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Poverty-fighting 'elephant' boosts farmers in India

Hardy 'elephant' or Napier grass has proved to be a cheap and nutritious fodder for livestock in poor and drought-prone areas of India.

By Stella PaulThomson Reuters Foundation / May 6, 2013

Karinga Maraiya, a farmer in Cirimiyal village, in southern India's Andhra Pradesh state, describes Napier or 'elephant' grass as 'magical' in its ability to grow in harsh conditions and provide high-quality fodder for livestock.

Stella Paul/Thomson Feuters Foundation

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Hyderabad, India

“The elephant saved my life,” says Arutla Narsimha. The 30-year-old, who lives in Chirimiyal village in southern India’s Andhra Pradesh state, has never seen a real elephant. But for Narsimha, “elephant” refers not to an animal but to long-stalked Miscanthus grass.

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The grass has proven a cheap and nutritious fodder for Narsimha’s cattle, dramatically boosting milk production and helping him and other farmers in drought-prone areas of India fight poverty.

But while the advantages of the crop, also known as Napier grass, seem clear, some agricultural experts warn farmers against becoming too dependent on a single, thirsty crop while neglecting to grow food that they can eat themselves.

Persistent poor rainfall in Nalgonda district, where Narsimha lives, had forced him to sell off his cattle, pawn his land, and leave home each summer to work as an itinerant well-digger.

But that changed six years ago, when he first noticed Napier grass while working in a coastal village.

“It was green even in the peak of summer,” recalls Narsimha. “People there said it was very healthy for cattle. So I brought home a few stalks and planted them here in my land. I have never needed to migrate [for work] since then.”

Narsimha grows Napier grass on a quarter of an acre (0.1 hectares) of land, and feeds it to his six buffalos and two bulls. Each day, the buffalos produce 30 liters (8 gallons) of milk that Narsimha sells at 40 rupees (about $0.70) a liter.

Karinga Maraiya, also of Chirimiyal, started growing the plant in 2005, and credits the use of the fodder with doubling his income from his buffalos’ milk production.

“This grass is magical; it is green, grows all through the year up to 4 feet, and needs little care,” said Maraiya. “I can harvest about 10 kg [22 pounds] of fodder every 10 days from a single clump and can easily feed all my cattle with half an acre [of grass].”

Napier grass has a highly developed root system that helps it withstand wind and that can also reduce soil erosion. Indigenous to Africa, the plant also grows well in India, where scientists have created hybrid varieties. Its high protein content makes the grass high-quality forage for cattle. A single acre of land can yield an average of 250 tons of grass each year.

The grass was introduced to Chirimiyal village through a British government-funded project organized in five drought-affected districts of Andhra Pradesh. The scheme, run by the Andhra Pradesh Rural Livelihood Program (APRLP) and the International Rice Research Institute, identified activities to strengthen livelihoods in the villages, said Ponneru Jayrao, the project director. These included growing fruit and kitchen gardening, as well as cultivating Napier grass.

“Lack of forage is a huge issue in the drought-affected villages. In the summer, when normal grass doesn’t grow, farmers spend thousands of rupees to buy dry fodder. But, when you feed your cattle dry fodder, they also drink more water, which the farmers can’t provide,” Jayrao said.

Six years on, although many villagers have abandoned the other income-generating activities, they are still cultivating Napier grass.

Farmer Chenna Reddy, 54, said that Napier grass fodder had enabled his village of Amidalagunta in Anantapur district, 360 km (225 miles) from the state capital, Hyderabad, to sell over 500 liters of milk daily to a dairy.

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