Livestock Research for Rural Development 28 (4) 2016 Guide for preparation of papers LRRD Newsletter

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Elephant grass as forage for ruminant animals

Muhammad Rusdy

Department of Forage Crops and Grassland Management, Faculty of Animal Science,  Hasanuddin University, Indonesia


The shortage of feed, particularly during the dry season is one of the major factor limiting productivity of livestock in the tropics. Napier or elephant grass (Pennisetum purpureum Schum.) shows a great potential to alleviate the problem because it is drought resistant and has high dry matter yield potential. As an attempt to generate information useful for improving the utilization of the grass, its potential and limitation are described. Its chemical composition and nutritive value as related to management and animal’s requirement are reviewed. Possible solutions to increase animal production from low quality elephant grass were also discussed.

Keywords: animal production, digestibility, Napier grass, nutritive value


A major problem facing livestock producers in tropical countries is how to provide a proper nutrition for their animals, especially during the dry season when pasture and cereal residues are limiting in quantity and nutritional quality. Feeding animals in the dry season is a major problem as plant growth stops and the effect of inadequate feeding on livestock productivity may be serious. Underfeeding reduces animal growth and milk yield and diminishing farmer’s income, Animals become weak, more susceptible to disease and their fertility declines. In densely populated areas in Indonesia, such conditions are exacerbated by decreasing of grazing areas as caused by conversion of grassland to natural to cropland areas, industrial estate, human settlement, etc. As results, many remaining grassland areas have undergone overgrazing and livestock are forced to graze on unused or marginal lands, such as abandoned plantation estates, road sides, forest margin and river bank.. In areas with very densely human population like Java island, natural grassland is no longer available and livestock have to be fed on cultivated fodder, crop residues, agroindustrial by-product or concentrate. But because the availability of crop residues is seasonal, the scarcity of agroindustrial by-product and the high prices of concentrates, these feed resources could not expected to fulfill the feed requirement of increasing animal population. To cope with shortage of feed, many farmers in in this area rely their forage supply on high yielding and drought tolerant fodder, mainly elephant grass (Pennisetum purpureum). This grass, is by far the most cultivated grass and in Indonesia it is mainly used in cut and carry system for dairy and beef cattle feeding. The high dry matter potential, ease of propagation, cultivate and harvest are the reason for its popularity among the farmers. With decreasing grassland area for grazing and the rising demand of animal product, the use of remaining land for cultivation of high yielding forage like elephant grass for use in stall feeding system may be the best option to increase animal production in densely populated area.

Plant description

Elephant grass has been the promising and high yield grass, giving dry matter yield that surpasses most other tropical grasses, like guinea grass (Panicum maximum) and Rhodes grass (Chloris gayana) (Relwani et al 1982) and higher nutritive value compared to Brachiaria sp and Panicum sp, (Gomez at al 2011). Historically, this grass has been primarily used as animal feed, however, it has also been used to control weeds (Skerman and Riveros 1990), as mulch for erosion control (Adekalu et al 2007), source of bio-fuel (Woodart and Sollenberger 2015), is used for making thatch, windbreak and as trap plant in the management of African stemborer (Khan et al 2007).

Although it has been long and extensively used for animal production, review on elephant grass as animal nutrition for ruminant animals is limited. Most farmers lack of knowledge and guidelines on how to utilize this grass efficiently, both as sole diet or combined with other feed resources to improve animal productivity. This review attempts to present elephant grass description and dry matter yield potential, summarize its agronomic and nutritional characteristics and to discuss its role in ruminant feeding.

Elephant grass, also known as napier grass or Ugandan grass is a monocot belonging to the family Poaceae and genus Pennisetum. Pennisetum genus is very diverse consisting of a heterogeneous group of approximately 10 000 species with annual, biennial or perennial life cycle (Martel et al 1997). There are around 25 cultivars of Pennisetum grass under cultivation (Kretschemer and Pitman (2001). Many cultivars of elephant grass have been developed worldwide to suit the local conditions and there is a wide range of habits, yield potential and nutritive value.

