The Potential of Tapping Palm Trees for Animal Production (PART 2)


Christophe DALIBARD
Animal Production Officer
Feed Resources Group


In today's economy, the profitability of tapping palms for sugar has improved: this is the case for coconut and Caryota urens in Sri Lanka. In the mid-seventies, with continuing foreign exchange crises, a reduction in the import of sugar occurred and was immediately followed by a sudden rise in its price and palm sugar again became a low-cost source of sugar (Dissanayake, 1977). In parts of South Sumatra (Sriwangi), tapping coconut for sugar production is 8 to 10 times more profitable than selling nuts (Levang, 1988). In the Philippines, a sequential coconut toddy and nut production system can provide the small scale coconut farmers with incomes nearly 10 times higher per hectare and per year (Maravilla and Magat, 1993). In Nigeria, an oil palm estate is likely to be better off devoting all its resources to the production of 9,770 litres/ha/year of oil palm wine than producing 10 tonnes of fresh fruit bunch per hectare per annum. Furthermore, as oil palm wine production is more labour-intensive than fresh fruit bunch production, tapping oil palm trees for wine is likely to create more jobs than harvesting fruit bunches (Udom, 1987).

Producing sugar from palm trees that can be tapped all year round (like coconut and Nypa fruticans) is an advantage compared to the seasonal production of sugar from sugarcane. Palm trees that produce sugar seasonally, like Phoenix sylvestris from November to March (cold weather) and Borassus flabellifer from April to September (hot weather) would grow very well side by side, as suggested by Annett (1913) in Bangladesh, and would ensure continuous sugar production all year round.


Indigenous knowledge is available in countries that have had a long experience in tapping palm trees. The tapper generally makes a selection before starting tapping: he chooses the trees that, according to his experience, should fulfill the following objectives: high sap yield, reduced time between commencement of working an inflorescence and the first flow of sap, maximum volume of sap sustained for as long as possible; health and well-being of the tree maintained during tapping (Pethiyagoda, 1978).

Different management techniques permit increased sugar production from palm trees. Nypa fruticans produces more inflorescences (and potentially more sap) when the stands are kept thinned of old leaves. Sap production can be improved by wider spacing between trees than in wild almost pure stands of Nypa fruticans: from 2,500/ha down to 500 or less (Hamilton and Murphy, 1988). In the Philippines, Quimbo (1991) developed a new, highly profitable method of tapping that increases the sap yield from less than 60,000 litres/ha to more than 100,000. Daily Borassus flabellifer sap yields average between 6 and 10 litres per tree but can be as low as 1 litre or as high as 20 litres per tree (Paulas (1983); Tjitrosoepomo and Pudjoarinto (1983) cited by Kovoor, 1983). This can be explained by genetic and environmental factors. More sap per tree can be obtained if each inflorescence produces more, over a longer period (skill of the operator), if there are more inflorescences in a given time, if flowering starts on younger trees and lasts longer (genetic factors) and if the response to tapping is higher (genetic factors) (Kovoor, 1983). Tall varieties of coconut trees yield twice as much sap as dwarf palms and are also more resistant to pests and to droughts and winds because their root system is more developed (Jeganathan, 1974). The impact of manuring trees on sap yields is reported to be great for coconuts but scientific results are scarce. In Sri Lanka, through hybridization work to identify the most promising species with regard to nut production, an hybrid between a tall variety (Typica) and a dwarf one (Pumila) was found to be the best. Selection and breeding of the African oil palm for high sap yields and high concentration of sugar have not yet started. It is likely that yield improvement research will produce varieties that will yield more than 100 litres of sap per palm and more than 14,800 litres per hectare per annum (Udom, 1987). It is absolutely essential for most tapped palm species in Asia to have a sophisticated preparatory phase, sometimes continued throughout the tapping period, in order to ensure high yields of sap. Such a preparatory phase has not been reported in Africa for the African oil palm and it is likely that south-south transfer of technology could permit a major increase in sap production from this tree.


