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

 

Hay field day: From our farm to your barn

We are half way through a very difficult year for the small holder farmer in Kenya. From maize, sugarcane to coffee, farmers are singing from the same song sheet of challenges. In the dairy sector they’re literally milking challenges with low milk prices, high costs of production, substandard inputs and animal feeds.

While our agriculture is mainly rain fed, I am reluctant to hoist the lack-of-rain and climate change flags as our main challenges because other countries, including our neighbors, are in similar situation but they have successfully found ways of ensuring that they are not only food secure but they have surplus for export.

So what fails our agriculture?

  • Could it be that our policies and politics, which are conjoined twins with a lifespan of 5 year electoral cycle cloud our long term planning on food production?
  • Is it our affinity for big ticket government and donor funded projects e.g. dams and irrigation projects, while neglecting the high ROI  low hanging fruits e.g extension services.
  • Could it be that having agriculture CEC’s who have to calibrate their professional judgement to suit power jostling on county level is not the best motivator to the technical staff?

Time has unfortunately caught up with us and we no longer have the luxury of debating the answers to these questions in conference halls.

This is because today’s farmers have access to information, are business oriented and their loyalty to agriculture is fickle.

They are card carrying members of ‘my shamba my choice’ brigade which cannot be placated with branded T-shirts and catchy phrases, while they wait for the completion of  fact finding missions.

They are good at packing their days; in the morning they will uproot tea, cut down coffee, sell their prize winning dairy cows and leave their fertile maize farms farrow.

In the afternoon they will be buying timber in Elburgon, selling hardware in Ruiru and checking up on the land surveyor for the subdivision of the land to 1/8 plots.

In the evening they pass through their new farm aka supermarket to stock up with imported onions, rice, tomatoes, oranges, eggs, garlic and ugali flour.

We need to see the above scenario for the national tragedy that it is, because if the agriculture sector collapses, the repercussions will be felt in every sector in the Kenyan economy.

Therefore stakeholders in agriculture must continue lobbying for legislation of farm/farmer friendly and practical bills, while keeping an eye for nefarious bills that could finally snuff off the remaining morale with farmers.

Sufficient budget allocation for the agriculture sector at the national / county governments would help to breathe some life into the nearly dying extension services.

But in all this mayhem, there are small holder farmers who go out of their way to seek solutions that make their farming worthwhile and we need to celebrate them.

I am impressed with the dairy farmers who cut out the noise on feed quality, brokers, high prices, underweight hay bales – and they purposely come to our farm to learn about hay when the grass is standing in the field.

I would therefore like to give a big shout out to some farmers from Kajiado, Samburu, Isiolo, Laikipia and Meru counties who have given me the joy and privilege of taking them on the grass to hay journey in the farm as very keen “students”.

As a commercial hay grower with hands full opening up new land, servicing machines, and marketing –  a day spent with energized and eager to learn farmers brings back fond memories of teaching agriculture in secondary school and I love it.

Discussing things like colour of the grass, leaf-to-stem ratio, plant density, height, contamination with weeds –which are all visually noticeable and are indicative of the quality of grass, is always a big eye opener to the farmers.

In the absence of a lab test that would chemically analyses grass/hay per batch, a field visit when the grass is standing is the closest bet in assessing the quality of the hay.

In all my grass/hay training I stress on the NINO (Nutrients In, Nutrients Out) effect on grass. If your hay is grown as a “crop” on fertile soils, it is rich in nutrients which are consequently transferred to your cows.

This is easier to demonstrate to the farmers when they see the areas we top dressed with organic manure only, others with manure and a Urea based fertilizer and control area with no treatment.  These results allow us to have a market differential based on quality of our hay.

What if a farmer has gone for a bench marking tour locally and/or abroad – does he still need field training on hay?

Yes, because these tours are often about herd management and they can’t substitute the need to learn about feeds in a localized content.

It is also important to note that in the countries popular for dairy tours, there are structured systems that ensure that hay (as well as all animal feeds) meet the recommended standards for maximum production and herd safety.