Elephant grass is a species of perennial tropical C4 deep-rooted bunch grass native to eastern and central Africa (Boonman 1997). It can grow from sea level up to altitude of 2000 m. When grown at altitude above 2000 m, growth and regeneration after cutting is slow and it may die due to frost (Francis 2004). It is robust, rhizomatous, tufted and has a vigorous root system, developing from nodes of its creeping stolons. The culm is coarse, and may be up to 4–7 m in height. The plant can form dense thick clumps, up to 1 m across. The leaves are flat, linear, hairy at the base, up to 100 – 120 cm long and 1 – 5 cm wide, bluish- green in color. The inflorescense is a stiff terminal bristly spike, up to 15 – 20 cm in length, yellow-brown to purplish in color. Spikelets are arranged around a hairy axis. There is little or no seed formation. When seeds are present, they are very small (Mannetje 1992; Francis 2004). Elephant grass can be propagated through seeds, however as seed production is inconsistent, collection is difficult. Alternatively, it can be propagated vegetatively by stem cuttings or stolons. After planting, elephant grass grows vigorously and can reach 4 m in 3 months (Skerman and Riveros 1990).

Dry matter yield

Elephant grass is fast growing and has a high annual productivity that depends on climatic and soil conditions. Yields ranged from 20 to 80 t/ DM/ha/year under high fertilizer input (Skerman and Riveros 1990). Vicente-Chandler et al (1959) established a world record production of 84 800 kg DM/year when it was fertilized with 897 kg N/ha per year and cut every 90 days under natural rain of some 2000 mm per year. Elephant grass requires high levels of fertilizer and a regular water supply (Mannetje 1992). On farm, dry matter yields of elephant grass from different regions average about 16 t/ha/year (Wouters 1987). With no or inadequate fertilizers, yields are on the range of 2 – 10 t DM/ha/year (Bogdan 1977). Ra et al (2012) compared the annual biomass yield of seven grass species, viz. Erianthus, johnsongrass, switchgrass, sugarcane, maize, sorghum and elephant grass grass and found elephant grass to out-yield others by a significant margin. According to Karlsson and Vasil (1985), elephant grass is the fastest growing plant in the world.

Chemical composition and nutritive value

Crude protein

The range of protein content of elephant grass varies from 4.4 to 20.4% with the mean around 12% (Table 1). This value is not too different from the report of Xie et al (2009) that crude protein of elephant grass ranged from 4 – 15%. Age at harvest is the most important factor affecting crude protein content of elephant grass (Wadi et al 2004).. As plant ages, dry matter yield increases but crude protein declines. Such a trend in crude protein content had been reported elsewhere, and it is mainly attributed to dilution of crude protein content of forage crops by rapid accumulation of cell wall carbohydrates at the advanced stage of growth (Humphreys 1991).

Table 1. Crude protein content (% in DM) of elephant grass

Crude protein

Harvest time




At 6 to 8 weeks of age


Van Eys et al (1986)

9.20 to 20.4

At 2 to 8 weeks of age


Manyawu et al (2003)


At 8 weeks of age


Njoka-Njiru et al (2006)

7.80 to 14.1

Interval of 8 weeks


Bayble et al (2007)

7.20 to 11.8

At 40 to 120 days of age


Silva et al (2008)

8.00 to 11.0

At 60 to 120 days of age


Ansah et al (2010)

9.20 to 12.1

Intervals of 7 to 8 weeks; N.P.K fertilized


Halim et al (2013)


Interval of 45 days


Antony and Thomas (2014)

From the table 1, it can be shown that in general, crude protein contents from plant harvested until 8 weeks of age were above the minimum level of 7% required for optimum rumen function, but it was not sufficient to meet the minimum crude protein requirement of 15% for lactation and growth (Mc Donald et al 2002) and only could support the need of crude protein of dairy cows with moderate milk production of 10 – 12% (ARC 1984). Only one reported crude protein value attained the required stabdard (>19%),  in elephant grass harvested at 2 weeks of age as reported by Manyawu et al (2003). However, harvesting at 2 weeks of age may harm the long term sustainable regrowth of the grass. Moreover, as the protein of young grass mostly is consisting of degradable protein (Hoffman and Brehm 2015), the quantity of protein that leaves the rumen may not be sufficient to meet the productivity  needs in ruminants (moderate to high growth rates and milk yield) (Preston and Leng,1987). According to Bactawar and Hersom (2015), during certain stages of production, cattle need more protein than what is supplied by microbial protein synthesis. According to these authors, a balance of 30 – 40% of available bypass protein and 60 – 70% rumen soluble protein is needed for optimum performance in ruminants.

