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

 

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