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.

End Of Hay Baling Season: Lessons Learnt

Between reasons and excuses, I don’t know which I should use to explain, mainly to myself, why I have not posted in the hay blog since May ’16.  It is not for lack of material, especially gems of feedback from dairy farmers, horse owners, prospective commercial hay producers and experts in dairy, whom I have been privileged to host at the farm.

So one word for my-not-so good act, Aibu and from you I hope I get a Sawa.

Now back to the farm. We are close to the end our baling season and what a time we have had; with challenges that could fill a barn and lessons from sources that we didn’t expect. On a very personal level I have had tremendous support from the Lukuai Farm staff and neighbours, for which I am truly grateful.

In this post I mainly want to address the challenges in hay production especially at a time when there is a new hype that pesa iko kwa hay.  Ok, that if you have some idle land and plant “hay”,  this will be better than betting.  You will get rich, and very fast while we are at it, with the best part being that you don’t have to sweat it out, it is easy money.

baled-hay

Hay Baling – Lukuai Farm

Aaah, I guess I stood on the wrong side of this mythical generous wind that blows money into hay producers, while still allowing them to live the easy life of lounging about.

Sorry to break the hay riches bubble, but commercial hay production is hard work, with start-up costs which can be draining and like all business ventures it has its risks.

While there are many “consultants” who are giving very rosy financial figures about hay earnings, it is important that prospective hay producers get realistic ground information to enable them to make informed decisions on if they should go into hay production.

Things to consider:

Region / Zone

In business they say location is key, and so it is in hay production – this determines the amount of rain you receive and consequently the species of grass or legume (e.g. Lucern) that you can grow.

Particularly for farms that are in ASALs (Arid and Semi-arid Lands), such as Lukuai Farm, you will not have the luxury of rain like farmers have in the Rift Valley, therefore management decisions must be geared towards keeping your soils fertile coupled with water conservation, so as to get the maximum yield even under low rainfall.

What is the condition of the land you are starting from?

Have you fenced?  You would consider this a rhetoric question especially to those with non-occupied farms: you need to fence, and with a good fence that can keep off small livestock e.g. sheep.

Don’t try to sugarcoat it with the excuse of: “Oh, there are no people around my area.” (Huko ni wapi? )  You need to fence if your intention is to become a commercial hay producer.

Is it virgin land?  If yes, this is a big advantage because the soil fertility may be high (assuming the land is not eroded), but it can also be a disadvantage if you have to factor in the cost of opening land by uprooting tree stumps etc.  This is expensive, especially if the native bush is of the stubborn acacia family. I should know this as Lukuai Farm was (and part of it still is) inhabited by acacias.  See before and after photos.

merge

Lukuai Farm -2011 vs Lukuai Farm – 2016

If land has previously been cultivated, you owe the previous occupiers a big cup of tea as they have saved you a huge expense and gained you valuable time.

Choice of Grass

Rhodes Grass hay remains the favourite species for dairy farmers and many commercial hay producers prefer to grow it because it is easily recognisable as the main hay brand. However, other grasses, e.g. Timothy, Star, Red Oat and Kikuyu Grass, are equally good and with good management can deliver as good returns.

seedsSource of Seeds

This can’t be over emphasized: know the source of your seeds and be careful that you don’t introduce undesirable plant species in your farm by sourcing seeds from unreliable vendors.

Method of planting

Depending on your location and the condition of the land, you could decide to establish a pure stand of grass, e.g. Rhodes Grass, or you could use minimum tillage and over seeding of Rhodes Grass on indigenous grasses.  The latter is especially useful in areas that are rainfall-challenged.

Machinery

Hay baling is 100% machine dependent, and it doesn’t come cheap, whether one outsources baling or uses their own machines.

The quality of hay depends, among other factors, on the stage of its harvesting.  Once the right leaf:stem ratio stage has been attained (the early flowering/boot stage), the quality starts to decline with every day that the grass remains uncut.

