Talking Hay and Agriculture

As a manager of a hay farm, I am increasingly seeking and eager to engage with people who are outliers in our agriculture system.

This is borne out of the realization that hay farming is not a stand alone activity, but its success or failure is inextricably linked to the rest of the agriculture sector.

Being free from the baggage and hindsight that is commonly found in policy papers, research documents or latest directives, the outliers have very pragmatic and market oriented views on agriculture.

Though they can sometimes stretch things – especially with the excellent spreadsheets showing profits and how telephone farming and apps can be a panacea for most problems in agriculture – I find it very illuminating to listen to their perspectives from the prism of their current or former careers.

What’s not to like when I listen to an engineer, a data cruncher, mama mboga, teacher or an artist, who have sunk their feet into farming? All these people draw me out from the echo chamber of agriculturalists, where conversations are often based on policy papers, research and directives.

But have we been saying anything different? Other than the change of venues, the sponsoring donors and the branded merchandise, do we have results that can show the value of these conversations?

Let me own up by saying that on my own volition I participated in conferences (pre-Covid), surveys for research and interviews until fatigue set in.

So a lot of requests nowadays are met with – No Thanks.

The sore point which triggered my fatigue was when I had professionals (academia) come to the farm and I felt that some lacked a level of depth and intellectual curiosity to an extent that they conducted their interviews by rote, a matter of ticking boxes with a stopwatch at hand.

I am careful of how I allocate my time and I would be hard pressed to give anyone more than an hour. But for my input, I look for a quid pro quo in which I will be made and left better by having a robust exchange of ideas ranging from fodder, feeding systems, cattle breeds and even crossing over to tomatoes, coffee, markets or soil testing. 

If it is agriculture – bring it on.

Ok, let’s squeeze in 1 minute for politics – we are Kenyans. Done.

It literally pushed me to the grass whenever I would see a researcher opening his/her laptop for a document to enhance a conversation or promise to send me a link for a very 101 document in agriculture. 

I fully appreciate people referring me to informative papers and journals.  But this does not justify a below par performance with an at-your-fingertips agriculture basics conversation.

I expect your presence to enrich me, so as not to proverbially remain with my head buried in grass. This is not asking for too much. It is a very bare minimum, and more so for people who are from the agriculture pool.

My other pet peeve was the constant reference of how things are done in other countries.

Hallo, I am in Laikipia North and unless you are telling me about private or community initiatives in Baringo or Wajir – ASALs counties with similar rainfall challenges, access (or lack of) extension services with me and the initiatives are not donor or government funded – see, I don’t want to call them projects – it is futile to forever dwell on countries that have subsidized agriculture, enforceable standards of farm inputs, extension services on call and protected agriculture markets.

Of course there are lessons we can learn from these countries e.g.value of  mechanization and large scale production – but these are two items we have unfortunately made non-starters by subdivision of land in our once food production zones.

Oh and while we are at this – could we move on how the fodder fortunes of ASALs will change with dams and irrigation? Pesa iko wapi? 

In my opinion the economically viable and scalable game changer in ASALs is proper management of our soils – to keep them fertile so that even with the minimal rainfall they can sustain fodder. If we then leverage it with good herd management, we are in Eden.

I am aware that totally isolating myself from the happenings on the current events in fodder production can lead to my stagnation. I am therefore in social media forums on dairy/ fodder through which I have had the privilege of being visited at farm by some all round and very engaging agriculturalists. I am fortunate to call some of my mentors.  Asanteni. 

Also there are some professional acquaintances that tumetoka bali and we yield to each other when input is needed. Thanks to Mburu (KDB) and Butichi (Livestock Laikipia) – on 11/9/2020 I participated in a survey about fodder by the Tegemeo Institute.

This post is not for preempting the content of the survey, but I was candid about the potential of fodder production in ASALs and also the challenges facing the small holder hay farmer. I look forward to knowing the findings.

For purchase of quality Rhodes Grass Hay, contact the blog writer:

Anne Tel: 0725-520627

Email: Lukuaifarm@gmail.com

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