Talking about Hay at the Meru Dairy Field Day

As a commercial hay producer I have an affinity for attending farmers’ field days because this is where I directly engage with dairy farmers and build valuable market leads.

I also attend other dairy themed events like conferences that lean more on research presentations and brainstorming about the sector. However, I remain conscious of the fact that my core business is to sell hay and that any networks I build – regardless of the ambiance of the venue – if I can’t monetize them to hay sales, I am not giving my employers value for their money.

On 28th Sep ’18 I returned for the 2nd time to the Meru Dairy Co-op Annual Field Day where I was kindly hosted by Perfometer Agribusiness Consultants – thank you David.

Meru Field Day delivers in attendance numbers, and I would want to applaud the organizers for making the event a strictly Business-to-Customer affair, without the students / children entertainments that are often found in other agriculture fairs.

‘It also gave them [hay farmers] a much needed one-on-one chance with a commercial hay producer…’

Indeed, the only thing that gave a whiff that this country has students was the numerous school buses that had been hired to bring in the farmers. Meru Co-op, keep it this way!

I adopt a minimalist approach when exhibiting in farmers’ field days. Absolutely no décor, save for a double-cab load of 9 bales of hay, which when stacked up (3×3) form a nice table around which farmers congregate.

No brochures – only photocopied ¼ A4 pages with Lukuai Farm contacts. The final and absolute essentials are exercise books and pens – more on this.

This set up was ideal for farmers to touch and see our hay, ask a lot of questions and receive informed answers without any pressure to make an immediate purchase. It also gave them a much needed one-on-one chance with a commercial hay producer to whom they could ventilate about the many hay “crimes” that have been committed against them.

The setup gave me a chance to step back – but still keeping an eye on the exercise books – watch the farmers own the hay conversation, and best of all, hear them summon their dairy officials to the booth and give them an earful of: “Next time when you buy hay for us…”

But to get these juicy barbs which were loaded with essential marketing info that would be hard to capture in typical research, I had to occasionally plead for a Kiswahili version because even as a slopes native, Kimeru with all its dialects can be hard to crack, especially when people are expressing pent up anger.

The benefit of this knowledge exchange was that farmers and their officials willingly gave me their phone numbers – see the books and pens – but with a warning: dare you not update us on hay availability and prices. Pray, which marketer would?

‘Is it a wonder that a common refrain from dairy farmers is that everyone is out to milk them dry?’

Now, on to the hay crimes. Off the bat was the weight of the hay bales.

As though on cue, nearly every farmer who came to our booth lifted a bale of hay to “test” the weight. Satisfied with the results, they would then go full-throttle on the underweight bales that are in the market, and how the whole hay system is rigged against them.

The dilemma in the Kenyan hay market is that there are as many bale weights as there are hay baling contractors. Unfortunately the market accommodates everything from 9 – 18 kg bales, and often without any discernible price variations. This situation gives no incentive for hay producers to aim for higher weights.

In developed livestock economies hay prices are set by weight with the nutritional value factored in, and not by bales. This (weights and nutritional value) measurement becomes easy to integrate in the design of TMR (Total Mixed Ration), and also forms a good basis when comparing the price of hay vs. other fodder.

If dealing with different bale weights is not bad enough, we then muddle the debate by setting a new standard of how many bales fit in a vehicle. The vehicle metric seems to favor small bales (underweight bales) because the cost per bale is less if the vehicle can carry more bales.

Is it a wonder then that a common refrain from dairy farmers is that everyone is out to milk them dry?

‘This intense debate on hay quality reinforced my belief that many farmers are not aware of where hay comes from.’

To the second hay crime: quality.

Out with the weight of the bale, the next question was: “Is this Rhodes Grass?” An affirmative answer would lead to an intense debate about past hay purchases that were off-colour, had a foul smell and poor texture, and was sold to them under the Rhodes Grass brand.

It was unfortunate to hear farmers say that they have resigned themselves to the fact that they have to chaff the “bad” hay to improve the quality. I countered this by informing the farmers that while chaffing makes the hay palatable and prevent the cows from selecting, it does not change the nutritive value of the hay.

I emphasized that there is no substitute for starting with quality hay that is from a grass that has been managed as a “crop”, harvested at the right stage and has been properly cured.

This intense debate on hay quality reinforced my belief that many farmers are not aware of where hay comes from. Okay, it is from a farm but how is it grown? Should hay get high marks and a high price just because it is Rhodes Grass? What is the harvesting stage? How does a healthy grass crop look like?

‘…once farmers get to know about hay quality and standards, they start voting for their preferred hay with their shillings.’

This lack of hay awareness is not unique to the Meru farmers – I have seen it with others who come for training at the farm.

Many admit, without pride, that though they have been on study tours to top dairy farms in Kenya and abroad, they have never been to a hay farm or indeed ever thought that there is so much to learn about hay, other than the weight of the bales.

Since the cost of animal feeds constitutes about 60-70% of the cost of keeping cows and as feeds affect milk production, the animal’s health and reproduction, it is prudent and in the interest of the stakeholders in the dairy/livestock sector that our farmers are trained on what constitutes quality hay – which is highly used by farmers in their feed compositions.

I am afraid that if the dairy/livestock sector expects the government to legislate and enforce hay standards, we will most likely be in for a long and frustrating wait, during which regrettably we might mark time with seminars and conferences.

In my experience, once farmers get to know about hay quality and standards, they start voting for their preferred hay with their shillings. And woe unto a producer or a dairy executive who will not deliver what the farmers want – you will be baled out.

‘The Meru event put an end to my procrastination on holding a Lukuai Hay Day. Planning for this day is on…’

Considering that most farmers are in structured dairies or community based organizations, there is a big multiplier effect of training a few farmers. To put this into perspective, remember my 9 bales hay? They were bought by Quinnlas Murithi, a youthful and inquisitive farmer from Naari Dairy which has 800 members. What is Murithi’s reach, experientially and through his mobile phone?

The Meru event put an end to my procrastination on holding a Lukuai Hay Day. Planning for this day is on because our farmers need a farm visit to see, touch and understand how we move from a quality “crop” of grass to quality hay.

I invite partners in the dairy sector to join Lukuai Farm in making unique experiential training a success.

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

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

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