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, 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

    Healthy Soils: Key to Unlocking the Grass Potential of ASALs

    We listen to Presidential speeches with bias and as Kenya’s President Uhuru was inaugurated for his second and final term on Nov 26th, those of us in Arid and Semi-Arid Lands (ASALs), were gratified when President painted the broad picture on how his government will go about ensuring that Kenya can get out of the drought cycles through  a re-engineered agricultural policy.

    Without getting caught up into the semantics of the word “re-engineering”, we can assume that it means his government will do things differently than it has done in the last 5 years in the ASALs.

    rae-bernard-2014.jpgRAE Bernard 2017
    Bernad Lenariach: Unmanaged Vs Managed Grass Farm 

    As the President assembles the teams that will help him to fulfill his legacy in ASALs, citizens need to give their input and commend individuals such as Bernard Lenariach of Lomayana Village, Baringo South, who have shown that pastoralism and grass farming are not mutually exclusive and that the drought jinx in ASALs can be broken.

    Inputting in policy discussion in ASALs, is one way that Kenyans can extend their civic duty beyond the polling booth.

    1. Why should ASALs matter on national level?

    80% of Kenya’s land mass is in ASALs (Kirbride and Grahn 2008:8) while the remaining 20% is in the once high potential agricultural areas that are now on the food deficit zone due to population pressure.

    Because of the small land sizes, farmers in the high potential areas are limited in deploying mechanization, scaling-up operations and in the case of the dairy sector – while they have access to superior animal genetics, management skills and a ready market for milk, they don’t have sufficient animal fodder.

    Dairy Cow

    Their main supply of fodder in form of hay comes from ASALs – so developing ASALs has a big national implication especially in the dairy sector.


    On regional level land utilization in ASALs is currently based on a numerical livestock numbers pastoralism, whose expansion depends on an ever increasing acreage of land, which is not viable. This set up is contrary to successful models of livestock management which acknowledges that land is a “finite” factor of production and they aim to maximize grass value per acre of land.

    In the re-engineered agriculture era, we therefore need to change the narrative of ASALs as a region of livestock production and view it as a region where grass can be purposefully grown as a “crop”, the Bernad Lenariach’s way.

    2. Shift focus from rain to soils

    The President referred to the … “vagaries of weather that hold us hostage”

    It is safe to assume that by “weather” the President was referring to rain, whose amount and distribution we can’t control.

    However even in seasons when there is enough rainfall, ASALs do not realize their full grass potential per acre because the soils are unhealthy.

    Besides being a structure for anchoring the grass, healthy grass soils provide nutrients and a reservoir effect that sustains the grass well past the rainy season.

    Figuratively, soils can either be a sponge that retains water or a hard roof that accelerates water runoff.

    While there are many reasons why the state of the soils can be unhealthy, in ASALs the expansive land gives an infinite perception allowing practices such as overgrazing and the subsequent unavoidable soil erosion accelerate, to a point that the soils  can’t absorb water.

    It is important to note that the effects of unhealthy soils are self-perpetuating and unless urgent intervention is done, desertification kicks in resulting in further shrinking of grazing lands.

    For unhealthy soils to heal they need a “sick-off” period, whereby livestock are intentionally kept off the land and then management practices such as minimum tillage, replenishing of nutrients by adding manure and reseeding to increase grass density are done.

    3. Role of the ASALs’ residents in the re-engineered agriculture

    Kenya ASALs have had many agriculture related projects funded by the Government, development agents and NGOs – many of these projects have not survived past the pomp of the launching.

    In comparison the RAE (Rehabilitation of Arid Environments) Charitable Trust in Baringo, of which Bernad is a member, provides technical advice on soil management, grass seeds and farm machinery at a fee.

    The fee aspect gives the project goodwill and ownership, factors which are essential for the success of any project but are unfortunately lacking in the Government and donor projects.

    Also worth noting in Baringo, an area where formal land adjudication has not yet been done, for the purpose of rolling out the grass as a crop project,  the community arbitrated land ownership enabling households to “settle” and commit their resources to improve grass on their own portions of land.

    This effectively removed the communal ownership of grasslands, which are often mired in disputes.

    Another big win for the RAE project is proof that the cheapest and most effective way of controlling the dreaded Mathenge weed (Prosopis juliflora), is to switch to manage grasslands. Farms such as Bernad’s (see picture ) are free from Mathenge while open fields are fully forested with the weed.

    Despite challenges, the RAE project Baringo have demonstrated that people in ASALs can take a soil/grass improvement project, own it and with pride literally run with it – natural in Baringo!

    4. Role of national and county governments

    The national and county governments should be facilitators providing technical advice that recognizes the unique challenges in ASALs. They should also provide credible data that gives benchmarks against which grass yields per acre can be measured.