So if you outsource baling, be on speed dial with your baling contractor.  And if your acreage demands that you be self-sufficient in machinery  – however long it takes – aim to get your own set(s) of baling machines.

baler-arrives-at-farm

Lukuai Hay Farm – offloading the new baler

lukuai-hay-barn

Lukuai Farm Hay Barn

Storage

One of the biggest stretch of money-in-the-hay hype is that there are ready buyers, who will buy all your hay straight off the field and you don’t need to store it.  Call them brokers or traders, they will buy your hay (though not always) but because they know you don’t have a barn, you are totally disadvantaged in negotiating the price.

The reality is that hay is perishable, especially when exposed to rain, so if you don’t have a barn, you either sell it at whatever price or keep watching the skies.


Marketing

Why, why would you put effort to produce a crop and make no effort whatsoever in marketing? All too often I meet (or I am contacted by) hay producers, who are seeking help in marketing their hay. The irony is, many of them are waiting for the buyers (dairy farmers) to come to their farms, instead of them going to look for the dairy farmers.

If you are a hay producer and you are not talking directly to your market, hapo kuna shida.   

Consider that hay, whether in your store or as mature grass in the farm, is an inventory and like in any other business, inventories are expensive to hold and have associated risks. Your marketing objective should aim to give you the best price and also reduce the amount of time you hold the hay.

Share with us your thoughts and opinions on hay quality by clicking the comment link.


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


 

Who Should Do The Visual Tests?

This is a sequel of the blog post “What Is Quality Hay?“, in which I wrote about characteristics of quality grass that lead to quality hay. This led us to the question of who should do visual tests on grass in the farm.

In any industry when questions on quality, standards and testing of a service or a product are raised, stakeholders take different positions.  Some will be defensive of the status quo informed partly by the fear that any changes are meant to put them out of business, while those advocating for change might want to bring on board standards which though good sounding, might regrettably not be logistically enforceable.

grass-blog-2

Right stage for harvesting Rhodes Grass i.e. at the boot stage and early flowering.

To discuss hay quality, standards and testing situation in Kenya, dairy sector stakeholders i.e. farmers and saccos, commercial hay producers (CHP), of which this author is one, aid agencies in the dairy sector and the government, need to detach themselves and look at the dairy industry as outsiders rather than people who have deeply vested interests in the sector.

This way we will be objective, be critical where should be, acknowledge the progress already done in the dairy sector and we will also welcome best practices from other industries that have walked the route of standards and testing and have come out stronger.

In my opinion the Kenya horticulture and flower industry is a good study case of a sector whose very life line is quality, standards and testing all the way from the out grower level, national level and in the international market.

For this industry there are three statutory bodies i.e. Horticultural Crops Development Authority (HCDA), Kenya Plant Health Inspectorate Services and Pest Control (KEPHIS) and Pest Control and Produce Board (PCPB) that are mandated to, among other duties, hold the sector to the prescribed standards.

Mango-Fruit-Fly

Fruit fly in mango

This is one sector that possibly every year (or season) there is a chemical that is either banned or minimum residual levels are revised downwards; a pest e.g. fruit fly in mangoes, that can lead to total ban on exports; change in grading and packaging or a new tariff which the industry has to conform to.

Though I don’t have the financial figures, if the presence of greenhouses laid out with drip lines can be used as an indicator, then the horticulture and flower industry has grown in the last 2 decades.  Figure this:  In the late ‘80s, as a student of horticulture in Juja we were bussed to a farm in Naivasha to see commercial greenhouses and drip irrigation.

Greenhouse

Green house built with local materials

Not because the college wanted to give the students an extended outing (which students never mind),  but Naivasha was the place to go if you wanted to see greenhouses in Kenya.

The waaahs and oohs that the flip board clutching college students gave, were only silenced by the fact that one had to write a report on the field trip.  Thanks heaven this was pre-selfies age!

gate-tied-with-drip-line

Drip line used as a hinge.

Move on to 2016, greenhouses are kawaida in just about every hamlet in Kenya.

How about drip lines? Zinafunga kondoo, kuni (tether the sheep, tie firewood) and for the ever resourceful and recycling Kenyans that we are – the drip line is the hinge for the sagging farm gate.

The above is a proof that initiatives that aim to raise quality in an industry by introducing standards and testing lead to growth and prosperity of the stakeholders.

Grant it, some players in the industry will fall off, possibly from failing to read the change in consumers demand or outright wanting to challenge the initiatives.

