I have phrased this title in the way that potential Rhodes Grass hay farmers ask me. This question is important because establishing grass fields is expensive, from land preparation to the cost of seeds and the time factor. Therefore the longer one can keep a grass field in economical production without a need to reseed, the more likely one can have a profitable hay business.
The answer to this question is variable. At Lukuai Farm, we have had fields that lasted as little as 2 years while now we have some that are still going strong at 6 years – all dependent on the management practices employed.
What I will share with you are the management practices that have increased the longevity of our grass fields – some learnt through mistakes that were not only expensive, but set us back in production time, especially considering that we are in Arid and Semi Arid Lands (ASALs).
Eight management practices:
1) Land Preparation: Aim to have a good tilth – that is, the condition of the soil should be suitable for planting and growing a crop. Dispense with the thinking that grass does not need as good a tilth as wheat or maize. It does and it will reward you if you treat it like a crop.
Do proper ploughing and harrowing (may be multiple times) so as to get a tilth that is free from weeds, can retain water and to which seeds can anchor properly. The resulting crop (grass) will be firmly rooted and is more likely to have a longer life than one on poor tilth.
2) Planting / Seed rate: At Lukuai Farm we use 5-6 kgs of Rhodes Grass seeds per acre with the aim of establishing a good grass carpet within one rainy season.
The thick carpet is a guaranteed way of reducing open spaces which would otherwise become occupied by weeds. These are expensive to control and if left unchecked can reduce the longevity of grass fields.
3) Timing of the 1st cutting after planting: Without exception all farmers look forward to the first hay harvesting.
By this time they have discovered the fallacy of the story that establishing grass is cheap, they are financially drained and they are possibly dealing with the pressure of a baling contractor and a broker/trader who would like to cut the grass yesterday – for obvious reasons.
But grass that “looks” grown does not mean that it is firmly established to withstand cutting, raking and baling. These are brutal operations for a young and fragile grass field, and if done too early they can damage the grass reducing its lifespan.
Do not delegate the making of this crucial decision to a party whose objectives are not aligned with yours.
4) Height of cutting: Once a hay field is established the goal of the farmer is to maximize yields not just for the specific season that he is cutting, but for all subsequent seasons.
Set your cutting height with the aim of leaving a stubble with enough stored energy that will keep the cut grass alive. At Lukuai Farm we go for a stubble of 5-6″ meaning that our grass fields revive quickly in the next rainy season.
While this may look wasteful or like we forego inches of grass that we could have baled, being in ASALs makes us more cautious – this stubble is our insurance that grasses will survive until the rainy season, whenever that will be. It’s a tough life!
5) Raking: This follows cutting and it involves gathering the cut grass into windrows for efficient baling. The aim is to gather as much of the cut grass as economically possible but it is important to know (and practise) that raking is not vacuuming.
Intentionally leave some grass in the field to act as a mulch which adds organic matter and nutrients back into the soil, conserves moisture, keeps your soils cool and is a weeds control measure especially where patches have started to occur as a result of low cutting.
These factors help in extending the lifespan of your Rhodes Grass stand, and if you are in ASALs, grass mulch is the life to your soils.
6) Fertilizer: Hay harvesting takes out a lot of nutrients from the grass fields therefore if nutrients are not regularly replenished, grass can become undernourished and quickly thin out, resulting in a short lifespan.
Top dressing with organic manures and/or with nitrogenous fertilizers results in stronger healthier grass, increasing the yield per acre and the longevity of the grass fields.
7) Stress: Grass fields can be stressed due to lack of enough rains. This is a situation that hay producers in ASALs are very familiar with.
As tempting as it is to harvest hay in every season it is prudent to forego a season if grasses are stressed, since they may not be able to recover from the baling process.
An appeal to telephone hay farmers – the responsibility of judging if grasses are stressed falls on you and don’t delegate it to a baling contractor, hay trader or the twice removed cousin of your in-laws whose objectives may not be aligned with yours.
8) Use of machinery on wet soils: Healthy soils have two components – the chemical part, which we control by use of fertilizers/manures, and the structure part, which we so often ignore because…. well, it’s out of sight and out of mind – or so we think.
Soil with a good structure is fluffy and has good air circulation and water retention capacity, allowing the grass roots to grow deep. It creates an environment where nutrients are available to the grass.
Harvesting hay when soils are wet is akin to turning your grass field into a road construction project, albeit on a gradual scale making it a silent killer of soils.
This is because during cutting, raking, baling and removal of the bales from the field, tractors heavily compact the soils, ruining their structure and reducing the lifespan of the grass field.
As tempting as it is for a hay farmer to be the first one in the market, possibly to catch a good price, if it means using machinery on wet soils, one should think long term – it is not worth it to ruin your grass for a short term gain.
In conclusion, the lifespan of a Rhodes Grass field depends on management and it is for each farmer to make informed decisions on what practices can increase or decrease the longevity of the grass field while maintaining an economic production. Good luck.
For arrangements on hay production training at Lukuai Farm and comments on this post, contact the blog writer:
Anne, Tel: 0725-520627