For most non-destructive tapping techniques, a high degree of traditional expertise is needed and where this technique is not traditionally practised, great difficulties might be encountered in training people. In the case of the high sugar producing palms, reduced height would be a much appreciated quality decreasing labour time, effort and risks. Unlike the coconut, dwarf mutants and races have not been reported to occur in the case of Borassus flabellifer (Kovoor, 1983). This may be attributed to the lack of systematic research. An alternative would be to select the most precocious trees (that starts flowering at a very low height) as precocity is a genetic trait (Kovoor, 1983). Devices for safer and more efficient ways of climbing palm trees have been invented: one by Davis (1984), cited by Davis and Johnson (1987); another was developed by the Palmyra Development Board of Sri Lanka and using it, the tapper would be able to tap about 100 trees a day, more than twice the present average (Dissanayake, 1986). Hybridization of the African oil palm with the American species, Elaeis oleifera, which has a creeping trunk and better resistance to disease (Kahn, 1988) could produce a productive variety, easy to tap because of low and stable height.


Storage of sap at local level is not possible as fermentations rapidly occur even if delayed by some chemical agents. Fermented sap is not suitable for the production of good quality sugar and this usually limits the expansion of palm sugar making at village level. Processing sap into good quality jaggery is also a difficult and time-consuming task: up to 16 hours per day in Cambodia (Khieu, 1996). It also requires an experienced and skilled worker, often a woman (stirring, removing of froth and maintaining the appropriate temperature). This is also a major bottle-neck which limits sap processing (Dissanayake, 1986). Furthermore, in many countries, production and sale of toddy is prohibited by regulations and some raw material is wasted (Dissanayake, 1986).

On the other hand, meat demand is increasing in many developing countries as population grows and living standards improve: in the case of Cambodia, the pig population is increasing at a rate of 16.6% per year (Devendra (1993) cited by Khieu, 1996). Instead of preparing sugar from the sap of sugar producing palm trees, the sap can be directly fed to the animals and provide most of the energy needed in the diet. This has been done for centuries in two Indonesian islands, Roti and Savu (Fox, 1977). They have a complex diverse economy that has Borassus as the centre and which includes a small-scale semi-intensive or intensive pig-rearing component (7-8 pigs per household). In a Borassus economy, pigs are a prime means of converting palm products to protein. Pigs are fed fresh sap throughout most of the tapping season and therefore fatten during the dry season while other livestock lose weight. In addition, pigs always receive the residue and spill from the syrup-cooking process. During the rainy season they are frequently fed syrup mixed with water. Fox concludes in these words: "Borassus syrup and fruit constitute the primary food for pigs; pigs in turn are a principal means by which Savu's palm economy is able to support its dense population; pigs and palms go together and one can view pigs as a reasonable indicator of palm utilization". This is further demonstrated by the strong correlations (much higher than for other livestock species) between pig and human populations in the different areas of these two islands. The areas where the population densities are highest, are the areas of most intensive pig rearing; pigs also representing the highest proportions of the total livestock (Fox, 1977). Captain James Cook, sailing west from New Guinea stopped at the Savu island from 17 to 21 September 1770, at the high point of the tapping season. He reported in his book "Voyages" detailed information on the use of Borassus. In this particular year, the crops were reported to have failed. Therefore the maximum harvest of sap was taking place in order to secure 6 to 8 months food supply. Despite this threatened food security situation, Cook witnessed that syrup was given to pigs and used even for other animal production: "I have already observed, that it is given with the husks of rice to the hogs, and that they grow enormously fat without taking any other food: we were told also, that this syrup is used to fatten their dogs and their fowls..." (Cook, cited by Fox, 1977).

Trials on feeding pigs with palm juice have been initiated recently in Cambodia by T.R. Preston, FAO consultant, within the framework of an FAO Technical Cooperation Project (FAO, 1995). Pigs were reared from 20 to 80 kg, with ADG of 356g using the following daily diet: approximately 8 kg of palm juice, 156g CP (soya bean), lime, salt and 500g of fresh water spinach per day. Twelve farms were studied. Taking into account the price of fuelwood, the profit per tree per day was nearly 14 times higher when the juice was used for feeding pigs instead of making sugar syrup (Khieu, 1996). Using fresh sap for feeding animals will avoid burning large quantities of fuel. Nevertheless, as part of this fuel generally comes from the palm tree itself, it might be possible to make syrup or sugar that will be easy to preserve and that will be later fed to the animals when the sugar production season is over. If this is not possible, sap production can be entirely used as fresh juice for feeding fattening animals and the fattening cycle can coincide with the sometimes rather short tapping season. This can easily be done with pigs and ducks. Sap, syrup or sugar could also be used as emergency feeds, replacing other feeds whose production has been compromized by droughts or other calamities, whenever necessary. There is a huge potential for capitalising on under-exploited sugar palm trees which are not used because of the lack of fuelwood for making sugar or the limited marketing possibilities (Mogea et al., 1991). In Sri Lanka, only about 2% of the total area suitable for tapping is reported to be actually tapped (Sivilingam (1983) cited by Dissanayake, 1986). Therefore, there is a niche for diversification. In these cases, the sap could be used for animal production. Present labour constraints can be overcome through the use of climbing devices that enable the tapper to tap twice as many palm trees (Dissanayake, 1986).