Considering that feed consist 70% cost of keeping dairy cows and hay is a major component in many TMR (Total Mixed Ratio),  training with us equips the farmer to understand their hay, reduce the supply chain and importantly elevate hay from an inert fiber to an essential component with a nutritional value.

There is no silver bullet that will overnight solve the problem of quality of animal feeds (hay) in Kenya. But proactive dairy farmers who individually or through their cooperatives do the ground work for vetting (feed) hay suppliers, may be a good starting point to improve the standards of feeds/hay in Kenya.

A word of caution to dairy co-op officials – peace I will not name and shame.  Those who are reluctant to bring farmers (members) for training lest they know the farm gate price for hay, take note; the future of your co-op and your elected position depends on your members being successful and choosing to stay active in your co-op.

To bank on the county / donor funded milk coolers that are currently operating below capacity, while milk brokers in your area are paying better prices and on time  – touch a cow, that your co-op will survive and you will not be forced to switch off power from your coolers for lack of milk.

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

Anne, Tel: 0725-520627

Email: lukuaifarm@gmail.com

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

A Guide to Buying Rhodes Grass Seeds in Kenya

For the dairy and beef sector to grow as part of the Kenya’s Big Four Agenda, the problems in fodder production need to be urgently addressed. Kenya needs year round supply of quality fodder at prices that are profitable to both livestock farmers and fodder producers.

It is therefore exciting to see a new crop (pun intended) of upcoming farmers who want to get into the fodder business, particularly Rhodes Grass farming for hay production.

Upcoming farmers, as well as the old hands – shouting for myself, need support from the national and county governments, because if fodder production is not profitable, they will easily transfer their capital to other business ventures.

That said, upcoming Rhodes Grass growers need to be aware that quality hay production is expensive, and a level of skepticism is needed when analyzing the wonderful business plans that grossly underestimate the challenges in production and specifically hay marketing.

    Quality Rhodes Grass seeds should be certified as of a known genetics, have high purity (not mixed with other seeds) and should be viable with a high germination rate

If one wants hay that will command a premium price even at times of market glut, the hay should be of good quality which is achieved by treating Rhodes Grass as a “crop” and shedding the si nyasi tu!( its only grass) tag.

All good crops, be they onions or maize start from a foundation of purposefully sourced quality seeds. In my opinion, which is informed by interactions with upcoming farmers, there is a tendency to oversimplify the sourcing of Rhodes Grass seeds to a point that it has become a quick firing phone call of: “Do you have seeds? Price?”

    How can you minimize the risks when sourcing farmer-to- farmer Rhodes Grass seeds?

Fine there is airtime to save, but even in the age of True Caller, I am often left trying to figure out the kind of a farmer-to-be, who approaches the purchase of seeds with this level of casualness.

Bear with me, but the farmers who do well in agriculture, treat seeds as the lifeline in their farms.

They put effort and resources to procure quality seeds, which all things being constant, give them the highest return on their fixed costs such as – purchase or lease of land, land preparation, fixed infrastructure and permanent labor.

    I recommend that a farmer wishing to buy farmer–to-farmer Rhodes Grass seeds, removes the his grass hat and puts on a livestock breeder’s hat on a mission to buy a prized heifer

Quality seeds are also the best way for tapping into natural resources such as rain, the sun and the natural fertility or condition of the soils.

Similarly, the returns on variable inputs such as fertilizers / manures and casual labor are best realized if quality seeds are used.

The closing pitch for using quality seeds is reserved for the telephone farmer – the returns on your airtime and the occasional grass inspection trip to the farm are more likely to be covered if you start off with quality seeds.

Quality Rhodes Grass seeds should be certified as of a known genetics, have high purity (not mixed with other seeds) and should be viable with a high germination rate.

In Kenya, the overall responsibility of seed certification is by Kenya Plant Health Inspectorate Service (KEPHIS). This is a Kenyan parastatal whose core function is to independently test the quality of agriculture inputs and produce.

