Forage grasses throw lifeline for Makueni farmers
- Usually, most of the farmland in the Kenyan countryside is filled with maize crops in February, as grain is the region’s staple food.
- Experts link reduced production from farmland in the region and beyond to erratic rainfall and prolonged drought.
A giant rack that can hold up to 6,000 bales of hay greets visitors to the home of 84-year-old Jonah Malika in Kyakavi village, Makueni County.
Usually, most of the farmland in the Kenyan countryside is filled with maize crops in February, as grain is the region’s staple food.
Yet Mr. Malika, a trained tailor, exclusively grows an assortment of fodder grasses on his 50-acre farm on the leeward side of the Mbooni Hills.
He is part of a growing community of farmers who gave up growing corn for grass after being bitten by the vagaries of climate change.
At 84, one would expect Mr. Malika to be retired. But he is actively involved in overseeing the growing, baling and selling of the grass as he runs a vibrant dairy business which includes 30 Friesian cows.
He produces 250 liters of milk per day from the dairy business which is closely linked to the fodder business. Beyond the significant reduction in the cost of feed supplements, the assorted grass earns Mr. Malika a handsome sum by selling hay and seedlings.
“Instead of growing maize, beans and peas which require months of rain, we opted for Bhoma Rhodes and Brachiaria grasses, and Sugargraze sorghum. All three grass varieties are high value, do not require weeding or pest control and are drought resistant,” Mr. Malika said during a field day organized by the Makueni County government at his farm.
As government officials introduced farmers to the benefits of various high-value forage grasses and the process of making silage, Mr. Malika touched on the need to keep business records.
“Boma Rhodes takes 90 days to mature and produces between 70 and 80 bales per acre. Similarly, Brachiaria takes 60 days to mature. An acre of Brachiaria produces between 150 and 200 bales,” he said.
A booming sorghum crop that Malika attributed to a boom in milk production has also caught the attention of farmers.
“It’s sugargraze, a hybrid forage sorghum that’s high in sugar and has sweet, very palatable stalks. It produces up to 40 tonnes of forage per acre, takes 60 days to mature and is good for making silage,” said Dennis Kibunja, director at Advanta Seeds International, the company that distributes the high-value grass.
Mr. Malika produces more fodder than his dairy business requires. He sells the surplus to dairy farmers in the area and beyond at 20 shillings a kilo of hay.
His success in fodder farming has inspired many farmers who see him as an agent of change in the drought-stricken region.
Experts link reduced production from farmland in the region and beyond to erratic rainfall and prolonged drought.
To build resilience to climate change, the government and non-governmental organizations have actively advocated for the cultivation of drought-resistant crops such as mug beans and sorghum, reforestation, rainwater harvesting, growing cover crops such as pumpkins and raising cattle.
Recently, herbaceous agriculture has become a motive in interventions to manage the adverse effects of climate change.
“Grass is a major candidate when it comes to managing climate change and restoring ecosystems. It requires less rainfall than conventional crops such as maize and does not require the application of chemicals to sustain,” said Mary Mbenge, Ecologist and Director of Makueni County Government’s Climate Change Department.
Scientists and entrepreneurs have exploited emerging opportunities in the wake of climate change to develop products that address farmers’ concerns.
As cattle ranchers produced more productive and resilient breeds of cattle, scientists at the Kenya Agriculture and Livestock Research Organization (Kalro) produced and generalized the cultivation of fodder grass.
“Over the years, weed champions have established vibrant networks by rallying neighbors and onlookers at Farmer Field Days,” says Donald Njarui, national coordinator of Karlo’s plan to roll out Brachiaria cultivation across the country. country.
Dr Njarui complains that low value forage grasses such as Napier grass are still popular among farmers in central Kenya. It is fortunate, however, that Brachiaria is becoming increasingly popular in arid areas and that farmers are actively participating in the dissemination of the more valuable grasses.
In the Masongaleni region, one of the driest in the Lower East region, fodder farming has given farmers a lifeline.
For example, Festus Mwaniki has set more than 800 acres on tropical forage grasses such as Masai love grass and African foxtail grass which are rich in essential proteins. Much of the production supports his expansive business of fattening cattle for the beef market.
He sells the rest, a bale for 150 shillings. The Nairobi-based businessman switched to grass after burning his fingers growing maize and beans.
Mr Mwaniki’s fodder grass business, which locals initially dismissed as unworthy, inspired farmers to abandon traditional crops such as maize, beans, cowpeas and pigeon peas and take up farming. fodder agriculture among smallholder farmers in the region.
The trend, which is fueled by advice from climate change management experts who recommend fodder farming as an appropriate economic activity to build resilience to the vagaries of climate change, has swept through the arid region with many small farmers who now dedicate at least part of their agricultural land to fodder grass.
Spot check by business daily in the Mbooni region revealed that racks for storing hay and maize residues have replaced traditional granaries for storing maize in most farming households.
“Maize no longer grows well in this region. You don’t have to be a dairy farmer to grow fodder grass, which we sell in markets,” said Jane Maweu, grass farmer and member of the Kathonzweni Dairy Cooperative Society.
The cultivation of grass has spawned multiple businesses and transformed regions that would otherwise have been abandoned into centers of food security. The good case is the arid region of Kathonzweni where more than 300 households in the region raise dairy cattle which they maintain thanks to the fodder they grow on their plots.
Ironically, the arid region is among the largest milk producers in the county. Therefore, USAID, through the International Livestock Research Institute and the Makueni County government, set up an 80 million shilling milk processing plant in the area.