Why more farmers are ditching maize for hay
On various spots along the Eldoret-Nakuru highway, it is a common sight to see trucks packed with hay being ferried in various parts of Kenya. Some go beyond the borders. With growing interest in dairy farming, an insatiable demand for animal pastures has been created and ambitious farmers are cashing in on it. Having discovered this ‘new gold’, in North Rift are moving into animal feed production ditching traditional maize cultivation.
Maize farming has been riddled with various challenges like poor prices, hiccups accessing cheap farm inputs like fertiliser subsidies and quality seeds among others.
Delays by the State to clear debts for farmers who deliver their maize to National Cereals and Produce Board (NCPB) has further dampened farmers' spirit.
“There are too many challenges facing maize farming and farmers are tired. Grains retail at as low as Sh1,300 per 90 kg bag. In fear of further drop, some maize farmers are selling green maize stalks at Sh32,000 per acre and we buy this and put them in silage,” Sammy Kosgei, a farmer in Nandi says.
To find a softer landing, maize producers are slowly diversifying into production of fodder whose demand is growing by the day.
As Smart Harvest discovered, a number of maize farmers have converted sections of their farms for pasture production.
Harvested thrice a season
“I resorted to cultivation of Boma Rhodes because it has better returns from dairy farmers who buy the grass for hay. Dairy farming also has consistent and guaranteed returns,” says Mr Telengech Taptengelei, a farmer from Nandi.
He says he reduced maize acreage in the current season to create more room for production of fodder, which he says can be harvested three times in a season. It has better returns than maize, he says.
“Boma Rhodes can be harvested three times a year with an estimate 300 bales achieved in a single harvest per acre. Each bale sells at between Sh250 to Sh500 depending on the season,” says Telengech who cultivated two acres of the grass this year. Mr Gilbert Kosgei, says they have leased two acres of land from a neighbour for growing fodder for use in their family partnership dairy project in Ngechek, Nandi County.
“For the next three years, we will be cultivating Nandi Setaria and Boma Rhodes for domestic use in the dairy project. This way, we will reduce costs for buying animal feeds,” says Kosgei.
Why fodder production
According to the farmers, fodder production requires less capital and is not labour intensive compared to maize growing.
In addition, demand for pasture has been growing as farmers adopt improved techniques in the dairy sector including zero grazing for optimum production says Kosgei.
In addition to hay, farmers are also growing maize stocks for cattle. Jackson Kiptanui a largescale dairy farmer in Uasin Gishu says they buy maize stocks from local farmers, which they turn to silage for animal feed.
Kiptanui points out that silage will supplement hay during heavy rain season in future. “The hay we harvest at the moment is stored well for future use and will be supplemented with what we achieve from the silage,” he says.
What experts say
Mr Sammy Chepsiror, Kenya Seed Company (KSC) head of sales and marketing says demand for pasture seeds is increasing as people change into dairy business and that the firm is producing more seeds to meet fresh demand.
“We are increasing processing of pasture seeds to meet the growing need. More youths are venturing into dairy business. There is lucrative markets in Rwanda, Uganda, Tanzania and South Arabia where we supply seeds. We give priority to local demand,” says Chepsiror.
The best pastures
Mr Hosea Sirma, Head of Production, in charge of Elgon downs farm and basic seed unit at Kenya Seed Company, there are various pasture grasses with varied nutritional value depending on the variety.
They are classified into various groups including pasture grass, pasture legumes and forage sorghum. Sirma says the grasses are also further classified into major species that include Rhodes, Siteria, Guinea and Congo signal grasses.
“The beauty of pasture grasses is that once it is established, it is easy to manage and also to eradicate in case of need to change use of land. Some pastures can also be planted in maize plantations or inter-cropped,” says Sirma.
He however identified Congo signal as a variety that can be difficult to eradicate once planted because it can turn into a weed.
“Congo signal is a variety of pasture that is ideal for rocky or sloppy areas since it can assist prevent soil erosion,” says Sirma who also pointed that Guinea grasses are drought resistant and ideal for semi-arid regions.
Siteria he says, are high in nutrition value with crude protein content of 18 – 21 percent at peak when the grass is about to flower. Rhodes grasses has about 12 per cent.
“All grasses should be harvested when the pasture plantation is about 20 per cent in flowering. It is an ideal stage for hay since it is high in nutrition value. If left to mature in full, nutrients will be converted into seed,” says Sirma. Grasses, he says, is good in soil erosion control, maintaining soil structure and pest control.
The maize situation
Farmers in North Rift historically rely on production of maize, the country’s staple food, as a main economic activity. Harvesting for the current season is expected from October.
Farmers are anticipating good harvests. Uasin Gishu County Executive Committee member of agriculture Samuel Yego recently said an estimate of 500,000 bags of maize are still held by farmers in the region since it was not mopped up by NCPB after last season’s harvests.