    Once the …to-to-to …chain gets longer, the traceability of the seeds producing farmer is lost and the potential risks of the seeds being of unknown genetics, contaminated or being non viable are increased

However, there is a window for farmer–to- farmer seeds that are not certified by Kephis. But farmers using these types of seeds, need to be aware that it is upon them to do due diligence so as to minimize the risks associated with uncertified seeds.

How can you minimize the risks when sourcing farmer-to- farmer Rhodes Grass seeds?

If you take the phrase farmer-to-farmer on its face value, meaning seeds from one farmer to another, you will most likely be entering the seed quality safety zone.

Once the …to-to-to …chain gets longer, the traceability of the seeds producing farmer is lost and the potential risks of the seeds being of unknown genetics, contaminated or being non viable are increased.

I recommend that a farmer wishing to buy farmer–to-farmer Rhodes Grass seeds, removes the his grass hat and puts on a livestock breeder’s hat on a mission to buy a prized heifer.

Do for the grass what you’d do for the heifer, starting with visiting the seed producing farmer when his grass crop is standing in the farm.

Call me old school but a picture, regardless of the pixels and the phone specs, can’t substitute a physical farm visit in which you get to see the crop and also the farmer – seeds buying is personal. Things to look out for in the grass farm:

1) Does the grass look healthy with a deep green colour and is it dense? If yes, then there are high chances that the seeds are going to have similar characteristics. After all the plant is the mother of the seed, so what you see of the plant is what you will likely get from the seeds.

2) Is the crop pure? Presence of mixed grasses and of weeds in the farm mean that the seeds harvested from this field will inevitably be of mixed grasses and as well as weeds.

However the farm visit, which at most is a one day affair, only helps to tick a few boxes on the long list of what makes quality seeds.

Other factors from this point onwards will depend on the integrity of the seed farmer. If you are still wearing your heifer buying cap, you know that being in the same WhatsApp group or friends on Facebook may not confer the integrity needed to make a crucial decision like seed buying.

While on integrity issues, avoid delegating your seed buying decisions to your twice removed cousin of your auntie’s in-laws. Because should things go wrong on the quality of seeds and the amount of money paid, you will only have managed to sow family discord.

Factors that are based on the seed farmer’s integrity are:

1) Maturity of seeds: Assuming the grass crop was healthy, but the seeds are harvested when they are immature – their germination ability and rate will be severely compromised.

2) Curing of seeds: Here we are moving from a healthy crop from which mature seeds were harvested but if they are not dried well, all potential germination benefits can be lost.

3) Post harvest damage: Rhodes Grass seeds that have met the threshold of good maturity and were well cured can still lose their quality due to contamination from moisture, dust, excessive heat, chemicals and physical damage from implements and rodents.

4) Post harvest adulteration: This is whereby superior seeds are deliberately mixed or bulked up with inferior seeds, unwanted grass seeds, weeds seeds and inert materials.

To recap, if you are not buying Kephis certified Rhodes Grass seeds, keep the phone down and do the foot work needed for genuine farmer-to-farmer seeds just as you would if you were buying a heifer.

Good luck and join in making Kenya fodder secure.

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

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

To Attain Food Security in the Big Four Agenda, Bring Back Bwana Chief

He wore the crown and this meant that in Ruguru Location, Mathira Constituency, Central Province, he was the government. He was Bwana Chief Karangi, in the post-independence period when Kenyans, who had been in internment villages were settling in their farms.

Bwana Chief was in all sectors, but it is mainly in agriculture where he single-handedly swept off any resistance that the Ministry of Agriculture would face in implementing concepts that were new to the citizens.

    This genre of Chief presided over a form of benevolent dictatorship that helped Kenya take its baby steps in agriculture and become food secure.

He would give a don’t-you-dare deadline of, “I don’t want to see any active bulls in this location.”

With this, even the prize winning bulls named Uhuru were castrated or sold. This cleared the way for the introduction of Artificial Insemination Services and marked the beginning of the dairy sector.

“There will be communal work on Tuesday for construction of the cattle dip.”

