Farming under drought – failure and success

I dug in my wheat – which I had sowed in March. It germinated but it shriveled, the grains didn’t fill so I ended up ploughing the shriveled stems into the ground. This was a financial hit and it hurts. I would want to blame it on the drought – park me and the “drought” here, we shall revisit.

My neighbors, starting with the ever supportive Mr. M and other farmers in ASALs – got the same amount of rainfall as I did and some even less -120mm recorded for March through June 2021, and they got good yields in wheat, barley, canola, sorghum and field peas.

Back to me; I could play a victim of drought – which would be face saving since we are in yet another of our drought periods in ASALs. I could even monetize my situation by writing a funds-winning proposal with all the donor appealing words; drought, food security, climate resilience, marginalized areas wrapping it neatly with the gender ribbons and I would be in good dollars. Because hii pesa ya donor si ya.……..

But I would henceforth have to avoid mirrors and my farming mentors because I know I just did not play the farming game like my successful neighbors / mentors did.

So what are these farmers doing, that season after season they are managing to get good yields in regions that are nearly written off for food production?

They embrace crop science and work with the variables they can control with the aim of getting healthy living soils. Of course they wish they had enough and reliable rainfall but knowing this is beyond their control, their concern is making every mm of rainfall stay within the root zone of the crops.

Good people – this is what I didn’t do and trying to use the drought card is being disingenuous.

Is there a chance that like me, on a national scale we are collectively failing in our farming systems in ASALs?

We could muddle this conversation with a lot of if onlys and buts, ignoring and disparaging the efforts of these successful farmers and attribute their success to emotive issues such as luck (whisper – it is sweat), money, land sizes, machines/equipment and in some cases we will unfortunately use the race card. There might even be a proposal for a survey/research to “see” why these farmers do well.

As a food insecure country, whose food import bill is growing yearly and for ASALs – an over researched region, we may not have the luxury, need and time for these types of debates.

After all, the farmers are open about their past farming blunders that left their soils severely degraded, raised their farming costs, reduced their yields and income.

It has taken them years to build them (soils) back to the current superior structure that can retain moisture for an extended period of time, remain cool even under extreme temperatures and have a healthy ecosystem that keeps the soils well aerated.

They are evangelists of using crop residue for mulching, releasing and recycling nutrients back to the soil and suppressing weeds. Consequently their fertilizer usage per acre is low and so is the seed rates in wheat and barley because with rich soils the plants get more tillers.

Some of the farmers were once big suppliers of baled wheat and barley straw for animal fodder, until the shilling dropped that the income from the baled straw is less than the holistic value of the straw if is left as mulch to rebuild the soil.

Mulching with the crop residue is arguably one cheapest ways of conserving water, which makes the crops thrive even when the rainfall has been below the expected.

They are then keen on not disturbing their soils so as to retain its moisture and this is where the terms zero-till, minimum tillage or conservation tillage comes in. They only poke the hole for seeds, leaving the rest of the ground untouched.

I hear some whispers; “ Oh – but they have big precision planters”. Depending on your farm size – you can poke the hole with a stick, panga or a jembe. Get the concept right, use the tool at your disposal. Done.

By embracing crop science they are intentional about choosing not only the crop to grow but the variety that does well in their particular areas. They use a crop rotation regime that cheaply introduces nutrients into soil, control weeds and also break hard pans. Early planting is their go-to way of establishing a crop so take advantage of the first rains.

And when it comes to using farming chemicals, they use those which besides offering them a cheaper and efficient way of preventing and controlling weeds, pests and diseases, they are softer on their crops, soils and the environment because they want longevity.

So there you have it – it is simple, nothing kizungu mingi. But I still made a mess of it because I had not grasped that my transition from hay to cereals growing is going to be a tough journey, since my soils are totally devoid of organic matter.

However there is a school of science, often backed by Google results – that will poke holes into this model of farming by challenging the use of farm chemicals and concepts like mono cropping even when it is used in a crop rotation regime. They also have magical gels and other elixirs that would overnight correct poor soils.

Unless the alternative they propose gives higher yields and income, has low production costs, is financially sustainable without donor funds (by now you know my disdain for this), can be efficiently replicated on any acreage and last but not least makes the farmers happy – by all means show us on the ground. Peace.

I have not given up. I have learnt from my mistakes and been busy at the farm, because one day – touch soil, I will write a different story about me and wheat.

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Farming Misinformation: The new threat to agriculture

From Avocado to Zebu cows, there is a large buffet of farming news on Kenyan radio, TV and newspapers.

People easily connect with the news because agriculture is synonymous with food and many are interested in working on land, especially if it can be a source of main income or a side hustle.

The media entry has expanded the agri conversations and helped farmers to connect with markets. It fills the gap that was left by the defunct agriculture extension services, both on the national and county levels.

