattle (ruminants) convert into meat and milk. In addition to this, cattle also utilise the grass on fallow lands, non-arable poor-quality lands, open ranges and fadama in the same manner.

Pastoralists move their animals to these locations to access these opportunities. The normal practice is that to access crop residue on farms, pastoralists usually negotiate with farmers. If, however any conflict arose from this arrangement, including from encroachment of farms into stock routes, these are usually amicably resolved, with the pastoralist often paying fines to settle the matter. The fact of the matter is that politics and violence have taken over the political economy arguments and the mood in the country today is to ban pastoralism.

In any case, in most parts of Nigeria, the blockage of transhumance routes and loss of grazing land to agricultural expansion, combined with increased southward movement of pastoralists, has led to increased conflict with local communities, making pastoralism untenable. The development of criminal gangs from the pastoral community, who are engaged in committing atrocities and mass kidnapping has become the final death knell. Communities have also procured arms and what we have now is a fight to the finish, so let us all agree, open grazing is dead, but how do we bury it? That is the question.

With 20 million cattle out there engaged in open grazing, how do we convert that into settled animal husbandry? Here, we confront the political economy challenge. The unproductive cows we have cannot be sustained by buying feed for them, particularly as they produce so little milk and their meat value after four years of breeding is only N120,000 to N150,000.

The Nigerian herd requires sustained efforts at quality development based on a modernisation strategy that would transform the industry and move the country towards the objective of self-reliance. The programme for the country’s transition to modern forms of animal husbandry must be accelerated and funded.

Over the past five years, ranching has become the “way forward” or the desired solution to the problems posed by pastoralism. As my friend Saleh Momale has always argued, “ranching started as an uninformed joke, which the media took seriously and the politicians jumped on.” Technically, it is a practice adopted in zones with low population densities, usually semi-arid land where extensive production can be carried out in the context of the availability of vast lands and small populations, where ranches could have access to hundreds of square kilometres of land.

When Nigerians say ranching, what they mean is commercial animal husbandry, in which livestock stay on the farm and are fed therein. They mean, therefore, intensive integrated livestock systems, as found in temperate countries in Europe and North America. Maybe we can do that, BUT NOT WITH THESE UNPRODUCTIVE COWS. Intensive animal husbandry requires significant capital to obtain improved breeds, access veterinary services, grow and/or procure animal feed – which the current livestock owners do not have. It is also a system that would raise the cost of meat production in a very significant way. The most important problem, however, is that if we stop the current system abruptly, and we have not developed a new workable system, what do we do with the 20 million cows out there?