Behind his back there would be bickering – didn’t forced labor end with independence? But all households sent able-bodied member(s) to the site.

And when the cattle dip became operational, all livestock were taken to the dip, ensuring that the tick-borne diseases were communally controlled.

Be it making terraces on slopy land or selecting pioneer farmers for training at Wambugu Farmers Training Centre, this genre of Chief presided over a form of benevolent dictatorship that helped Kenya take its baby steps in agriculture and become food secure.

His edicts were, whenever necessary, reinforced by invoking the names of Bwana (District Officer) D.O and (District Commissioner) D.C, who were believed to be on a direct cable to the President.

The whole executive arm of the government was aware that for a newly independent country, food security was the bedrock on which other development services such as health, education, security and financial growth were based.

    Having started on such a high note, how did we lose the agriculture momentum, such that Kenya at 55 years can’t feed herself?

How do we square off that in 2018, one of the major roles of the chief – we long did away with the Bwana – is in the distribution of relief food, even in areas that were once food secure?

While I can’t put my finger on the exact period, somewhere in the 80’s, the country became complacent, possibly based on optimism that the momentum of the 70’s would continue on advisory services from the Ministry of Agriculture, without the heavy hand from the executive.

With this, farmers no longer felt obliged to take up any recommendations offered by the ministry, and communal platforms like mass roll out of new seed varieties were lost. Knock, knock who’s there? Famine.

This is the situation that I found during my brief tenure at the agriculture extension service in the 90’s.

By the time we were enacting the new constitution and devolution, the farmer was a twig carrying member of the haki yetu (our rights) brigade and could therefore protest for his right to, for example; keep feed-guzzling breeds of dairy cattle on the utopian promise that it can get 40 ltrs of milk/day/cow, even when the cows are underfed due to lack of quality animal feeds; not sell livestock at their prime only to see them wiped off by drought; and keep quails – enough.

To appease the haki yetu citizens, the government became politically correct in its communication with farmers. Instead of the dare-you edicts of the Bwana Chief, farmers are “encouraged” to plant early; and use of certified seeds and drought-resistant crops is “recommended”.

These words are euphemisms for – run your farms as you see fit. And with pleasure, farmers are doing just that! Is it a wonder that most of our research findings from organizations such as KALRO have not yet found their way into our plates?

    In Kenya, agriculture is not cool idea but a food fact.

Sticking with the twigs, the farmers – I am one – will wave them on serikali tusaidie (government help us) demonstrations for the supply of quality livestock feeds, better prices for farm produce, searching for buyers of last resort for emaciated livestock and supply of subsidized fertilizer.

True, there are problems in agriculture, especially in supply and marketing, and it is OK that farmers seek help from the government.

But the long term effects of government intervention are not felt because as soon as a problem is solved, however partial, farmers revert to haki yetu mode.

If we are to attain sustainable food security as envisioned in the Big Four agenda, the government needs to take back control of the small holder agriculture sector. A good starting point is by ending this see-sawing of haki yetu and serikali tusaidie. This can no longer be done on political goodwill but on benevolent dictatorship.

I see some raised pitchforks ready to defend our democratic principles – peace; from now onwards let’s use the term political good force instead of benevolent dictatorship.

Should we adopt political good force, Kenya will be in good company – particularly of a certain desert country which considers food security as its national security. It is the leading destination for benchmarking agriculture tours for our leaders and dairy farmers.

I wonder if they get the memo that down there farming is done by the government’s book, otherwise it is borderline of treason? Figured out the country?

    I suggest that we slow down on promoting the agribusiness/agripreneurs model and focus on making farming households food secure.

But to give credit to our government, it has successfully used political good force to reform the transport sector (matatus) and Saccos.

Also in the education sector, without promotion or encouragement, but by an order with a deadline, even the six-figure fees alternative curriculum schools painted their buses yellow just like the what’s-its-name D.E.B. school. Is this not the kind of political good force that would be worth deploying for food security?