However, we are now faced with the danger of media houses sensationalising agriculture news with headline grabbing punch lines, followed by content that is so lacking in depth and accuracy that it borders on misinformation. I am not using the broad brush of fake news, I am sticking to misinformation.

To understand where I am coming from in this subject, let me start with the disclosure that my work as an ASALs grass farmer has been covered in media platforms.

I have also written farming articles for newspapers which have expanded my market and networks. Thank you. I acknowledge that my work needs editing because my is and was are still not there and it also needs to conform to the editorial guidelines of the particular media house.

Therefore I am not picking on a hand that has nurtured me, but kwa roho safi I wish to strengthen it so that it can nurture others. Done.

To those who have followed farming articles in Kenya media – initially there was noticeable care to facts. But with every progressive year there is a level of sloppiness that has slipped in, so that although articles pass the editorial test, they fail on facts.

Grant it that these articles are not peer reviewed science papers, but even with the help of Google, you need some basic awareness on a topic to know when you are messing up facts e.g. attempting to edit internode to node for brevity, is a no-no.

I have personal experience with my article that had objective facts edited to distortion all in the name of making the article “appealing” to readers. This left me utterly embarrassed that my name was in a by line of an article that was laden with very glaring errors. Since then I am quick to pick errors in farming articles and it is not getting better. Talk of people who can keep feelings!

This was brought up afresh when in a recent farming pull out in a leading newspaper, an ASALs grass champion from Rift Valley was captioned with a wrong name.

I am acquainted with the man and this left me wondering; if you can mess up a name, why should I trust the rest of the article or indeed any other info in the publication?

We need every pair of hands and brain trust we can get if we are going to feed this nation, and media houses can help to bring more people into farming.

While we must recognize that media houses are private enterprises which are liberalized in sourcing and creating content, they should be aware that using sensational or clickable news in agriculture writing can have the undesired effect of not only discrediting their brands but also of attracting the wrong people into farming.

These are people who come in with very high expectations on returns, are not aware of financial risks involved and underestimate how physically involving farming is. They also lack the resilience that is needed to survive in the farming sector.

Could it be that many abandoned agriculture ventures, especially those that started with a lot of hype were started by people who“read it the newspaper”?

The crowning line on most of farming articles is how much income the farmer is making. Really?

This irks me as someone who has a number of successful farmers who mentor me, especially at this time that I am transiting to growing cereals.

A talk with any of them is all about their farming journeys and linking me with their network of service/inputs providers. They particularly like to rub in the tough times they have had in farming, so as to make me aware that farming is not a financial walk in the park.

They would cringe at the thought their income is plastered in the media – because in whichever career you are in, money matters are private.

However flattering it might feel for one to be covered in the media, “No comment” should be the default answer to questions on matters of income. Thank me later.

When farming articles are on hobbies in which the “successful” farmer has no expectations of a profit na ako sawa – this should be labelled as agritainment with a disclaimer: Do not try this at the farm unless you want to sell your farm or pesa si shida.

Same warning should be given for donor funded projects and research which can not be economically replicated as farming ventures.

Farming articles should inspire people and media houses that want to earn and retain public trust must differentiate themselves from the fact-free copy and paste writing that is in the internet.

They should feel a public duty to say the hard truth that though farming can be a worth business venture it is not cool – it is sweat.

Let the media blast out that though equipment and machinery have made farming easier and more efficient, the stories of ground breaking apps that relieve the modern farmer from all chores – except going to the bank, are a stretch.

Most of these things are very expensive, need supporting infrastructure and are only economically justifiable in large scale operations. That is why they are mainly used in countries where agriculture is subsidised by the state.

Unfortunately our Kenyan agriculture is not subsidised and upende usipende – you need boots on the ground. And if the venture is to tilt closer to being profitable, those boots will have to be for the owner and not for visiting the farm on weekends.

If media houses fail to do the due diligence on the science and facts of agriculture, they abet in giving farming a bad name.

Oh, please correct me if I am wrong – I will not catch feelings.

My 10 km Agri-Run

I run. A 6 am routine that I have tried to stick to for the last 3 years. I run rural with no devices in my ears, as this is time I panel beat my ideas; hay marketing, machine repairs, drafting articles and the never ending issue of pesa.

There is joy in kicking dew, getting the heady smell of eucalyptus, looking at snow-capped Mt. Kenya peaks, running when it’s drizzling and hoping it is also raining on my grass.

A “jikaze Mama” shout out from elite runners – the flag waving ones just so you know, followed by a tip from their coaches, are my talisman for a good day.

Within the jikaze tariff (which says a lot about my speed) I am fortunate that I can mix hills – the gentle and the killer – flats, forests, streams, big rivers and a bit of tarmac to make the 10 km cross section of rural agriculture.