Let’s get back to our case:  Who should do visual tests of grass at the farms, so as to get quality hay?

In my opinion as a CHP, it is the dairy farmers, either individually or through their saccos. This is because if they don’t get to see the grass at the farm and wait until the truck is off-loading the already paid for hay at barn, there is really nothing they can do about quality. They have to accept the hay as it is.

We are fortunate that we are raising this question in 2016, when the dairy industry is thriving backed by:

  • Knowledgeable and by choice youthful farmers who are willing to disrupt how things are done.
  • Hands-on skills transfer to the small holder dairy farmer, from donor backed agencies which are right in the ground, e.g. Kenya Agriculture Value Enterprises (KAVES) work in Meru & Tharaka-Nithi.
  • Good communication and advance in technology.
  • Structured Saccos & CBOs, (Community Based Organisations).

Unknown to many dairy farmers and saccos, many hay farm gates would be wide open for your visits.  Reason:

  • For the CHP, he gets a chance to pitch his product based on farm noticeable quality rather than the size of the bale or the grass species.
  • Where farm visits lead to a contract to supply hay, the hay delivery chain is reduced leading to a reduction on price.

But be careful that you don’t devalue the farm visit by just discussing the price with the rider; hay ni ya kushikilia tumbo, huko kuingine nitanjipanga na concentrates! (Hay is for filling the stomach, as for the rest – I will sort it out with concentrates).

Hallo, your shilling should be buying you value.  Also consider that transport costs will be the same, whether you buy low or high quality hay.

What if dairy farmers and saccos wringed their hands in frustration and argued that they want the same treatment as the horticulture industry and be allocated statutory bodies for quality control, standards and testings of hay?

In my opinion, this could work, but because it would involve regulatory legislation with its accompanying bureaucracy, it would take a long time before benefits can be actualized.

Dairy does not have the luxury of time because small scale farmers need to improve their earnings with the urgency of now, if keeping dairy cows is going to continue being relevant to them.

Besides, the fact that the problem of quality hay is shared by the farmers in Eldoret and Endarasha, Githunguri and Gilgil, Nkubu and Nairobi, Maragwa and Machakos, as well as in all parts of the country, it gives dairy farmers a numerical advantage which they can use to push for the hay standards that they want.

In conclusion, knowing that people and governments like to be associated with success, should the dairy farmers kick start with earnest a My Hay My Choice type-campaign, with strong emphasis on quality and standards, they might be pleasantly surprised by the support and goodwill they will get.

Who knows, this goodwill may help to break bureaucracy and to cut down the time needed for legislation of regulatory frame work for hay standard.

Share with us your thoughts and opinions by clicking the comment link.


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


 

What is Quality Hay?

bales-of-hayIn the introduction, I wrote that I’ve been talking “hay” to farmers and the posts in this blog will be informed by the topics, which I have found to be of interest to the farmers.

While price and weight of hay bales is a big concern to many farmers, in my opinion hay quality is one issue that farmers feel helpless about.

Let me start with a caveat:  There are  many types of grasses that are used for hay production, but in Kenya, Rhodes Grass is synonymous with hay.  So in this blog I will be writing about Rhodes Grass but this does not mean that it is the only grass species that is baled, there are others e.g. Star Grass, Timothy Grass, Red Oat Grass and they are not necessary of inferior quality when they are well managed and harvested at the right stage.

What is quality hay? It is the ability of a dried grass (or a mixture of grasses), a legume or cereal plant to meet the nutritional needs of a particular animal and achieve the desired response.  Genetics contribute 20% and nutrition & management contribute 80% to the desired response.

Desired milk yield

With dairy cows, the most measurable way of evaluating the desired response is milk production.  With beef cattle, the measurable way of evaluating desired effect is the weight gain rate.

Quality hay should provide proteins, carbohydrates, minerals, vitamins and essential fiber.

Besides meeting the nutritional mark, quality hay should be palatable, digestible, have no foul smell and with no foreign ingestable matter.   (Look out for a post on this.)

Dairy farmers prefer Rhodes Grass because of its potential nutritive (quality) value, while commercial hay producers prefer it because of its potential production.