At the risk of disinviting myself to the agriculture conferences that will spill off from the Big Four agenda – I hear there is big money and grant proposal writers are busy – I suggest that we slow down on promoting the agribusiness/agripreneurs model and focus on making farming households food secure.

By over emphasizing on agribusiness, we are making agriculture to be seen as a strictly transactional endeavor, which undervalues the food that is grown for family consumption.
But if farming households are food secure, count on them to sell any surplus produce and explore avenues of value addition.

Our current agribusiness mentality possibly accounts for greenhouses, dairy cattle sheds and other farming ventures, which though started with a lot of pomp and a lot of money, are abandoned once the agripreneurs can’t handle the challenges that come with farming.

Besides unless we are focusing on Arid and Semi-Arid Lands (ASALs), large scale agribusinesses can’t be done in our once high potential agriculture areas due to uncontrolled subdivision of land.

    President Uhuru on his final term was made for this moment – he can make sustainable food security his mission, implemented through the lowest administrative office.

In the age of mobile phones, Google, apps and big data do we need the Chief in the Big Four agenda?

The good news first: The mobile phone, with a wider reach, has made obsolete the position of village carrier, who was Bwana Chief’s PA and the dreaded village snitch – so they said.

The bad news: Some of the agriculture based M-apps (cousins to M-pesa) and the internet has a credibility problem and lacks the enforcement factor that the Bwana Chief had.

On data – unless it is broken down to bits that the farmers can connect with and apply within their situation, the spread sheets and power point presentations are best kept for conferences.

For a country where there is a thin line between policy and politics (votes), political good force in agriculture can only be led by someone with nothing to lose.

President Uhuru on his final term was made for this moment – he can make sustainable food security his mission, implemented through the lowest administrative office.

Is he not best suited to force for managed grasslands in ASALs? Demand that every farming household plant one (1) tissue culture banana? Force dairy farmers to keep cattle breeds with better feed conversion? Change the narrative that for Kenya, agriculture is not cool idea but a food fact?

And just so he knows, we will complain and resist, but if he succeeds (which he can), we will complain on why he didn’t reform agriculture on his first term.

As for the county governments which are very vote prone and without the longevity and recognition of the national government, they can handle the technical/advisory role.

Reality is that while nearly every farmer knows his chief, few know their County Executive for Agriculture.

If we get it wrong with agriculture reforms in the Big Four agenda, we might render credence to the street legend that the 5 year cost of Kenya’s donor and government funded projects, researches and conferences/seminars on agriculture could give every Kenyan about Ksh20m?! And could I get my share in the form of a tractor? I will not ask for change. Thank you.

This post is to the memory and vision of my parents Mr & Mrs Peter Munene Mari.

Baba-na-Maitu
Baba, you were a living Google. That I could not recall the dates (and days) of the chief’s edicts, names of the D.O and D.C – does not do justice to how you narrated events with clarity and details.
Maitu, an alumni of Wambugu Farmers – if I could be half the farmer you were with the resources you had, I would be very happy.
The bench is still there and you are dearly missed.

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

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

Benefits of Early Planting in ASALs

After wearing out our knees offering supplications for rains – they are finally here and then they are not.

Even with floods that have brought loss of life and property, there is a brigade of farmers that believe that the rains are not enough to warrant planting.

Because, proper rains always start kitu kama 15th of March and planting early has the risks that you could “loose” seeds! Sawa.

I am not an expert in weather predictions, and I let every farmer choose which rainfall expert they want to hitch their harvest on.

But for those of us in Arid and Semi-Arid Lands (ASALs) – we don’t engage in the real-rain and no-rain debate. Every drizzle is rain and we like to milk it dry with dry planting a.k.a. early planting.

For a country that has food deficit, and even in the bread basket regions of North Rift rains are no longer on the tap, one would think that the farming practices that have made Lengatia successful would be widely adopted by other farmers

For latecomers to ASALs – label me one, we try to emulate the work of pioneers such as Lengatia Farm in Naro Moru, who regardless of the advice coming from experts, they are experiential advocates of early planting in ASALs.

