Grass transforms farmers’ fortune

Grass transforms farmers’ fortune

Rachel talks with Uwe Ohmstedt from CIAT about the performance of the cultivars on her plots.

“I had a bad experience when I ordered some grass seeds that were being advertised on Facebook.  What I got was a mix of Mulato and some unidentified variety that did not do well at all on my plot. Frustrated, I decided to uproot the grass.”

This was Rachel Kinyua’s experience before she met the team from the Piloting of Improved Brachiaria and Panicum Forages for Increased Livestock Production – a joint project between the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) and the Netherlands Development Organization (SNV) in Kenya. She recalls being duped on Facebook in her quest for quality grass for her cows, but it also turned out to be the beginning of success for Rachel.

She is one of the successful farmers in Meru County who has been working with the CIAT–SNV project since March 2018, planting CIAT-improved forages, which are high yielding, more palatable and nutritious, and have shown to respond better to biotic and abiotic stresses and to improve livestock productivity of milk and meat.

A mother of two, she grew up in a family that practiced subsistence farming. When she got married, she decided to delve into vegetable farming but the returns were not good enough. In 2016, she decided to pursue dairy farming and realized the returns were much better than the vegetable venture.

Soon after the bad experience, Rachel started working with Fredrick Muthomi, an agronomist from the project, and was among the farmers who received free seeds for testing. Hungry to get more from her dairy farming venture, she chose to plant several types of grasses: improved Kikuyu grass, Panicum, Brachiaria, and forage legume Desmodium varieties. During the commencement of the improved forages project, a team of CIAT and SNV led by CIAT researcher Solomon Mwendia established the first set of forages at Rachel’s farm on 9 March 2018. Brachiaria hybrids (Mulato II, Cayman, Cobra), legumes Desmodium and Vetch were established in small plots of 5 x 10 m each. Vetch being an annual crop was not well received by farmers, including Rachel. Owing to the better performance of the hybrids, Rachel decided to establish the Brachiaria and Panicum cultivars on 19 November 2018 on larger plots of 10 square meters.

Fredrick advises the planting of different types of grass as a risk mitigation strategy in case of pest infestation, and it is also good for ration formulation.

“Panicum did better than Brachiaria because I realized it regrows faster after cutting,” she says.  She also mentions that Cobra and Cayman varieties were also doing much better than Mulato II. Rachel is pleased with the produce that she made from the grass as she managed to get four cuts in that year alone.

Uwe Ohmstedt, a CIAT specialist in scaling seed and forage technologies for the Africa region does not entirely agree with Rachel and goes on to explain that Mulato has a better biomass production compared to the others although there is not much difference. “It is largely a matter of perception by the farmers. Farmers do prefer Panicum because of its biomass since they have smaller plots,” says Uwe.

Rachel started her grass-planting venture on a small plot and, once she was satisfied with Panicum cultivars, she decided to use splits to expand the venture that now covers a better half of the field. She has also grown some Desmodium legumes, which she says, have 22% protein content and is very good for cows.

“The challenge with Desmodium is the biomass, although the quality is good, you have to mix it with other feeds,” Fredrick clarifies.

Rachel currently has 15 cows in total (six of which are being milked). “I want to have 10 milkers and 10 heifers to make a total of 20. I wish to build another barn to accommodate the heifers,” she says.

From the six dairy cows, she gets 160 liters of milk in a day and sells at Kenya Shillings 34 per liter to Nyaki farmers’ co-operative society, which is affiliated to the Meru Union Dairy Cooperative Society.

“I am satisfied with the yield because we don’t get enough when we depend on irrigation. In addition, we experienced severe drought between last year and a good part of this year,” she says.

Rachel uses all the grass she harvests as fresh feed for her cows. “I tried once to make silage and it was good, but unfortunately I do not have excess after feeding,” she says.

Clean fuel

Thanks to the good amount of feed, her cows have increased the amount of dung they produced.  Rachel no longer uses firewood in her kitchen but instead biogas. Six buckets of dung mixed with 12 buckets of water produce enough gas for her to cook the whole day.

“I am happy with the gas because it does not emit smoke, I no longer have to look for and carry firewood on my back, my sufurias (cooking pots) are also clean and it saves me money and time,” she says.

Rachel and her husband stand behind their household biogas plant.

Rachel with some of her champion cows.

Rachel the trainer

Rachel’s passion for dairy farming also paid off when staff from SNV approached her in 2018 and requested her to become a trainer of farmers after they noticed her professional approach and success in the business. She gladly accepted the challenge and constructed a classroom that accommodates 50 farmers in her compound.

For a modest fee of Ksh 500 (USD 5) per day, farmers get tea and lunch, and she trains them on dairy farming management modules (feeding and nutrition, fodder management, housing, calf rearing, milk hygiene and technique, hay and silage production).

“I know many people, especially the youth, will be self-dependent after attending the training. That is my goal for the youth. I am happy to note that the youth are now showing interest in farming after the training,” she says.

Rachel is married to Mr. Joseph Kinyua who is in formal employment. Acknowledging her passion, he says, “I am very proud of my wife. She has made dairy farming an important trade and now even the neighbors appreciate the work she does.” He is not shy to pledge continued support to the work she does noting that, because of her work, they now receive visitors from far and wide who want to learn from their farm”, he says.

“Women are nurturers. If you see the way Rachel cares for her calves, she is one of our best farmers. Her heifers are inseminated at 15 months, which means that, by the time they are two years, they have already calved. This is very rare for most farmers who inseminate their cows at two years,” Fredrick concludes.