Surviving lean times: The importance of making on-farm feed

Obert with his Simmental

As Zimbabwe heads into the dry winter months following an El Niño-influenced summer rainy season, ensuring the survival and well-being of your beef cattle must be paramount. One essential strategy for mitigating the impact of drought on your livestock is preparing and storing food ahead of time of need.

“Farmers need to be ready for what is going to be a difficult year. It is not going to be easy, and a lot of effort is going to be needed to save our livestock,” says Biano Simmentals stud breeder Obert Chinhamo. A well-respected rancher, he has been breeding Simmentals for over twenty years and says that he has noticed, in this time, rainfall patterns becoming more erratic.

Ensuring food security for his livestock is a priority for Chinhamo. As such, Chinhamo has been proactive in formulating effective yet cost-effective feed management strategies to safely see his cattle herd through the tough times.

Not only has Chinhamo been securing his herd’s welfare but he has also been sharing the message as widely as he can, to other cattle farmers, so that they do not have starving cattle later this year when available grazing is scarce (Find Biano Simmentals contact details in our Directory). “At Biano Farm, Esigodini, Matabeleland, we have been doing a lot of work to make sure our livestock survive”.

Here, in this article, Chinhamo shares some valuable information about his feed management for his livestock.

  1. Ammoniation
    “Ammoniation is a very simple process where farmers can cut dry grass or crop residue from whatever they may harvested or from previous harvests, add a mabiko or urea solution and bury it underground.”Here, Chinhamo shares his on-farm recipe for ammoniation. “Use the ratio of one tonne of crop residue or such material to a drum of mabiko or urea solution ( one bag of mabiko or urea diluted in a drum of water.)“A ‘sprinkle’ of this solution repeated several times will give our animals good quality food later in the year when there is practically nothing for the livestock to glean from the bush. We are very available to help farmers look and learn about this and other operations as we do this extensively on our farm,” Chinhamo adds.Ammoniation serves two main purposes: Ammonia (NH3), which contains nitrogen, increases the crude protein content of feed. It further increases the feeding value by assisting in the breakdown of the poorly digested lignin fraction of mature forages.
  2. Hay bales
    “Baling is another important operation, where we can bale and preserve grass we have available now for later use. Grass can be moved from places with good grass densities before it burns. Uncontrolled bushfires are sadly an all too common sighting in our country around the country, beginning from as early as April, lasting well into September.”
  3. Silage
    “As a cattle rancher and stud breeder, silaging is one of our major operations at Biano Farm”.Silage, a fermented high-moisture stored fodder, serves as a valuable feed source during times of scarcity.“We are always stocking up on silage and this is very important for most farmers as this is one of the cheapest and easiest operations any farmer can do on their farm.”“All these three operations (ammoniation, baling and silaging), we practice at Biano Farm, and as I write we are busy silaging and will start baling very soon. We have two pits - one ammoniation and one silage - and both are full. We are ready for the drought.”“Should you need more information or have any more questions I’m available all the time,” Chinhamo says.

Silage making tips

Here are some tips he shares for farmers to successfully make silage:

  1. Crop selection and harvesting
    Crops such as maize, sorghum, or grasses are ideal for silage-making. Aim to harvest the crop at the right moisture content. For maize silage, the ideal moisture content ranges between 60-70% for optimal fermentation.
  1. Chopping and packing
    Chop the harvested crop into small pieces to increase compaction and facilitate proper fermentation. Use a silage chopper or a forage harvester for efficient chopping. Pack the chopped crop tightly into a silo or pit to exclude oxygen and promote anaerobic fermentation. Proper compaction is key to making top-quality silage and it is crucial to get out as much of the air as possible.
  1. Additives and inoculants
    Consider using additives or inoculants to enhance fermentation and improve silage quality. Inoculants containing lactic acid bacteria can aid in rapid fermentation, reducing nutrient losses and spoilage. The addition of a percentage of molasses to silage increases palatability and also helps fermentation.
  1. Sealing and storage
    Ensure proper sealing of the silage to prevent exposure to air, which can lead to mould growth and spoilage. Use plastic covers or tyres to create an airtight seal and protect the silage from water infiltration.
  1. Monitoring and feeding
    Regularly monitor the silage for signs of mould, heating, or spoilage. Test the silage for nutrient quality to ensure it meets the nutritional requirements of your beef cattle. When feeding the silage, adjust the ration based on the cattle's requirements and monitor their intake.
  1. Water management
    Optimise water management practices on your farm to maintain adequate hydration for livestock.
  1. Health and welfare
    Prioritise the health and welfare of your cattle by providing a balanced diet and access to clean water. Monitor their body condition and seek veterinary care promptly if any health issues arise.

Silage can be fed to other livestock like sheep and goats. It can also be made on the surface ( no pit or silo).

In hot weather, fermentation takes at least six weeks to be completed and the same timeframe with ammoniation.

Silage and ammoniated materials can be tested in laboratories to show food value and advice accordingly on what additives may be needed at feeding but otherwise, for maintenance work, they will do the job well, Chinhamo says.

By following these tips, you can secure a reliable feed source for your beef cattle, ensuring their survival and well-being during the challenging times of a lean grazing season in Zimbabwe. Remember, proper planning and proactive measures are key to overcoming the adversities posed to safeguard your livestock for the future.

Desmond Madzenenga, Obert Chinhamo, and Christopher Magona. Desmond and Christopher are from National Kraal, a Harare-based company providing farmers’ training programmes for pen feeding of livestock


  1. Ernest Derembwe on March 26, 2024 at 9:19 am

    Very good information there for farmers in these hard times.

    • Staff Writer on March 26, 2024 at 10:10 am

      Thank you for your kind words Ernest, hopefully this will help our farmers prepare well for the coming dry season.

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