    Building of infrastructure such as gabions for reclaiming eroded gullies and establishing of water pans for retaining excess run off water would also be their mandate, but with clear understanding that these can’t compensate for the lack of healthy soils – which is the responsibility of the individual farmers.

    Finally, enforcing the rule of law that ensures managed grass farms are considered as  private property and are protected, is the mandate of the twin governments.

    For whatever reason you visit Baringo in this festive season – drop in  to Bernad’s farm and the RAE projects, to see that the drought-free Kenya that we desire, is truly within our hands.

    Happy holidays.

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

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

    To the Laikipia Governor: Improving Livelihoods Through Managed Grasslands

    Governor of Laikipia, Ndiritu Muriithi, it is a month since you were sworn in and I believe that your in-tray is overflowing with policy challenges that come in via emails, snail mail, files that have been retrieved from archives and not forgetting personal from your constituents, who with or without appointments, insist on seeing you life-life.

    I doubt that there is anyone or any event that is requiring your attention for pleasantries – if ever there was a time for this, it ended on Aug 7. Governor, you are now in the ‘hard choices’ zone. Oh, this is a term I have borrowed from a book that I’m reading, Hard Choices by Hillary Rodham Clinton, her memoir as the Secretary of State.

    In her opinion, America’s agenda (then) was best served by the three legged stool of D’s i.e. Development, Diplomacy and Defense. The hard choices came in balancing and being cognizant of the fact that policies that lean towards development and diplomacy are more likely to be socially acceptable, have a long term effect and are cheaper to execute than the defense option. The 3 D’s and their application are not only true for USA but for any country/county where the aim of those who govern, in elected or appointed posts, is to improve its citizens life.

    With this out of the way, Sasa tutoke USA and come back to Laikipia, Kenya – not hard for you as from your impressive bio on Wikipedia, you came back home after studying in the USA. Broadly speaking, in Laikipia you have 3 main constituents: the town dwellers, arable farmers and pastoral communities in the ASALs (Arid and Semi-Arid Lands).

    Mr. Governor, I wish to give you and your team my unsolicited take on development in the Laikipia ASALs, and I trust there will be others who will offer their views on the other D’s ref Laikipia. I write this without the benefit of seeing your agenda for Laikipia but I want to believe that improving the livelihoods of the ASALs residents is at the core of your administration policy.

    Managed grasslands

    Managed grasslands in ASALs: Lukuai Farm in 2011 vs 2015

    After 4 years of managing a commercial hay farm in Laikipia North, I am of the opinion that the only way to bring tangible development and improve livelihoods in Laikipia’s ASALs is to agronomically manage grasslands. This means using the best and most appropriate – scientific, cultural or biological practices to grow and utilize your grasses as crops, not as nyasi. By so doing you will enable your constituents to bring their livestock production skills to the level of other leading livestock producing economies, such as Botswana.

    Why should your county (as well as the country) switch to managed grasslands in ASALs?

    1) In ASALs, social development e.g. education, nutrition, health, housing, employment, lifting households out of poverty, etc., is based on livestock production, which is a ‘grass factor’ and can only be guaranteed and secured on managed grasslands, regardless of the land tenure.

    2) The market imperative: We are not just playing in the local livestock markets, but also in the regional and international markets, which favor those who can produce quality livestock cheaper than their competitors.

    3) Climate change and population pressure in the ASALs are diminishing the areas that were once designated as livestock zones.

    4) Mobility of livestock feeds has changed the game of where livestock production takes place – zero grazing and cattle fattening do not necessarily have to be at ground zero of feed source. Their location can be in areas closer to the markets, where technical support is readily available or security is guaranteed.

    Compared to other counties, you are starting off with a relatively big area of 9,462 km2 (for Gov. Sonko, Nairobi County is only 696 km2). However, in agriculture (livestock production), land by and of itself is not a resource until it has a productive value, which in Laikipia’s ASALs’ case equates to grass value.

    Also in the livestock world, the measure of grass value has moved on from the numerical livestock head count in an area, to the scientific measure of weight gain per animal over time. The latter is based on, among other variables, the quantity and quality of grasses fed to the livestock either as standing fodder, cut-and-carry fodder or as conserved fodder e.g. hay or silage.

    Where do you start?

    Land reclamation

    From my limited travel in Laikipia’s ASALs, there are large tracts of land that are heavily overgrazed, degraded and/or colonized by invasive species e.g. cactus. These are grasslands that are in the stage of going, going and forever gone into a desert. Only urgent hands-on land reclamation championed by the county’s top leadership, can reverse this trend.

    Fortunately there is a precedent of this type of leadership – in the 80’s the kuzuia mmomonyoko wa udongo (control of soil erosion) movement (or policy), was a daily national news affair. Laikipia needs a revival of this movement, and don’t forget the songs and dance that went with it.

