Grass cushions farmer’s retirement

Grass cushions farmer’s retirement

Bernard Gitobu spent most of his life working in bank, but deep down his heart, he knew he would retire into farming. After all, his parents were farmers.

Bernard Gitobu in his grass farm

Upon retiring from work, Bernard went ahead to set up his farm in Kithoka location of North Imenti Sub County, Meru County in Kenya. In 2015, he then ventured into dairy farming and joined Kithoka Dairy farmers’ Co-operative Society, an affiliate of Mount Kenya Milk.

He recalls the day the manager of the co-operative shared the news that he was one of the farmers selected to attend a Dairy Management course at Baraka Farm in Eldoret, a program sponsored by SNV Kenya. The team spent a whole week under the tutelage of Mr. Kennedy Kisa, who trained them on dairy management, forages, calf rearing, and silage production.

Shortly after the training, Bernard was introduced to Mr. Fredrick Muthomi, an agronomist from the the Improved Brachiaria and Panicum Forages for Increased Livestock Production, a joint project by  the International Centre for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) and Netherlands Development Organization (SNV) in Kenya. Following their close interactions, Bernard decided to try his hands on grass. He was among the first farmers to receive free seedlings from the project, and Muthomi joined him on his farm, where they planted different types of Brachiaria to serve as a demonstration plot for other farmers. Among the forages established were four Brachiaria cultivars (Brachiaria cv Xaraes, cv Piata, cv Basilisk, cv MG4) and three Panicum cultivars (Panicum cv Mombasa, cv Tanzania, cv Maasai).

To his delight, Bernard noticed that the Brachiaria cv. Xaraes and B. Piata varieties grew much faster compared to the other two cultivars and Panicum cv. Mombasa and Tanzania varieties. With this observation, he decided to multiply the forages using splits. His decision paid off very well. He says, “We established the plots on 14 August 2018, and to date I have already harvested the grass four times, and bear in mind this was a drought period in Meru County.”

After the first two harvests, Bernard was so impressed with the performance of the forages that he bought the subsidized retail packs provided by CIAT to expand his forage landscape. He established Brachiaria hybrids (Brachiaria cv. Mulato II, cv Cayman, cv Cobra) in a nursery bed, which he transplanted afterwards.

Prior to this project, Bernard was feeding his cows on Boma Rhodes, and the milk production from his cows was about nine liters per cow. After introducing the Brachiaria grass to their feed, he noticed a significant increase with each cow yielding about 20 liters per day.

“In addition, I also noticed that the milk is not watery as it was before, it is now denser,” he says.

Currently, Bernard has a total of 11 cows and with each liter retailing for K sh. 34 (USD 3.4), giving him an income of about K sh. 150,000 (USD 1,500) per month.

Bernard also noticed that his cost of feeding the cows reduced by approximately 20% – 30% now that he does not have to rely on buying much of the cattle feeds.

“My wife is very happy because when I sell the milk, I give her some money, the bigger share in fact, and she is able to purchase items for the house. She is a teacher at Meru High school so for her this is like a bonus.”

At 64 years, Bernard has four children (three boys and one girl) between the ages or 25 and 35 years. He lives a comfortable life. Before venturing into dairy farming, he was practicing horticulture for sale but he has since realized cows do better.

“Cows have a more steady income. I am happy that CIAT and SNV supplied me with free seeds. I bought a few to increase my stock but now I am happy after transplanting, and it is doing very well.”

“Currently, I have planted grass on four acres of land but I want to plant more on another parcel of land that is 8 acres,” he adds.

Frederick Muthomi in Red shares some  insights with  Bernard on his farm

Fred from CIAT/SNV can attest to Bernard’s good fortune with grass. “Last year there was severe drought in Meru that spilled over to this year and as I was looking for grass to show case at the annual farmers’ field day this year, there was none. However, I found Bernard’s grass, which was doing very well because he had faithfully been watering it. It was the best compared to other farmers’ fields and I used it to demonstrate the potential the grass has to other farmers,” he says.

For a farmer doing so well with grass, I asked Bernard if he was selling some of the harvested grass. “I do not sell any grass. I keep the grass because it is not even enough for my cows. But I plan to sell once I invest in the additional 8 acres sometime next year,” he says.

He is an avid advocate of planting grass and says, “I am an official at Kithoka dairy so I invite other members to see how well my grass is doing. In fact, we held a demonstration day on my farm earlier this year.”

When asked to give a word of advice to potential dairy farmers, Bernard says, “Brachiaria is very good feed for animals because of its protein content. The cows respond well to it by giving milk in increased quantity and of good quality.”