When I took on the job of managing Lukuai Hay Farm, my job description was clear: From this overgrazed, acacia habitated ASAL (Arid and Semi-Arid Land), give us a postcard hay farm as found in Njoro or Nakuru. In hindsight, I am glad that the job sounded so rosy and easy, because if I had foreseen the challenges I would encounter in managing a hay farm in an ASAL, I might have reacted differently to the job offer.
Had I turned down this job, I would have lost a wonderful opportunity to meet many livestock farmers, hay traders, leaders in the livestock sector, horse owners, camel owners and of course the occasional conman. These people have seen it all – abundance of pasture, devastating drought and everything in between. They are resilient and I have drawn lessons and strength from them. To all of them – asanteni sana.
Some visitors stand out because of their mission. In this blog I would like to highlight the 11th April 2017 field visit by IGAD’s Centre for Pastoral Areas and Livestock Development (ICPALD) to Lukuai Farm.
Way back in March, when Mr.Osman Mohammed Babikir from ICPALD, Nairobi contacted me for the arrangement of this field trip, I had misgivings about what role Lukuai Farm would play with IGAD/ICPALD, which is a renowned regional body with members from Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan and Uganda. In these countries, pastoral livestock keeping is the major economic activity and drought cycles with the subsequent animal and human suffering are common.
In the opinion of Mr. Osman, Lukuai Farm – which is still a work in progress was an ideal place for a group of 18 from ICPALD to learn what can be done to reclaim overgrazed ASALs and ensure that they play a role in animal food security and therefore minimize movement of people and animals. This would enhance peace among pastoralists communities and bring about development and regional security.
He impressed on me that since ICPALD is involved in policy development in ASALs, field trips to the private sector like Lukuai Farm are a good way to touch base with the activities and challenges on the ground so as to take in the best working practices that can be replicated or scaled-up in other areas. At the same time they (ICPALD) give the private sector invaluable technical knowledge and networks that can go a long way in ensuring that projects are successful.
Hosting a small group of policy makers in the farm, who were experts in their countries, meant that a lot was covered, questions were asked and practical solutions provided.
The Lukuai experience
During the field trip, Lukuai Farm demonstrated the following to the ICPALD team:
- Use of minimum tillage:
This is our preferred way of land preparation instead of using the conventional system of ploughing and harrowing. This means that fragile overgrazed soils are least exposed to erosion and farm operation costs are drastically reduced. For small scale farmers minimum tillage can be done with simple tools like a rake or fork jembe.
- Over seeding indigenous grasses with Rhodes Grass:
As Rhodes Grass is the preferred hay brand in the Kenyan market, Lukuai Farm has adopted the practice of liberally broadcasting its seeds over the indigenous grasses and letting it colonize them. This helps to improve the quality and quantity of the hay and it has a quick turnaround.The team had an experiential session where we showed them how to broadcast seeds on newly cut grassland – and they were quick learners, as can be seen in this picture.
- Seed harvesting:
The availability of quality Rhodes Grass seeds at affordable prices can be a big challenge to commercial grass farmers. At Lukuai Farm, the solution has been to harvest our own seeds from the portion of land that we had originally planted with certified seeds from Kenya Seed Company.
- Barter trade with manure:
Who would have thought that the centuries old trade of bartering goods would have space with livestock policy makers in 21st century? Well, team ICPALD thought very highly of Lukuai Farm’s hay-for-manure program with the pastoralist community. It is a win-win in which we keep our soils fertile by using quality organic manure from the pastoralists and in exchange they get quality hay from, grown with “their own” the manure.
- Hay marketing:
Our marketing strategy aims at cutting down the supply chain and moving our hay from the baler directly to the farmer. This is because hay storage is not only expensive but has associated risks. We achieve this by being proactive in marketing, especially by holding field days where we sensitize our customers about the quality of our hay.
Lessons from the ICPLAD Team
From further discussions with the team, we gathered the following ideas:
- Grasses are crops, not grass:
The group’s opinion was that if there will ever be a permanent solution to the livestock feed crisis in the region, production of grasses has to be given the same attention and priority as is given to food crops such as maize and wheat. The era of waiting for “God’s grass” is and should be over if we are going to have a vibrant livestock based economy.
- Water harvesting:
The Ethiopian members had very good input on water harvesting and using it for fodder growing. If dams are built in strategic locations to harvest run off water, it can later be used to grow hay and fodder crops by irrigation in areas that would otherwise not be considered potential for farming. Combining water harvesting and the use of manure would be a game changer in the availability of fodder in ASALs. The underlying policy should be to encourage the pastoralist communities to use hay grown under irrigation for fattening animals on site rather than selling the hay up country.
While this idea may look far-fetched and would definitely have challenges in starting up, if successful, it would have a lot of positive spill effects such as land reclamation, improved quality of livestock which would be leverage when negotiating prices, easier access to veterinary services and settling down of communities – which has the added social benefits of improved education, health and housing.
- Extension services:
One of the badges I wear with pride is that back in the days, I worked in the extension services of the Ministry of Agriculture in Kenya. Tables have turned and now being a farmer, I feel I could do with input from the extension workers. The grouped echoed the need of availing extensions services mainly to farmers in ASALs. A question to the Kenyan team was: Are extension services devolved or are they with the central government? Whoever has this portfolio: we (the farmers in ASALs) don’t hear you and we need your help.
The work KARLO and KEPHIS are doing was mentioned, particularly in new grass species that have high nutritional value and are drought resistant. As grass producers, we look forward to hearing how research and extension services are linking up in the dissemination of crucial farming information.
- Livestock Marketing:
Mzee Dubat Ali Amey, National Chairman of the Kenya Livestock Marketing Council, was a member of the ICPALD group and he brought in the “money” factor in the pastoralists /livestock equation. Vocal and articulate, he heads an organization that is spearheading change in the livestock market by giving pastoralists in ASALs a say in how, when and where their animals are sold. For him and his organization, commercial grass/hay production in ASALs is the way to go if the full benefit of livestock keeping is to be achieved.
Overall, this was a very rewarding day for me as I had access to the livestock policy shapers in the region. With thought leaders like the ICPLAD team there is hope that ASALs can take their rightful place as drivers of the livestock economy in the region.
As for private sector fodder producers, we need to be engaged not only with farmers but also with governments, researchers and policy makers – because if we are not at the table when decisions in the livestock sector are made, we will be on the menu.
Share with us your thoughts and opinions on IGAD/ICPALD’s visit to Lukuai Farm by clicking the comment link.
Contact the blog author, Anne