My run gives me a reality of Kenyan rural agriculture, which I find lacking in our social media forums, newspaper agri pullouts and TV features – where hobbyists and single season farmers who are lucky with the market are sometimes overly celebrated.

Images are curated to perfection and desk bound wordsmiths romanticize farming with ATM’s lined along the foot paths. If only. I am not throwing stones – because I have participated on most of these forums.

Why should my 10 km agri-run matter to you? It is because regardless of the land tenure and devolution, we can’t expand national boundaries. And therefore, it is in our national interest that we get maximum productivity from every acre of land, not only for food security but so as to improve our social welfare – health, education, housing, transportation and rural recreation.

Are we doing this in our rural areas? And by rural I don’t mean what you see along the major tarmac roads, which is “prime rural”. I mean huko nyuma – this is where I run.

Run with me for some highlights.

The milk man and Shimba

Always at his gate with his 4.5 l milk tin waiting for the co-op milk collection truck. His demeanor screams “defeated”, even at 6 am. His nappier grass has overgrown to the height and thickness of the Grevillea trees that are along the farm borderlines. Give him an A+ for afforestation.

There is a small patch of Rhodes Grass, possibly from the 100 gms seeds sachet he bought in an agriculture show, with the marketing pitch that every dairy farmer must have his own hay. Should he?

Being a commercial Rhodes Grass farmer – I am afraid I may look like I am bashing the farmer out of envy but kwa roho safi, he is more likely to increase his milk yield if he planted a legume fodder e.g. lucerne or desmodium, which can increase the protein factor in his feed ration.

Oh and the 2020 word of the year “super spreader”- my milk man has used it since his Rhodes Grass started seeding, because it prolifically spreads seeds to the rest of his farm as well as his neighbor’s. This increases his weeding costs, without which his whole farm will be colonized by Rhodes Grass but now as a weed.

How comes he has missed out on the money and growth that is touted to be in the Kenya dairy sector? Has he stubbornly “refused” to add value to his milk? Or could it be that his deductions from the co-op means he can’t break even?

Has the fodder conservation message reached him? Most likely not, because with his meager milk earnings he can’t afford to pay for a consultant and the government /county agriculture extension services are not available.

I trudge on as Shimba his friendly dog – that’s the name for all dogs here and we are strong on the “h” – gives me a tail wag. I am happy that he stands by his master and doesn’t see the despair that is on his face.

Soda and data

I detest running on main roads (read tarmac). But I do an inevitable 200m connecting the small stream run to the killer hill.

On the tarmac the unmistakable red trailers carrying the bottled happiness of carbonated water and sugar are a regular sighting. What intrigues me with these trailers is the massive data that they are hauling. Fresh data that is collected, collated and modeled for demographics, regions, seasons as well as price. Drink.

Now let’s look at our agriculture data. With devolution it is in 47 secured bottles with little communication with each other. Some is also fire-walled by the sponsoring donor agencies and NGOs. There is a whiff of staleness, complexity in delivery and the data is drank on special occasions such as conferences and seminars way out of reach of farmers in my 10 km.

There is a lot of data that is left uncollected at the county cess barriers – where emphasis is on revenue collection but not on the important details like specific farms where the produce was sourced, whether it was irrigated or rain fed, seeds varieties used etc. While the revenue is valuable to the counties the uncaptured data is priceless in the way it can be used in shaping our agriculture policy.

The cattle dip

While the elite runners swoosh it in a jiffy, I use my jikaze tariff to the absolute limit because a 1 km long hill with a 75 m ascent is a legs killer. Believe me.

Up, up and there is the cattle dip where I take a break, reminiscing of the ritual of taking cows to the dip. The cows (and dogs) loved the experience and for me – and my generation – the layout of the dip was firmly sketched on our minds.

So rightfully I can ask: “Who builds a cattle dip on a narrow road reserve? Where is the holding area? Where is the drainage area – factor in 75m gradient with a stream below.”

The dip is not in use and it is not dilapidated- the walkway timber frames and the mabatis are in good condition – making me wonder if its closure was a foregone conclusion but it was nevertheless built by project funds that had to be used. But figure out the song, dance and speeches that were done on its “opening day”.

Was our livestock vector control better when we had efficiently run communal cattle dips or now where cows are sprayed at the farms? Over to the vets.

Whatever, on my run I get to see an elephant even though it is white. Sad.

Post Harvest losses

I am running along the small stream where water birds are fishing for their breakfast. It would be nice to linger around to to see the dives and precision of their hunts.

But the ever hanging stench of rotting cabbage, that is a permanent feature of the small plots makes me up my running tariff.

How can our rural agriculture thrive if the small holder farmers suffer back-to-back losses through lack of market for their produce?