And for this they are famous for high yields in wheat, barley, canola and hay in climatic conditions that many consider hostile for farming.

Yes, these pioneer farms are keen on maintaining soil fertility, use of high quality seeds and control of weeds and pests.

Instead of living in the utopia of the mega dams to store run off water for irrigation – think Galana, they improve the structure of their soils so as to retain maximum water and effectively lengthen the window that the soils are moist.

They do all the above and then they plant early, to take maximum advantage of the earliest showers. Beat this.

For a country that has food deficit and even in the bread basket regions of North Rift rains are no longer on the tap, one would think that the farming practices that have made Lengatia successful would be widely adopted by other farmers. And I guess the owners would think this a very well rendered CSR albeit without the photo ops.

If Kenya is going to make an attempt at being self-sufficient in human and livestock feed – we must change the way we farm and start using practices that have been known to work at local level and early planting is one of them

But we don’t give compliments or adopt ideas that fast. At least not before we subtly tear down the farmer’s efforts by throwing the lines of they are lucky, they have money and machinery, they have huge tracks of land and when all else fails we pull the racial card.

On the money line – we will even pay for agri-tours to desert countries to go and learn how they farm! Learn, in a week of hop-scotch packed itinerary? Sorry teacher – I am out, I was a slow student.

Good people, if we can’t learn from successful farms that are in our backyards, what is the magic wand that these agri-tours are supposed to wave? Should we therefore not brand them as leisure trips?

This is not sour grapes; I am a big believer in farmers getting time off from the farm – so there is nothing wrong with the trips.

…crops that are planted early have a longer window to take advantage of the rains and soil nutrients (e.g. fertilizers), resulting to higher yield than those that are planted late

If Kenya is serious at being self-sufficient in human and livestock feed – we must change the way we farm and start using practices that have been known to work at local level and early planting is one of them.

To start with all things being constant, crops that are planted early have a longer window to take advantage of the rains and soil nutrients (e.g. fertilizers), resulting to higher yield than those that are planted late.

Secondly, farmers who plant early will more likely have prepared their land well and at a lower cost, than those who do a speed dash during rains.

As much as I would want to concede to the anti-early planting brigade that there is a potential of incurring loses should the rains anyway fail, this argument along with the line of further research, conferences and policy papers would lock us up in the state of inertia – a luxury that a hungry nation does not have

Also add on the fact that there is less damage to the soils when dry planting. A rider to this – the use and efficiency of mechanical implements in the farm is reduced or totally eliminated with rains.

Early planters are also more likely to plant their preferred seeds and have enough time to accommodate any shortage of inputs.

Last but not least, crops that are planted early have better tolerance (resistance) to weeds and pests and consequently they have better yields.

As much as I would want to concede to the anti-early planting brigade that there is a potential of incurring loses should the rains anyway fail, this argument along the line of further research, conferences and policy papers would lock us up in the state of inertia – a luxury that a hungry nation does not have.

For anyone who may still be waiting for the “right” date to plant – consider this:

  • The African culture, which we often take refuge in, put lot of premium on early planting.
  • During harvesting, communities deliberately left seeds in the ground which provided the early crop that bridged the food deficit gap before the main harvest. To the Kikuyus – this life saving harvest was (and still is) maitika.

    If it worked then, how much more can it work if we boost it up with high yielding seeds and the use of fertilizers?

  • Biologically, nature in self preservation always disperses her seeds way before the rains. This is how weeds are dispersed and no wonder they germinate with the first rains – as we debate if the rains are enough for planting crops.
  • To the Good Book – the parable of the sower should make any doubting Thomas change their planting ways. Your seeds have to be on good soils – which you only get if you took time (early) to prepare the land and you will be rewarded multiple times of what you have sown.
  • Finally back to the leisure trips, the best time to schedule one is when you have done planting early. Talking of which my fodder seeds were down in late Feb and since the farm is inaccessible due to floods, any trip ideas are welcome.
  • Make Kenya food secure, plant early.

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

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

    Ending the Year on a Hay Note

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