Five years ago when I took up the position of starting Lukuai Hay Farm from scratch, I had my job spelled out – produce hay and deliver a good ROI to my employer.
This was presented in such a rosy way that the obvious perils and costs of farming were being glossed over from the uninformed position that hay farming is easy.
Thankfully, I knew better and took the offer fully aware that farming, especially in ASALs (Arid and Semi-Arid Areas), is not for the faint-hearted and a good business plan may not save you. It is sweat and tears – yes, you will have some celebratory periods but you must have a reservoir from which you draw your energy to see you through the tough times.
The one message that has been constant from dairy farmers is that the quality of hay in Kenya is poor.
Besides a dependable network of people that I surround myself with, my go-to reservoir comes from my past experience in agriculture extension and as a teacher for the same subject, which has made me broaden my scope to interrogate the production and consumption of hay in Kenya from the customers’ (dairy/livestock farmers’) point of view.
The one message that has been constant from dairy farmers is that the quality of hay in Kenya is poor. To those who say that farmers are as calm as lambs, they surely have not heard any ventilating about bad hay.
I have had this message voiced on training sessions I have conducted for dairy groups at the farm and it was amplified during the 1st National Fodder Conference in Nakuru.
Let’s get this out, there are hay farmers who are doing a commendable job on quality of hay and bale sizes, but they are way outnumbered by the dodgy, giving the whole business a stench.
Tracing the origin of deteriorating hay standards in Kenya
The day we negated from the accepted definition of hay as a grass or legume that is purposely grown for conservation, and accepted that baling machines validate hay, we lost the plot on hay quality.
The baling machine is at its infancy – the current model was first manufactured in 1936 – but the process of hay production is as old as the domestication of livestock animals.
Past civilizations used hand tools, e.g. the scythe, hay forks and twines, to conserve fodder. A baling machine is a combination of these ancient hand tools, and while it makes the process faster and more efficient, it is not the ‘hay maker’.
On to the words ‘purposely grown’. Hay needs to be free from contaminants (pre and post-harvest), harvested at the right time, properly cured, then baled or stacked and delivered to the farmer. There are too many details on quality to go into this piece, but I hope the message is clear.
The ‘conservation’ part assumes that nutrients are locked in to the grass or legume, which is what rounds up quality hay.
Therefore any plant material, e.g. straws from cereal plants and the road-side whatever, regardless of the fact that it has passed through a baling machine, cannot pass the test as hay, since it is not purposely grown and conserved.
Certainly this is an egg-chicken argument of whether it is quality hay that should come first or a knowledgeable farmer.
The crisis in the Kenyan dairy sector is that these alternative or parallel lines of hay markets were given room to become fully-fledged businesses and any attempt to break them up will be met with resistance.
The situation is not helped by the fact that dairy farmers were given or developed strategies, never mind how ill-advised they are, on how to cope with the poor quality hay.
To start with there is a perception that hay ni ya kushikilia tumbo (is for holding the stomach). Farmers don’t do themselves a favor when they are seen to treat hay as filler and not as premium feed.
Certainly this is an egg-chicken argument of whether it is quality hay that should come first or a knowledgeable farmer. Whichever, it is counterproductive when the end user of a good has only a transactional connection (how much does it cost?) with the good, because he then opens himself up to manipulation.
Feed constitutes 60-70% of the cost of dairy herds and so it is worth paying attention to its source.
I have seen this when I train dairy executives and farmers on hay quality – there is a perception that the field day is a price comparison trip. In no way am I underestimating the price factor in making purchasing decisions, but farmers have to show an interest in what is in the hay bale.
Surprisingly, many farmers (as well as executives) pride themselves with the number of learning trips they have made to renowned dairy farms, both locally and abroad, to learn about management. While this is commendable, rarely do I find any who have visited a hay/fodder farm to learn about what is in the feed that they give their cows.
Sending the memo – feed constitutes 60-70% of the cost of dairy herds and so it is worth paying attention to its source.
Use of additives
By nature, farmers are innovative and many times during farmers training sessions, I have been made privy to some ingenious ways of reversing poor quality hay to good hay. This involves the addition of concoctions that apparently extract maximum nutrients from any type of hay.
I have always countered that with: “What if there were no nutrients to start with?”
With hay, as well as with any other animal feeds, the NINO rule – Nutrients In Nutrients Out rule – applies.
The danger with the concoctions theory is that they come highly recommended by experts, especially the anonymous jamaa mwingine (another guy) and Uncle Google. From then on, it is down-hill on the hay quality slope.
With hay, as well as with any other animal feeds, the NINO rule – Nutrients In Nutrients Out rule – applies. While the efficacy of these additives is questionable, they undoubtedly add to the cost of production. What we must not lose sight of is that their residues are found in the final product, i.e. in the milk we drink.
There are many dairy experts who are evangelists on quality hay and I am thankful to the many that mentor me. On their behalf may I let the concoctions-experts know that they are making the industry look complicit in the poor quality hay debate.
The Chaff Cutter
A sign that a dairy farmer is in ‘agri-business’ is the acquisition of chaff cutter. Just as the hay baler is misused to validate hay, there is barn knowledge that a chaff cutter can sanitize poor quality hay.
Pray, this is a mechanical panga that only changes the physical aspect of fodder, making it palatable and reducing selectivity and waste, but does not in any way improve the quality of the hay.
If hay is of good quality, cows just like any other farm animal such as horses, would chew it to the last blade without a need of chopping it up.
The full benefits of a chaff cutter are derived when it is matched with quality fodder. Otherwise every crank it makes with poor quality hay may only be helping to increase the electricity bill.
So what’s the way forward on hay quality?
This question was the trigger to my starting this blog in 2016, so I will self-plagiarize with my post of 16/5/16 – in which I opined that for hay quality to improve, the Kenya dairy sector needs to copy the Kenya horticulture sector.
With one and a half years of hind sight, my position has not changed. So I will not cherry pick – see the unabridged blog post: https://lukuaihayfarm.com/2016/05/16/who-should-do-the-visual-tests/
Please read the above post and as always, contribute to the hay quality debate by sending your comments and opinions.
Contact the blog writer, Anne Munene
Manager Lukuai Hay Farm, Laikipia