There is the occasional good season that farmers get very good prices for cabbage – but this benefit mainly goes to farmers on large acreage who can buy quality seeds and inputs, usually on credit. They can also afford to pay for agronomist’s services, and through social media they can bypass marketing brokers, who pay pittance for produce.

These are things that are out of the reach from the leased plot cabbage farmer on my run, accounting for the cabbages that are left to rot in the farm. Pain.

The Coffee Run

My best part of the run is an enjoyable flat sprint where on clear days I get a good sighting of the Aberdare ranges.

Farms here are dotted with “trees” which, if they weren’t in my DNA as trees that took my generation to school, made families get better housing, build water tanks, and basically improve rural life – I wouldn’t know it is coffee.

There are a few yellow leaves forlornly clinging to the bone dry branches. Termites have built nests at the base of the stems and there are no berries, even the low grade mbuni.

How sacrilegious this would look to the small holder coffee farmers of years back? Then there was pride in having Grade 1 fat and juicy berries that “dropped the kilo”. The Grade 2, which were pockmarked with Coffee Berry Disease, would invite the wrath and finger wagging of the factory manager.

I am not persuaded that the small holder coffee farmers on my run no longer desire the things that my parents’ generation desired from their coffee earnings. And I don’t fall for the line that there is no money in coffee – because there is a big privately run coffee farm across the road with coffee in prime condition.

So what ails the small holder coffee sector? For answer ref the milk man and Shimba.

On and on I could tell you about bananas, fish ponds or abandoned green houses but you now have the drift of the agriculture status on my 10 km.

It is not all gloom on my run. There is the adrenaline rush of seeing boys giggle as they throw stones at bee hives – yes, they know I am behind them and they are aware of my speed! They also catapult rocks at monkeys and then safely tuck away the weapon in their school bags. How unfortunate that many kids in urban areas will never know the thrill of these mischiefs.

And on the days that I run with my grown-up kids with them saying; “Mama don’t worry I will loop you” – allowing us time to talk as we run, this is fun.

Wherever your rural is, whatever your running tarriff, lace up and do a 10 km- then we compare notes. May 2021 be a better year for the Kenyan agri sector.

For purchase of quality Rhodes Grass Hay, contact Anne, the blog writer:

Tel: 0725-520627

Email: Lukuaifarm@gmail.com

Talking Hay and Agriculture

As a manager of a hay farm, I am increasingly seeking and eager to engage with people who are outliers in our agriculture system.

This is borne out of the realization that hay farming is not a stand alone activity, but its success or failure is inextricably linked to the rest of the agriculture sector.

Being free from the baggage and hindsight that is commonly found in policy papers, research documents or latest directives, the outliers have very pragmatic and market oriented views on agriculture.

Though they can sometimes stretch things – especially with the excellent spreadsheets showing profits and how telephone farming and apps can be a panacea for most problems in agriculture – I find it very illuminating to listen to their perspectives from the prism of their current or former careers.

What’s not to like when I listen to an engineer, a data cruncher, mama mboga, teacher or an artist, who have sunk their feet into farming? All these people draw me out from the echo chamber of agriculturalists, where conversations are often based on policy papers, research and directives.

But have we been saying anything different? Other than the change of venues, the sponsoring donors and the branded merchandise, do we have results that can show the value of these conversations?

Let me own up by saying that on my own volition I participated in conferences (pre-Covid), surveys for research and interviews until fatigue set in.

So a lot of requests nowadays are met with – No Thanks.

The sore point which triggered my fatigue was when I had professionals (academia) come to the farm and I felt that some lacked a level of depth and intellectual curiosity to an extent that they conducted their interviews by rote, a matter of ticking boxes with a stopwatch at hand.

I am careful of how I allocate my time and I would be hard pressed to give anyone more than an hour. But for my input, I look for a quid pro quo in which I will be made and left better by having a robust exchange of ideas ranging from fodder, feeding systems, cattle breeds and even crossing over to tomatoes, coffee, markets or soil testing. 

If it is agriculture – bring it on.

Ok, let’s squeeze in 1 minute for politics – we are Kenyans. Done.

It literally pushed me to the grass whenever I would see a researcher opening his/her laptop for a document to enhance a conversation or promise to send me a link for a very 101 document in agriculture. 

I fully appreciate people referring me to informative papers and journals.  But this does not justify a below par performance with an at-your-fingertips agriculture basics conversation.

I expect your presence to enrich me, so as not to proverbially remain with my head buried in grass. This is not asking for too much. It is a very bare minimum, and more so for people who are from the agriculture pool.

My other pet peeve was the constant reference of how things are done in other countries.