    Soil Conservation

    Retired President Moi leading the way on soil conservation Source: SDE

    Reseeding the grasslands

    This is a twin to reclamation, as ASALs’ grasslands are in urgent need of reseeding, so as to increase their productivity and the feeding value. Use of local perennial grasses e.g. Red Oat and African Fox Tail – which do well even with limited rains, will possibly be better than using exotic grasses e.g. Rhodes Grass.

    Local knowledge

    The pastoral community in the ASALs has a lot of cultural livestock management experience, as well as resilience, which can be leverage as the community transits to improved livestock production under managed grasslands. This is a big positive that you need to ride on.

    Use of manure

    Manure, hay

    Offloading manure at Lukuai Farm

    Governor, this is your county’s gold and if a % was intentionally used to maintain soil fertility in grasslands, the livestock returns from increased grass value would be much higher than the price/truck that is paid for manure at the manyattas (homestead).  By no way am I advocating that you should regulate the manure industry, but soil fertility is a critical factor in grass yields and nowhere is this more apparent than in ASALs.

    Let me plug this – at Lukuai Hay Farm, we encourage that old barter trade whereby we take manure as payment for hay. This is a win-win for us and for our livestock-keeping customers.

    Data on managed grasslands

    What is the grass value from a well managed 1 acre in Laikipia’s ASALs?
    What is the weight gain per cow per week in ASALs?

    The above questions (and others related to grass production) will best be answered by data which needs to be current, credible and should be readily available for your administrative use, as well as for your constituents who want to have a go at managed grasslands.

    A tip on grassland data: Other than data from research institutions, there is a lot data that is in private hands. People are willing to share data, if assured there is a greater common good that will be gained.

    Bench-marking foreign trips field trips

    Leadership is about learning and you get good at it if you learn from the best. Possibly this is the basis on which elected officials (countrywide) spent a great part of 2013 on a whirlwind of bench-marking trips abroad. Well, until the foreign embassies said: “Stop this charade!” I am not implying that you are drawing up an itinerary for a bench-marking tour abroad, but Governor anything you and your team would wish to learn about managed grasslands is right here in Kenya’s ASALs.

    Start with the work done by the local office of NDMA (National Drought Management Authority). Tap the Baringo Governor and get an invite to see work done by the RAE Trust (Rehabilitation of Arid Environments). Visit individual farms, as Team IGAD/ICPALD did for experiential learning at Lukuai Farm. Grant it these field trips are not glamorous, but your team gets practical knowledge that is adaptable to the area. With appropriate foot wear, kofia (hat) and drinking water – you are ready for the lesson.

    Seed dispersal, hay farming

    Team IGAD/ICPALD reseeding grassland at Lukuai Farm

    Branding/Marketing of conserved fodder (hay)

    While any surplus conserved fodder (hay) from Laikipia’s ASALs has a ready market in the neighboring counties of Nyeri, Muranga, Kiambu, Nairobi and Meru, marketing it can be difficult. These counties have a preference for exotic grasses, such as Rhodes Grass, which are not well-adapted to ASALs. What measures will your government take to market the hay from Laikipia’s indigenous grasses, such as Themeda triandra (Red Oat Grass), so that they can be known as equally good grasses and not as hay of last resort?

    A tip: You have cattle ranches in Laikipia that are renowned for quality herds, is it possible to enlist some as your grass brand ambassadors?

    Build networks

    How are the other Governors in the ASALs counties, e.g. Kajiado handling the grass value issue? How about the Women Reps? Since women’s issues –  such as income generating projects, table banking, girls’ education and reproductive health – can all be linked to grass value, your Women Reps should be involved in advocating for managed grasslands. The same goes for the MPs and MCAs – while lobbying for physical infrastructure and delivery of services is in order, the satisfaction that your constituents will derive from any service will be by a large measure determined by the welfare of their livestock which is based  grass value.

    Governor, whichever way you choose to write your legacy, I hope that you and your team will consider managed grasslands as the right step to improve the livelihoods of the people in ASALs. By doing so, all the other things that you envision for Laikipia, such as peace and security, will be easier to achieve.

    Good luck.

    Share with us your thoughts and opinions on To the Laikipia Governor: Improving Livelihoods Through Managed Grasslands by clicking the comment link.

    Contact the blog author, Anne
    Tel: 0725-520627
    Email: lukuaifarm@gmail.com

    Hosting IGAD/ICPALD at Lukuai Farm


    Lukuai Hay Farm 2012 and 2016

    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.


    The ICPALD team at Lukuai Farm

    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.

    Team ICPLAD broadcasting grass seeds at Lukuai Farm

    • 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.

    Rhodes Grass from Lukuai Farm

    • 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.

    Donkey Delivery

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

    Link Between Soil Fertility and Hay Yields

    Agriculture evolved and continues to evolve on the basis of man deliberately modifying nature to feed and economically sustain himself.

