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Published September 04, 2012, 10:03 AM

Grasscutters provide food, not lawn care

It goes without saying that the U.S. drought is creating serious problems for crop farmers, livestock producers, ethanol producers and other demanders of grain.

By: Daryll E. Ray and Harwood D. Schaffer, Agweek

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — It goes without saying that the U.S. drought is creating serious problems for crop farmers, livestock producers, ethanol producers and other demanders of grain. The economic consequences are likely to be horrendous. But a reduction in grain supply does not spell famine in this country.

This is a luxury that does not describe a lot of other countries — the availability of grain can mean the difference between living and starving to death. But what if there was an efficient, relatively quick way to convert grasses to a high protein and nutrition-laden food?

In the past, we have written about crops that U.S. farmers would consider unusual, but hold promise to help expand food sources in the developing world. But for us, none tops what we saw on the cover of the August issue of “World Ark,” the magazine of Heifer International: “Rodents of unusual size.” With a title like that on the magazine of an organization that provides small farmers around the world with breeding stock, we turned immediately to page 20 to see what they were talking about.

As kids, we remember raising money in our Sunday school classes to buy a pregnant heifer that would be given to a struggling farmer in Africa or South America with the condition that the recipient would give the first calf to another farmer. But a rodent?

We are talking about a large rodent called a grasscutter, which is in the process of being domesticated. Grasscutters are found in grassy areas in Sub-Saharan Africa and are one of the bush meats that traditionally have been hunted to put meat on the table.

While the grasscutter is plentiful in the wild, hunting it has environmental consequences. Grasscutters are an important source of protein for people in Africa. The meat is high in protein, calcium and phosphorus and low in fat.

Hunting parties often set fire to grassy areas to force the grasscutters out into the open, where they can be captured. But the fires that flush out the grasscutters also destroy the habitat of other animals and kill trees and shrubs, resulting in a degraded environment. In addition, the fire also can spread beyond the grassland and destroy field crops.

The challenge faced by Heifer International and other groups was to find a way to establish a population of grasscutters that would thrive and reproduce in captivity. According to a paper by M.N. Opara — “The Grasscutter I: A livestock of tomorrow:” — “In Benin, losses among captive grasscutters amounted to nearly 80 percent.”

In the 1970s, this death rate and high startup costs had stymied Heifer International’s introduction of the domestic production of grasscutters into Ghana. By 1999, the organization decided to revisit the issue and discovered that farmers in Benin, with the help of a German development organization, were having success with the domestic production of grasscutters.

Heifer International purchased its initial stock from grasscutter farmers in Benin. Today, the grasscutter program in Ghana is successful. Current farmers train future farmers and sell them breeding stock.

One of the advantages of grasscutters over more conventional animals is that they are well adapted to the local climate, are resistant to many diseases and can be raised by people with small farming plots. They even can be raised on rooftops in peri-urban areas. Grasscutters thrive on grass and a variety of other inexpensive vegetal products.

Farmers can get two litters a year from their female grasscutters. And with some planning, they can have a steady supply of animals to sell to their customers, providing a stable source of income that can lift families out of poverty and malnutrition.

As others get into raising grasscutters, there is the need for additional cages, providing business opportunities for woodworkers. The demand is such that there is room for additional farmers to undertake the raising of grasscutters.

As West Africans immigrate to other places around the globe, some farmers are beginning to envision a robust export market for the meat that they produce.

Editor’s Note: Daryll E. Ray holds the Blasingame Chair of Excellence in Agricultural Policy, in the Institute of Agriculture at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, and is director of the university’s Agricultural Policy Analysis Center. Schaffer is a research assistant professor at APAC.