Hallo, I am in Laikipia North and unless you are telling me about private or community initiatives in Baringo or Wajir – ASALs counties with similar rainfall challenges, access (or lack of) extension services with me and the initiatives are not donor or government funded – see, I don’t want to call them projects – it is futile to forever dwell on countries that have subsidized agriculture, enforceable standards of farm inputs, extension services on call and protected agriculture markets.

Of course there are lessons we can learn from these countries e.g.value of  mechanization and large scale production – but these are two items we have unfortunately made non-starters by subdivision of land in our once food production zones.

Oh and while we are at this – could we move on how the fodder fortunes of ASALs will change with dams and irrigation? Pesa iko wapi? 

In my opinion the economically viable and scalable game changer in ASALs is proper management of our soils – to keep them fertile so that even with the minimal rainfall they can sustain fodder. If we then leverage it with good herd management, we are in Eden.

I am aware that totally isolating myself from the happenings on the current events in fodder production can lead to my stagnation. I am therefore in social media forums on dairy/ fodder through which I have had the privilege of being visited at farm by some all round and very engaging agriculturalists. I am fortunate to call some of my mentors.  Asanteni. 

Also there are some professional acquaintances that tumetoka bali and we yield to each other when input is needed. Thanks to Mburu (KDB) and Butichi (Livestock Laikipia) – on 11/9/2020 I participated in a survey about fodder by the Tegemeo Institute.

This post is not for preempting the content of the survey, but I was candid about the potential of fodder production in ASALs and also the challenges facing the small holder hay farmer. I look forward to knowing the findings.

For purchase of quality Rhodes Grass Hay, contact the blog writer:

Anne Tel: 0725-520627

Email: Lukuaifarm@gmail.com

Hay Export: Doing It The Right Way

The international trade in hay has seen a steady rise in recent years.  This has been due to an increase in meat and milk consumption, lack of suitable arable land and unfavorable weather in importing countries e.g. China and Japan.

Depletion of underground water resources in the Gulf countries, have made them abandon irrigated hay. But in a region (and at a time) where the oil dollar can buy and fulfill any fantasy – be it top breed race horses or mega dairy farms – the area leads as a big importer of hay.

While Lucerne is the preferred hay in the export market due to its high protein content, there is still a market for grass hays e.g. Rhodes Grass – which is now commonly grown in Kenya.

Kenyan traders are angling for the Rhodes Grass hay export, and thanks to my easily-found contact in this hay blog, they often reach out to me with very good hay tenders.

Indeed, I can tell through the incoming phone calls –  now saved under my ever-expanding Hay Exp group – when a hay tender has been issued, especially from the Gulf region.

Some of the callers openly berate me for lacking enthusiasm for the lucrative tenders, especially when they swear by hay that they will pay me in dollars once consignment is delivered.

But the cake goes to the exporters team of K….. and M…… (fill the dots with male names from the slopes). They came to the farm accompanied by their hay contact from the “Gulf”, who looked the part in wrap-around sunglasses and decked with jewelry to the tips of his fingers.

As a testament to the oil dollar, he drove a fuel guzzler through mud just like a very experienced Kenyan bush driver – quite a feat for someone who had landed in Nairobi the previous night.

Oh, and our Gulf man –  apparently a well traveled international trader – didn’t understand any English, so K and M cautioned me to keep the conversation in Kikuyu.  There was not a red flag that this team did not raise. For for me it was street school 101. But I digress. 

What shocks me is the ease that potential exporters associate with the international hay market. And my opinion is informed by an internship decades ago in a horticultural exporting company where I wore out my shoes inspecting, grading and packing French beans for export.

Even with all this diligence, on several occasions beans were returned on the “next flight”, after rejection at entry points by the importing country’s regulatory agency.

And guess who was the appointed bearer of the bad news to the farmers – who had not only invested a lot into the crop but had also done a lot of back breaking work? Yours truly, the young intern!

But I strongly believe that Kenya can get into the Rhodes Grass hay export market because of the following:

1) We are geographically well located to export hay to the Gulf region, since we can take advantage of the inexpensive ocean transport system mainly created by the return freight of ships offloading at Mombasa.

2) We have plenty of arable land in ASALs, which with good farming practices can support large scale and mechanized Rhodes Grass hay production to meet the international hay tenders.

3) With the lessons learnt in cargo movement during the Covid-19 crisis, many countries will want to have full control of their food production which could drive an increase in the import of Rhodes Grass for beef/ milk production in the Gulf.

However, we need to be cognizant that the Rhodes Grass hay export market is competitive, with the USA, Canada and Pakistan being the main players.

There are also set standards on hay nutritional values, zero tolerance on vectors, weeds and disease-causing organisms e.g. molds caused by poor drying.

The standards are required to protect the interlinked animal, human and ecological welfare, which can be easily messed up by contaminated agriculture food crops.