Cell wall constituents

The average NDF, ADF and ADL (lignin) values of elephant grass reported by some workers are around 67, 42 and 6%, respectively (Table 2).

Table 2. Fiber content of elephant grass (% in DM)




Harvest time


59.8 to 63.1

30.6 to 40.2

4 to 8 weeks of regrowth ages

Olajumoke (2003)

67.6 to 72.9

47.8 to 51.7

5.20 to 6.30

Intervals of 9 to 12 weeks

Mwangi et al (2004)

57.4 to 62.8

31.2 to 34.3

Dwarf Napier grass, three times for 6 months

Teklesadik et al (2004)

68.3 to 73.6

42.1 to 44.1

4.6 to 6.30

60 to 120 days of age

Bayble et al (2007)

65.3 to 76.8

40.5 to 47.7

30 to 60 days of age

Silva et al (2008)

64.6 to 66.2

41.7 to 43.5

35 days after leveling with the height of 0 to 15 cm above ground

Wijitpahan et al (2009)




45 days of age

Tikam et al (2010)

63.9 to 75.4

38.4 to 40.2

30, 45 and 60 days of regrowth age

Lounglawan et al (2013)

NDF content could be used to categorize feed quality. Singh and Oosting (1992) pointed out that roughage feeds containing NDF values of less than 45% could be classified as high quality, those with values ranging from 45% to 65% as medium and those with values higher than 65% as low quality. Except for reports of Tekletsadik et al (2004) and Olajumoke (2003), all NDF values were higher than 65%, even it was harvested at 30 days of regrowth. Based on the category, in most cases elephant grass can be classified as low quality. High NDF values can be a limiting factor to dry matter intake, as dry matter intake and NDF content are negatively correlated (Van Soest 1994).

Based on ADF values, elephant grass is also classified as low quality forage feed. According to Kellems and Church (2001), roughage with less than 40% ADF are categorized as high quality and those with greater than 40% as poor quality. Except for the report of Olajumoke (2003), all other reported ADF values are higher than 40%. 


 In elephant grass, 80% of variance of in vitro true digestibility was attributable to the effect of harvest interval (Chen et al 2006). With increasing harvest interval, NDF and ADF increases and digestibility decreases (Van Soest 1994).

Table 3. In vitro dry matter digestibility (IVDMD) and in vitro organic matter digestibility (IVOMD) of elephant grass



Harvest time



49.5 to 58.6

6 and 12 weeks

Koster et a (1999)


10 weeks of regrowth

Mtengeti et al (2004)

63.6 to 72.8

2 to 6 weeks of regrowth

Manyawu et al (2003)

35.0 to 64.0

Harvested at plant height of 0.5 to 1.5 m

Aganga et al (2005)

62.0 to 81.4

Interval of 35-40, 50-55 and 80-85 days

Chen et al (2006)


45 days of age

Tikam et al (2000)


Advanced stage of growth

Mlay et al (2006)

58.5 to 66.4

60, 90 and 120 days of age

Bayble et al (2007)



10 weeks of regrowth

Rego et al (2010)

Reported values of IVDMD and IVOMD (Table 3) from 35 to 77.4% and these are in agree with in vitro digestibility of most tropical grasses as reported by Stobbs and Thompson (1975). The reduction of digestibility with advanced maturity is related to higher ADL contents in the mature plant. ADL fraction is indigestible, which forms complexes with structural carbohydrates and this hinders exposure to microbial enzymatic attack.

The average values of IVOMD of around 60% are lower than the critical level of 65% required for feeds to be considered as having acceptable digestibility. Forage with IVOMD value of <65% can be classified as low quality and may result in reduced dry intake (Moore and Mott 1973). The low digestibility of mature elephant grass places it in the range where “rumen fill” would be the limiting factor to dry matter intake and animal production.



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Received 4 September 2015; Accepted 18 March 2016; Published 1 April 2016

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