To balance monogastric diets based on sugar palm juice or syrup, a good source of protein is required. As soya bean is hardly available at a reasonable price in many tropical areas, some alternative sources of protein are needed: cassava leaves, sweet potatoes leaves, fodder tree leaves, aquatic plants (duckweed, Azolla, etc.), whole soya plant at milky grain stage, fish wastes, etc. Proper use and management of these different alternative sources of protein can contribute to reducing pollution, increasing carbon sinks and decreasing erosion. Animal feeding systems based on palm juice/syrup favours keeping the animals in confinement instead of grazing or scavenging systems. This protects the environment, limits the dissemination of contagious diseases and also optimizes the integration of livestock within an intensive farming system. Manure can be processed through a biodigester, producing the energy for family cooking needs, and the effluent can be used as a fertilizer either for crops or for fish ponds. The potential of feeding goats and cows with palm sap as the main source of energy for milk production should be investigated as well as the source of nitrogen (non-protein nitrogen and by-pass proteins), minerals and fibre to complete the diet. Incidentally, tapping palm trees will also always offer an easy source of sugar for bees which will tend to spontaneously harvest all wasted sugar. Honey production is therefore increased in areas where palm trees are tapped (Fox, 1977).


Borassus palms are the most numerous palms in the world after the coconut palm (Fox, 1977). Despite this, they are among the least studied of all the palm species in the world. This lack of interest can be explained during colonial history by the fact that, from the colonizer's point of view, it was much easier to set up, manage and control large sugarcane plantations to produce sugar than to use existing scattered palm trees that had been managed for centuries by the local people, often within a subsistence economy. Beside this, these trees are often associated with the poor. The fact that their juice quickly ferments and makes alcohol made tapping activities undesirable to governments, and also for the Hindouist, Buddhists and Muslims orthodoxes (Fox, 1977).

Nevertheless, there are many good arguments for revitalizing knowledge and research on sugar producing palm trees. Considering their multipurpose uses, they can contribute in many ways to the sustainability of integrated farming systems. As these trees are often the main subsistence resource for the poorest people (Borassus flabellifer), improving the way these trees are used will contribute to the alleviation of poverty. Palm tapping, especially as far as wild and semi-wild species are concerned, is an activity that does not require capital to start. In highly populated rural areas, it can be a major source of self-employment for the poorest people and avoid major drifts from the land. In the case of coconut (in Sri Lanka for example) or African oil palm (in Colombia and Nigeria for example), with the low and unpredictable world prices of copra and palm oil, it has become increasingly difficult for small farmers to depend on their production. This encourages attempts to find other ways of using these trees, including diversification for better sustainability of the system. Sugar production and animal production are alternatives to consider if markets can be developed for these products.

Future research on using palm tree sap for animal production should consider the following issues:

- Assessment of existing stands of wild palms (Nypa fruticans, Borassus sp., etc.) and the economic prospects for tapping these trees.

- Assessment of the economic potential of palm trees selected over centuries for sap production to be used in other regions.

- Identification of criteria for proper selection of individuals to be tapped and for recognizing the proper plant stage for initiating successful tapping operations.

- Physiology of the production of sap flow and precise significance of the various acts that constitute the art of tapping in order to develop improved technologies for increasing sugar yields (techniques of tapping, frequency, fertilization, tree spacing) and to optimize the use of labour.

- Improved technologies for safely tapping trees.

- Techniques to preserve the juice and avoid fermentation.

- Identification of production systems with palm trees, crops and animals: according to the present economic and environmental changes

- Assessment of the relevance of tapping sugar palm trees for animal production in comparison with energy production (ethanol) or other products (copra from coconut or oil from oil palm).

What is needed is a thorough field survey reviewing in detail all indigenous knowledge related to tapping palm trees for sugar and animal production. This would permit a major breakthrough for assessing all the future potential of these trees and for sharing techniques and experiences between regions and countries. Once the potential of tapping palm trees for sugar and animal production has received the full attention it deserves from decision makers through funding research, selection, technology improvement, training and extension and small credit for farmers, many rural areas are likely to benefit from a new source of self-employment and sustainable income.


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