For example, the seemingly innocuous stems of an invasive succulent weed can lay inert in hay bales, only to vigorously spring back to life once it is in contact with nutrient-rich cattle slurry.

Hay can also be a carrier for mites, which can cause skin disease in livestock animals.

Moldy hay can affect not only the health and productivity of livestock animals but it can be a source of aflotoxins in milk, posing a risk to consumers.

It is worth noting that these standards can’t be captured in pictures, regardless of the phone specifications.

So how do we successfully navigate the hay export market? We are fortunate that we have a renowned history of exporting agricultural food crops e.g.  French beans, under the watchful eye of well established institutions such as Kephis and HCDA. These bodies can guide the hay export sector to ensure that it conforms to all international standards.

While we must applaud hay traders for identifying international markets, to let them play unregulated based on hay pictures, nutritional tests that do not match the hay consignments or weights that may not meet tendering specifications could soon lead to the country getting blacklisted for infringements.

If fear can be an added incentive, it’s important to note that infringements particularly based on the presence of diseases, pests and weeds, lead to a unilateral product ban for the whole country and not just the offending trader.

An example is the current ban on export of Kenyan mangoes to the lucrative European and US markets due to a fruit fly infestation.

The recently launched campaign to eradicate fruit fly – Komesha: Zuia Fruit Fly Ufaidike by Makueni County in collaboration with USAID – is proof that it takes a lot of effort, time and money to clear up a bad name.

It is therefore important for authorities to step into the hay export sector when it is still in its nascent stage, to avoid losing opportunities that would benefit small scale growers.

Just like with horticultural produce for export, most Rhodes Grass hay in Kenya is grown by small scale farmers, many who have been drawn to the crop on the premise that hay is easy to grow.

To this “ease”, add the telephone hay farmer and the baling contractor, who with no liability is the ultimate decider on when and how the hay is harvested. This cocktail should give any potential hay exporter an insight into why blind loading of hay into a container could be a high risk venture.

The horticulture export sector has grown because there is a tri-party relationship of the small holder farmer who keenly watches over his crops 24/7, exporters and regulatory authorities.

The exporters establish contracts with small holder growers and also liaise with regulatory authorities (Kephis) who keep them updated with any changes in protocols in the importing countries e.g. pesticide residues or a pest alert.

Using their agronomists on the ground they (exporters) sensitize farmers on recommended and prohibited inputs, and offer technical services – from best management practices, guidance in harvesting, post-harvest care and packaging.

Whenever this relationship is infiltrated by middlemen (brokers) who only appear at the harvesting time with cash-on-the-spot deals, quality is compromised and regrettably this results in a ban of the produce from the whole country.

A recent example is the 2019 avocado export ban due to immature fruits.

Does this tri-party relationship exist in the hay export trade? Beyond loading hay into containers, are hay exporters aware and in control of the hay production? Could there be an assumption that hay does not fall under the category of agricultural produce and is therefore exempted from standards requirements?

Getting the right answers to these questions will decide if Kenya can successfully get into the hay export market or will be marked out as a pariah exporter due to the behaviors of a few rogue traders.

With the exception of K… , M… and their ilk, for consultation on Rhodes Grass hay export, contact the blog writer;

Anne, Tel: 0725-520627

Email: lukuaifarm@gmail.com

 

 

Rained-on Rhodes Grass Hay: Causes, Effects and Costs

 

2019 was a tough year for dairy farmers.  Starting off with “that“ farm bill which was thankfully withdrawn, it was downhill with high costs of animal feeds and extremely low prices for raw milk.

The effect of this is that farmers – except for those in the urban and  peri-urban areas, are entering 2020 not just with a weakened financial position but also with low morale.

This makes them vulnerable to making bad decisions concerning sourcing their livestock inputs and services which will further compromise their financial positions.

One such decision is buying hay that has been rained-on between cutting and baling. While grass needs an optimal amount of rain for growth, excessive and extensive rains  in 2019/20 means that grass is dense with thick stems and it will need a longer drying time if it will be properly conserved.

Should this grass be rained on, especially immediately after cutting (and this is the worst nightmare for hay producers) the hay starts to get spoiled.

Unfortunately in a country where there are no enforceable regulatory standards for hay, and with long supply chain that limits hay traceability – this spoiled hay ends up in the market and farmers who are in a vulnerable situation buy it.

Good hay has its maximum energy and nutritional benefits locked in, to be released only when it is consumed by the animals.

So what happens when cut grass in the drying stage is rained on? Instead of locking in the energy and nutrients, the grass behaves like cut flowers in a vase. It continues to absorb water and respire burning up energy that would otherwise be available to the cows.

Also water soluble vitamins, carbohydrates and nutrients are leached decreasing the nutritive value of hay.

