Women are fattening their sheep — and their income — with tree fodder

February 12, 2018
Hamidou Nantoumé and Jean Bonneville

One of 13 pens of sheep used in the study.

Photo: IDRC / Bartay

In Mali, sheep are associated with traditional rites of passage and religious celebrations, but they’re also an important source of income. However, fodder shortages and high feed costs limit sheep production, especially during the dry season.

Research highlights

  • With the support of research, women in a rural community in Mali now know how to use fodder trees as sheep feed. When replacing their diet of groundnut haulm (stalks) for tree fodder, sheep were found to gain as much weight or more over the same period.
  • The cost of gathering leaves from particular species of trees is 14 times lower than groundnut haulm in the dry season.
  • With these savings and the weight gain of the fattened sheep, women have earned more income from the sale of their sheep and they have increased food security for their families.

Because the forage available for sheep is subject to seasonal fluctuations in quality and quantity, it is necessary to provide them with an additional food source, especially during the dry season. Prior to the IDRC-supported project “Integrating agroforestry and sheep feed in Mali”, there was no concrete evidence that the leaves used as fodder during the dry season could feed sheep throughout the year, or that they could nutritionally replace a time-tested feed like groundnut haulm (stalks).

The financial and nutritional impact of feeding sheep with tree fodder was not well known, and there were concerns about tree species in regard to their forage production capacity, management, multiplication, integration into farming systems, and even the potentially harmful anti-nutritional substances in the leaves of some species.


It was in this context that researchers from various fields and institutions met to investigate the issues regarding sheep fattening and the use of trees as fodder. The investigation included laboratory analysis of the chemical composition of various feeds, fattening trials at research stations, and experiments and surveys in rural areas. The results of the work were mainly targeted at female farmers, because sheep husbandry provides a source of income and a method of income diversification with significant opportunities for women.

Identifying the top three trees for fodder

Based on a survey of farmers from Zan Coulibaly, a rural community in Mali, followed by a feeding experiment with sheep at a research station, three local tree species were identified as top-performers for sheep fodder: Ficus gnaphalocarpa, Pterocarpus erinaceus, and Pterocarpus lucens (called toro, n’goni, and cobi in the Bambara language).

Women’s groups from four villages in the community tested feed rations containing a 50% concentration of these tree species to determine those most effective for increasing the weight of sheep and to calculate their potential financial profitability. The average daily weight gain using the most effective ration containing tree fodder was 143 g, compared to 122 g with the ration containing groundnut haulm. The tree fodder, which was readily available in the area surrounding the villages, cost 20 CFA francs/kg (approx. CA$0.05/kg), while groundnut haulm, because of their relative scarcity, sold for 275 CFA francs/kg (approx. CA$0.65/kg). At the end of a 75-day fattening trial, sheep fed with tree fodder gained 10 kg — this was 15% more than those fed with the control ration containing groundnut haulm, which cost nearly 14 times more.

The fattening experiments conducted in the four villages gave the women a first-hand look at the effect of using rations that included tree fodder. The women could see the advantages of tree fodder when the sheep gained weight, which had already been demonstrated by trials at the research station and laboratory analyses. The women also realized that sheep fattening was within their reach. All that remained was to ensure that the knowledge and techniques they acquired were disseminated widely.

Improved sheep fattening and husbandry techniques

Even though Malian women have been raising sheep for a long time, their methods did not always bring in a maximum profit. The researchers thought it would be useful to supplement their research findings with broader information on good practices in sheep husbandry and fattening. Besides ensuring that the sheep have sufficient food to remain healthy and reproduce throughout the year, it is also important that the animals are treated well and provided with the best possible hygiene and habitat conditions.  

The researchers also noted that sheep fattening — distinct from sheep rearing because it involves fattening up sheep over a short period for immediate sale or consumption — was more commonly managed by men than women. Sheep fattening requires a rich and balanced diet for maximum weight gain in a minimum amount of time.

What is of particular interest for women either rearing or fattening sheep is that the three tree species mentioned above can serve either as the main ingredient of fattening rations or as a supplementary fodder for sheep rearing. In the latter case, experiments currently underway in three of the community’s other villages are comparing two flocks of sheep on different diets (control versus supplemented).

Diversified and increased income

The data gathered during the year-long experiment will make it possible to draw a comparison based on objective scientific criteria. It is also expected that during the process, participants will see an increase in the productivity of the animals that receive the supplementary fodder, which will naturally bring in additional income and increase food security. Once again, because many women practise sheep rearing and are more directly concerned with household nutrition, it is women and their children who stand to benefit the most.

The fattened sheep that were sold following the first experiments conducted in the village provided the women with the means to purchase 30 rams. Confident in their knowledge of the previously tested tree fodder, they decided to launch a new fattening operation in preparation for Tabaski, known elsewhere as the Muslim holiday Eid al-Adha.  

We knew that sheep ate tree fodder, but what we didn’t know was that they could gain so much weight in such a short time by being fed leaves from certain trees.


Over the course of Tabaski, at least one sheep is sacrificed by each head of household. Based on data from the last general census, it is estimated that during this holiday in 2013, more than one million sheep were slaughtered in Mali. The demand for rams generated by Tabaski, and the resulting potential for income, are therefore very significant.

Scaling up in West Africa

The three recommended local fodder trees are found not only in Mali but elsewhere in the sub-region, offering the potential for development on a very large scale. Improving sheep husbandry techniques and providing effective fodder for fattening could have a significant impact in much of West Africa. These initiatives could be directed primarily towards women, because they are most likely to benefit from using affordable and locally available tree fodder to increase and diversify their income with improved fattening and feeding practices.

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Learn more about this project

This project is funded by the Canadian International Food Security Research Fund, an IDRC program undertaken with the financial support of the Government of Canada provided through Global Affairs Canada.