The operative word here is “potential”, and for us to discuss the quality of Rhodes Grass hay, it is important that we think of it as a food crop like wheat, maize or beans and not as a grass.

Maize Crop

Maize a food crop

With “it is a food crop” mind set, we will then acknowledge that like all food crops, Rhodes Grass nutritive value and production potential are not fixed but are subject to how the grass is managed, the stage of harvesting, curing and post-harvest care.
It would therefore be misleading to give a blanket quality assurance and/or price on hay load, just because it is Rhodes Grass.

Let’s flip the coin – as a dairy farmer what do you look for when buying a cow?  Do you make a purchase based only on the (genetics) breed e.g.  Fresian?  Would you turn down an offer based on health, fertility and temperament of a cow?

I am yet to meet a farmer who has bought a cow without due diligence – from the outright checking the production records to the undercover tricks of asking the neighbors, workers, the area Vet and the msema kweli, Agrovet owner.  The thought that one could commit to buy a cow over the phone, is just not plausible.

If you do due diligence when buying your cows, shouldn’t you do the same when buying hay?

Baled Hay

True, we bale hay while it is shining, a 2-3 days event – but making quality hay is a process that is spread over the lifespan of the grass, this is when the nutritive value of the hay is set and regretfully not at the baling stage.

How then can one go about verifying the quality of hay beyond “it is Rhodes Grass”?

In countries where fodder production is advanced, hay lab testing is more or less standard.

laboratory-test

For this to work the credibility of the testing agency and timeliness of the results are key.

Clear sampling guidelines should strictly be followed, so as to give results that are accurate of particular hay load or batches of the hay load being purchased.

Lab testing is a win-win situation since:

  1. The hay producer can differentiate his hay from that of other producers and he can set his price on known variables.
  2. For the purchaser (dairy farmer) you move from the ambiguity of “price per bale” to matching your shillings to nutritional value from analyzed results. 

In the absence of a lab test, visual tests are the alternative option and when done in an objective way they can be good indicators on the quality of the hay.

When and where do visual tests start? And who should do visual tests?

They should start in the farm when the grass is standing e.g. before it is mowed. This is because the important indicators of plant health (quality) are lost upon cutting and more so upon baling.

Remember we said we should think of Rhodes Grass as a food crop and not as a grass. Then the NINO rule applies:  Nutrients In, Nutrients Out.

So if soil fertility is maintained by putting fertilizer (organic or inorganic), then the harvested grass (hay) will also be nutrient rich. Equally if the grass is deprived of nutrients, it will retain its genetic form (it’s Rhodes Grass) but it will give hay that is poor in nutrients. Simple.

How do you tell if the grass will give hay that is rich in nutrients?

Colour

Grass with the right colour

  • Colour: does the grass have a deep green colour – this is the color of healthy, well nourished grass.  If it is all shades of yellow to yellow-green – then there are issues with nutrient content.
    Just the way colour is symptomatic of nutritional deficiencies in humans so it is with plants. Take the yellow hair with kwashiorkor and the relevance of color and nutrient deficiencies become very clear.  By the time grass is cured (dried) and ready for baling, the distinctive colours of the standing grass are wiped out and there is a uniform light green.
  • Leaf blade size: you should look for a blade that is elongated and well opened, the needle-like leaves are a straight give-away – hapa nyasi imekonda.
Low density grass

Low plant density. But it will form a marketable bale.

  • Plants density per meter: fine, you don’t have to go on your knees counting the grass straws, but in farms that have low fertility, grass is very scarce. Farms that are regularly replenished with manure / fertilizer have a thick carpet of grass and baling contractors are excited to work in such farms.
  • Height: it is an expression of vitality, vigor of the grass – all influenced by the fertility.  This is one visual test that is completely wiped out by baling.
Grass contaminated with weeds

Weeds growing in between Rhodes Grass

  • Weeds: they bulk up the hay with non-nutritive material which reduces palatability (willingness of the animals to eat).  Some weeds e.g. in the Datura and Sodom Apple family are poisonous to livestock animals.

Who should do the visual tests?  Get to know this in the next post by subscribing to the blog.

Share with us your thoughts and opinions on hay quality by clicking the comment link.


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