Healthy Soils: Key to Unlocking the Grass Potential of ASALs

We listen to Presidential speeches with bias and as Kenya’s President Uhuru was inaugurated for his second and final term on Nov 26th, those of us in Arid and Semi-Arid Lands (ASALs), were gratified when President painted the broad picture on how his government will go about ensuring that Kenya can get out of the drought cycles through  a re-engineered agricultural policy.

Without getting caught up into the semantics of the word “re-engineering”, we can assume that it means his government will do things differently than it has done in the last 5 years in the ASALs.

rae-bernard-2014.jpgRAE Bernard 2017
Bernad Lenariach: Unmanaged Vs Managed Grass Farm 

As the President assembles the teams that will help him to fulfill his legacy in ASALs, citizens need to give their input and commend individuals such as Bernard Lenariach of Lomayana Village, Baringo South, who have shown that pastoralism and grass farming are not mutually exclusive and that the drought jinx in ASALs can be broken.

Inputting in policy discussion in ASALs, is one way that Kenyans can extend their civic duty beyond the polling booth.

1. Why should ASALs matter on national level?

80% of Kenya’s land mass is in ASALs (Kirbride and Grahn 2008:8) while the remaining 20% is in the once high potential agricultural areas that are now on the food deficit zone due to population pressure.

Because of the small land sizes, farmers in the high potential areas are limited in deploying mechanization, scaling-up operations and in the case of the dairy sector – while they have access to superior animal genetics, management skills and a ready market for milk, they don’t have sufficient animal fodder.

Dairy Cow

Their main supply of fodder in form of hay comes from ASALs – so developing ASALs has a big national implication especially in the dairy sector.

 

On regional level land utilization in ASALs is currently based on a numerical livestock numbers pastoralism, whose expansion depends on an ever increasing acreage of land, which is not viable. This set up is contrary to successful models of livestock management which acknowledges that land is a “finite” factor of production and they aim to maximize grass value per acre of land.

In the re-engineered agriculture era, we therefore need to change the narrative of ASALs as a region of livestock production and view it as a region where grass can be purposefully grown as a “crop”, the Bernad Lenariach’s way.

2. Shift focus from rain to soils

The President referred to the … “vagaries of weather that hold us hostage”

It is safe to assume that by “weather” the President was referring to rain, whose amount and distribution we can’t control.

However even in seasons when there is enough rainfall, ASALs do not realize their full grass potential per acre because the soils are unhealthy.

Besides being a structure for anchoring the grass, healthy grass soils provide nutrients and a reservoir effect that sustains the grass well past the rainy season.

Figuratively, soils can either be a sponge that retains water or a hard roof that accelerates water runoff.

While there are many reasons why the state of the soils can be unhealthy, in ASALs the expansive land gives an infinite perception allowing practices such as overgrazing and the subsequent unavoidable soil erosion accelerate, to a point that the soils  can’t absorb water.

It is important to note that the effects of unhealthy soils are self-perpetuating and unless urgent intervention is done, desertification kicks in resulting in further shrinking of grazing lands.

For unhealthy soils to heal they need a “sick-off” period, whereby livestock are intentionally kept off the land and then management practices such as minimum tillage, replenishing of nutrients by adding manure and reseeding to increase grass density are done.

3. Role of the ASALs’ residents in the re-engineered agriculture

Kenya ASALs have had many agriculture related projects funded by the Government, development agents and NGOs – many of these projects have not survived past the pomp of the launching.

In comparison the RAE (Rehabilitation of Arid Environments) Charitable Trust in Baringo, of which Bernad is a member, provides technical advice on soil management, grass seeds and farm machinery at a fee.

The fee aspect gives the project goodwill and ownership, factors which are essential for the success of any project but are unfortunately lacking in the Government and donor projects.

Also worth noting in Baringo, an area where formal land adjudication has not yet been done, for the purpose of rolling out the grass as a crop project,  the community arbitrated land ownership enabling households to “settle” and commit their resources to improve grass on their own portions of land.

This effectively removed the communal ownership of grasslands, which are often mired in disputes.

Another big win for the RAE project is proof that the cheapest and most effective way of controlling the dreaded Mathenge weed (Prosopis juliflora), is to switch to manage grasslands. Farms such as Bernad’s (see picture ) are free from Mathenge while open fields are fully forested with the weed.

Despite challenges, the RAE project Baringo have demonstrated that people in ASALs can take a soil/grass improvement project, own it and with pride literally run with it – natural in Baringo!

4. Role of national and county governments

The national and county governments should be facilitators providing technical advice that recognizes the unique challenges in ASALs. They should also provide credible data that gives benchmarks against which grass yields per acre can be measured.

Building of infrastructure such as gabions for reclaiming eroded gullies and establishing of water pans for retaining excess run off water would also be their mandate, but with clear understanding that these can’t compensate for the lack of healthy soils – which is the responsibility of the individual farmers.

Finally, enforcing the rule of law that ensures managed grass farms are considered as  private property and are protected, is the mandate of the twin governments.

For whatever reason you visit Baringo in this festive season – drop in  to Bernad’s farm and the RAE projects, to see that the drought-free Kenya that we desire, is truly within our hands.

Happy holidays.

For comments and opinions on this post, contact the blog author:

Anne, Tel: 0725-520627
Email: lukuaifarm@gmail.com

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