The warm/moist conditions created by the grass carpet are conducive for fungi, molds and other microorganisms that begin feeding and breaking down the hay leading to rotting.

Small holder hay farmers who work with baling contractors are often “advised” that rained-on hay can be dried by a lucky sunny day (period) followed by excessive raking.

While the outcome of this first–aid mission has to be judged on a case by case basis, it is important to consider many of the advisers have vested interests that end once the  hay bales are counted and paid for.

In my experience as a commercial hay farmer doubling up as baling contractor and a farmer-to-farmer hay seller –  trying to rescue rained-on hay can be a futile mission as the leaves shutter and hay ends up with a high percentage of stalks with a low nutritive value.

Also the compaction by baling gives ideal conditions for the harmful biological load to multiply fastening, the rotting.

This hay will contaminate storage barns, feeding troughs and it can adversely affect the cow’s health with recurring and hard to treat infections which lead to decrease in milk yield or even death.

These biological hazards and/or their variations will end up in milk therefore endangering the lives of consumers.  Therefore it is in our collective interest that rained-on hay does not get into the milk chain.

I am yet to come across a hay producer who has never wished to rake out the weatherman for not warning about unannounced downpour/s during the baling season.

However we need to respectfully acknowledge that balers are in business and their core obligation to the hay farmer is to bale. But I want to give a big shout out to those who, knowing that rained-on hay will soon start rotting, advise the farmers accordingly and work out an amicable payment for work already done.

To my fellow hay producers, I know firsthand the frustration (and the financial hit) of not baling rained-on hay. There is also the temptation and justification that rain ni Hali ya Mungu and kick the soon to rot bales down to unsuspecting farmers.

But if you want a long-term relationship with your customers, who will patronize your business because they are guaranteed hay that they will use to the last blade, make the difficult decision of not baling rained-on hay.  By so doing you convert the satisfied customers to your top marketers and eventually this compensates for the loss you made. Believe me.

To the hay buyers – it is regrettable that spoiled hay ends up in your barns. But as much I would want to commiserate with you, if you are not willing to invest the time and resources to know the source of your hay and you have chosen the easy route of buying by the phone with your main concern being price/bale and how many bales fit in a truck – sorry even in the age of party after party this is one pity party I am not attending!

To the telephone hay producer, your faith in the hay chain constantly astounds me! Everyday. That you fall for the line of: kulikuwa na manyunyu lakini si nyingi sana, so baling was “successfully” done.

That you pay for baling which possibly has a big discrepancy in numbers of bales paid and the actual – proofs that mobile money was specifically made for you in mind.  Why are you then surprised that you are left with bales of spoiled hay that no one wants to buy and yet you remain the  preferred customer for baling contractors. In all this your shamba man loves you. Why?

To the county and national agriculture leaders – hay safety is food safety.  Investing in extension services to educate the hay producers and buyers about this critical topic is a win-win for all.

Belated new year best wishes, with sincere hope that 2020 will be a better dairy year. For consultation on the right way to bale and for purchase of well dried Lukuai Farm Rhodes Grass hay, contact the blog writer:

Anne, Tel: 0725-520627

Email: lukuaifarm@gmail.com

 

Top dressing Rhodes Grass

Make hay while the sun shines!  While this often quoted adage is true in life when one encouraged to take advantage of good prevailing conditions, in hay making the adage is paradoxical.

This is because while we indeed need dry weather to make Rhodes Grass hay, we need rainy conditions and well enriched soils to produce the quality grass that makes the quality hay.

Therefore since grass production precedes hay making, hay producers should aim for the highest quality grass which benefiting from sunny baling days, will give them quality hay that will not only be preferred by customers but will also give them good returns.

Paying attention to soil fertility is one major area in which we can influence the quality of our grasses and hence hay.  Hay making removes a lot of nutrients, particularly Nitrogen from the soil and if it is not frequently replenished as top dressing, the grass becomes poor – both in yield per acre and in nutritive value.

Ideally one should do a comprehensive soils test to know the exact nutrient deficiency in the farm, the appropriate fertilizers to apply and the rates of application. The Rhodes Grass crop (field) history though it should not replace soil testing, can also be used in determining the topdressing regime to use. E.g. Is the crop the 1st from a virgin land or is it immediately after a heavily fertilized crop?

Top dressing Rhodes Grass with Nitrogenous (N) based fertilizers has been a big game changer in our grasses.   In every season we see the prudence of top dressing because there is positive change in grass density, height, growth rate and color.

On the quality side, the feedback from our hay customers confirms to us that top dressing and keeping our soils in good fertility helps to transfer the nutrient richness to the hay and the response from their animals vindicates this.

