Link Between Soil Fertility and Hay Yields

Agriculture evolved and continues to evolve on the basis of man deliberately modifying nature to feed and economically sustain himself.

Modification of nature started with such benign acts such as planting seeds instead of waiting for natural seed dispersal and use of irrigation instead of relying on rain fed farming.

Against an increasing human population and diminishing natural resources, science has stepped in to advance modifications of nature with examples such as plant  breeding instead of waiting for the Darwinian natural selection – which would eventually happen, only that it would take a  very long time.

Other easy to identify modifications of nature are the use of green houses, intensive livestock feeding e.g. zero-grazing.

However, modification of nature without appropriate counter balances and safe guards can be a limiting factor in the advancement of agriculture.  For example, while zero-grazing allows farmers to keep more animals per unit of area of land, the farmer must provide safeguards such as appropriate feeding, health management and safe environment for the venture to be economically viable.

Fodder production especially the cut and carry system – and hay production falls in this category, is an extreme modified way of feeding animals which distorts the natural relationship between free roaming herbivorous animals and grass.

In this symbiotic relationship as animals graze they pay  hapo  hapo with dung, which is rich  in nutrients that maintains the soil fertility.

That is not all, as  animals  trample on the ground they aerate the top soil, preventing capping and giving a  fresh tilth on which seeds can germinate and stolons (runners) latch on giving a fresh growth of grass season after season.

As long as there is no overstocking this situation is a win-win-win:  for the grass, for the animals and the whole ecosystem because every other organism thrives when there is mutual harmony.

In hay production the critical batter trade give-me-grass-I –give-you-dung is lost.  It is therefore important that hay farmers take conscious effort to restore soil fertility by using manure or fertilizers, otherwise hay yields and quality can decrease significantly due to nutrient deficiencies in the soil.

This leads us to the question: Why are hay farmers reluctant to use manures/fertilizers on grass farms?

Upfront, I don’t have data on hay management in Kenya  and my views are informed interactions with small scale farmers who produce hay for own use and commercial farmers producing hay mainly for sale.

The small scale farmer.

With some of these farmers its reflex; you cut grass, you put manure and a lot of it.

The results are grass that is fast growing even under insufficient rains.  Baling contractors love to work for the manure using small scale farmer – they know that on bales per acre the small scale farmer way out performs the commercial producers.

The commercial hay producers.

Regrettably this is the group in which you will find a high % of farmers who are not keen to commit money and effort to improve soil fertility.  Some of the main reasons that the farmers I have interacted with give for this reluctance are:

  • Use of “idle land”.

    I’ve lost count on the number of times that “idle land” is the opening line of hay production proposals that I have listened to.   This mindset gives room to complacence with whatever yield one gets, since prior to the hay farming, the land was idle.  This line of thinking believes that the only costs in hay production are the baling costs.However availability of land only solves the fixed asset part of the farming equation. It is the variable factors such as maintaining soil fertility that change idle land to productive land and this is what gives you good hay yields.

  • Hay production is an easy side hustle.

    Pray that you don’t meet a multi-tasking, hay producer who is armed with data on productions, prices and  potential hay buyers already queuing at his farm.What is crucially missing in his rosy data is the costs for inputs for improving soil fertility – but to him this is a small detail – he is already looking at his bank balance. Oh, how I wish.

    In my opinion what makes hay production a bad choice for a side hustle is that you can neglect critical management practices e.g. putting manure, without immediate fatal consequences.  Since the decrease in yield is gradual, it gives room for the scapegoating e.g. blaming the insufficient rains or the baling contractor who baled “big” bales.
    You can’t compare this with the consequences of neglect or bad management decision on any livestock based side hustle.  They are quick, fatal and your pocket will take a hit.

  • Lack of hay production data.

    If the consumer is king in an economy, then data is deity and this deity is the needle that is extremely difficult to find in a hay production stack.Without credible data we end up dealing with anecdote figures that get bigger and better the further one moves away from the farm. (Remember the multi-tasking side hustler?)  For lack of another word, I am sometimes inclined to shout: Hallo this sounds like a scam.

    With data we would be able to empirically compare yields based on tons /acre instead of using gross yields based on bales. This would give a big wake up call to commercial hay farmers who are averse to using manures/fertilizers, that they are out performed by the manure using small scale farmers.

    My go-to source for hay production data is the hay baling contractors that I am acquitted with.  Grant it that they have reservations about how much they reveal, but without exception they like baling for the manure using small scale hay farmer whom they also link with their “top” customers for hay.

The growth of the dairy industry in Kenya will depend on how reliably and cheaply we can produce high quality hay (as well as other fodder crops).  Using manure or fertilizers is an outright winner for both the dairy farmer and also for the commercial hay producer.

Keep on this blog for a follow up of which way to go: Organic manure or fertilizers.

For comments and questions please email lukuaifarm@gmail.com.

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