    Modification of nature started with such benign acts such as planting seeds instead of waiting for natural seed dispersal and use of irrigation instead of relying on rain fed farming.

    Against an increasing human population and diminishing natural resources, science has stepped in to advance modifications of nature with examples such as plant  breeding instead of waiting for the Darwinian natural selection – which would eventually happen, only that it would take a  very long time.

    Other easy to identify modifications of nature are the use of green houses, intensive livestock feeding e.g. zero-grazing.

    However, modification of nature without appropriate counter balances and safe guards can be a limiting factor in the advancement of agriculture.  For example, while zero-grazing allows farmers to keep more animals per unit of area of land, the farmer must provide safeguards such as appropriate feeding, health management and safe environment for the venture to be economically viable.

    Fodder production especially the cut and carry system – and hay production falls in this category, is an extreme modified way of feeding animals which distorts the natural relationship between free roaming herbivorous animals and grass.

    In this symbiotic relationship as animals graze they pay  hapo  hapo with dung, which is rich  in nutrients that maintains the soil fertility.

    That is not all, as  animals  trample on the ground they aerate the top soil, preventing capping and giving a  fresh tilth on which seeds can germinate and stolons (runners) latch on giving a fresh growth of grass season after season.

    As long as there is no overstocking this situation is a win-win-win:  for the grass, for the animals and the whole ecosystem because every other organism thrives when there is mutual harmony.

    In hay production the critical batter trade give-me-grass-I –give-you-dung is lost.  It is therefore important that hay farmers take conscious effort to restore soil fertility by using manure or fertilizers, otherwise hay yields and quality can decrease significantly due to nutrient deficiencies in the soil.

    This leads us to the question: Why are hay farmers reluctant to use manures/fertilizers on grass farms?

    Upfront, I don’t have data on hay management in Kenya  and my views are informed interactions with small scale farmers who produce hay for own use and commercial farmers producing hay mainly for sale.

    The small scale farmer.

    With some of these farmers its reflex; you cut grass, you put manure and a lot of it.

    The results are grass that is fast growing even under insufficient rains.  Baling contractors love to work for the manure using small scale farmer – they know that on bales per acre the small scale farmer way out performs the commercial producers.

    The commercial hay producers.

    Regrettably this is the group in which you will find a high % of farmers who are not keen to commit money and effort to improve soil fertility.  Some of the main reasons that the farmers I have interacted with give for this reluctance are:

    • Use of “idle land”.

      I’ve lost count on the number of times that “idle land” is the opening line of hay production proposals that I have listened to.   This mindset gives room to complacence with whatever yield one gets, since prior to the hay farming, the land was idle.  This line of thinking believes that the only costs in hay production are the baling costs.However availability of land only solves the fixed asset part of the farming equation. It is the variable factors such as maintaining soil fertility that change idle land to productive land and this is what gives you good hay yields.

    • Hay production is an easy side hustle.

      Pray that you don’t meet a multi-tasking, hay producer who is armed with data on productions, prices and  potential hay buyers already queuing at his farm.What is crucially missing in his rosy data is the costs for inputs for improving soil fertility – but to him this is a small detail – he is already looking at his bank balance. Oh, how I wish.

      In my opinion what makes hay production a bad choice for a side hustle is that you can neglect critical management practices e.g. putting manure, without immediate fatal consequences.  Since the decrease in yield is gradual, it gives room for the scapegoating e.g. blaming the insufficient rains or the baling contractor who baled “big” bales.
      You can’t compare this with the consequences of neglect or bad management decision on any livestock based side hustle.  They are quick, fatal and your pocket will take a hit.

    • Lack of hay production data.

      If the consumer is king in an economy, then data is deity and this deity is the needle that is extremely difficult to find in a hay production stack.Without credible data we end up dealing with anecdote figures that get bigger and better the further one moves away from the farm. (Remember the multi-tasking side hustler?)  For lack of another word, I am sometimes inclined to shout: Hallo this sounds like a scam.

      With data we would be able to empirically compare yields based on tons /acre instead of using gross yields based on bales. This would give a big wake up call to commercial hay farmers who are averse to using manures/fertilizers, that they are out performed by the manure using small scale farmers.

      My go-to source for hay production data is the hay baling contractors that I am acquitted with.  Grant it that they have reservations about how much they reveal, but without exception they like baling for the manure using small scale hay farmer whom they also link with their “top” customers for hay.

    The growth of the dairy industry in Kenya will depend on how reliably and cheaply we can produce high quality hay (as well as other fodder crops).  Using manure or fertilizers is an outright winner for both the dairy farmer and also for the commercial hay producer.

    Keep on this blog for a follow up of which way to go: Organic manure or fertilizers.

    For comments and questions please email lukuaifarm@gmail.com.