It is also on this basis that I am constantly reminding farmers that in the absence of credible hay tests, the next best alternative they have of assessing the quality of hay is by seeing the grass actively growing in the field. Remember with all animal feeds the NINO rule reigns: Nutrients In, Nutrients Out – so even if the hay was baled when the sun was shining, if the grass did not have enough nutrients then the hay is just stomach filler.

Timing of top dressing with Nitrogenous based fertilizers is important. It should be done when the grass is actively growing since this is the stage at which its Nitrogen need is high and there is maximize utilization of the applied fertilizer leading to an accelerated growth rate and  increased grass yields.

There should be enough moisture in the soil to make the fertilizer dissolve quickly and be available in the grass root zone – this increases nutrient efficiency.  Since this will trigger a flush of new growth there should also be forecasted rainfall so that water does not become the limiting factor when the nutrients are available.

Rainfall can also complicate the timing because one should avoid top dressing with Nitrogenous fertilizers when there are excessive rains due to nitrogen leaching. This is the situation in which the nitrogen is drawn down below the root zone of the grass making it unavailable to the grass.

Particularly for Rhodes Grass producers in ASALs, timing of fertilizer application can be the decider on if you will have a good grass season or not.

If using fertilizer spreaders to top dress, the period with excessive rains is one to be watchful for because it can result in damaging the soils by leaving deep tractor ruts in the farm which will be a problem during other hay making, particularly in raking.

At Lukuai Farm, even though we don’t do our top dressing applications in truly research settings, we deliberately leave a non-applied section for comparing results and also to use for on the farm training.  We have obtained best results in the fields where we have top dressed with organic manure in prior seasons and then used Urea – as the Nitrogenous top dressing.

For consultation on topdressing of Rhodes Grass and hay production training at Lukuai,  contact the blog writer:

Anne, Tel: 0725-520627

Email: lukuaifarm@gmail.com

 

 

Need for Fodder Production Data in ASALs

This post is of my article that in Daily Nation 28/10/19; Need for Fodder Production Data in ASALs;

Food security, a key pillar of the ‘Big Four Agenda’, is, for the arid and semi-arid lands (ASALs), synonymous with the livestock sector, to which is pegged the success of the other three pillars — education, health and housing.

Halfway in the Jubilee agenda, let us review the ASALs’ performance on the fodder front. Counties such as Laikipia, Nyandarua and Narok have been committed to growing and conserving fodder, mainly hay.

With a combined land mass of 30,710 square kilometres (according to the individual counties’ websites) — Laikipia 9,462 km², Nyandarua 3,304 km² and Narok 17,944 km² — they not only produce hay for own consumption, but also sell it in Nairobi and central region.Laikipia is also the fallback county for its pasture-deficient neighbours — and this often has its attendant security issues.

But do they achieve their full potential in hay production? What is their total production in 2019? What is the year-on-year growth rate?

At this rate, can they satisfy the demand for meat and milk in, say, 2035?

Hay growing in Kenya is more on a ‘me too’ copycat trend devoid of data, market research, or quality standards, and with the utopian belief that, with minimum effort, one can make big money.

But such a business model is neither resilient nor economically scalable.

Counties should deploy fodder data models that can forecast the national hay demand for longer periods than our five-year electoral cycle, taking into account factors such as population size and growth and national income levels.

Since the efficacy of the model will depend on the data, it’s important that models are made by experienced teams.

The counties can then use their hay production data — mainly collected at cess points or at farm level — to strategise on meeting future fodder demand.

The unique factor for the ASALs is the availability of expansive land — an advantage in that mechanisation can be effectively deployed, achieving economies of scale.

But it becomes self-defeating with the tendency to look at hay production in absolute yields instead of maximising production per acre.By using production data, counties can know if they will meet their market targets by increasing acreage or improved management practices. This would also avoid duplication of projects by donors and development agencies.

Clear production data and targets would give the counties an in-house tool to monitor if the projects meet their fodder objectives.Combining their production data and the national hay demand models can help the counties to know if and when they would have excess hay, for which they can then start thinking about the lucrative export market, especially in the Gulf countries.

Data models can also help private investors to not only make informed decisions, but also formulate a business plan when seeking finance.

The counties with credible and easily accessible data are more likely to be preferred by investors.Lastly, credible fodder data models can be used in benchmarking and appraisals within the county and externally when ranking regions nationally.

In today’s food production world, working without data is as good as flying blind. Taking advantage of data could be the low-hanging fruits that can reposition the ASALs counties to be the fodder barns of Kenya.

Ms Munene is the manager, Lukuai Hay Farm, Laikipia. lukuaifarm@gmail.com

For arrangements on hay production training at Lukuai Farm and comments on this post, contact the blog writer:

Anne, Tel: 0725-520627

Email: lukuaifarm@gmail.com

 

 

 

 

 

What is the lifespan of a Rhodes Grass field?

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

Email: lukuaifarm@gmail.com