Kenya: Dairy farmers increase production by feeding cows Brachiaria grass (Ensia)

October 09, 2017
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Albanas Nduva raises 10 dairy cows on his 12-acre plot in Kikambuani village, an hour’s drive east of Nairobi. His cows produce more milk now that they’ve switched from Napier grass to Brachiaria grass. Mr. Nduva plants Brachiaria on two acres.

He says, “The grass grows very fast compared to others, and I have observed increased milk production from my cows.”

Mr. Nduva keeps his animals in an enclosure, and so uses the grass as fodder rather than pasture. He adds, “I harvest the grass every two months, which is in contrast to other types such as Napier, which matures at between three and four months.” 

Mr. Nduva used to get 38 litres of milk a day from each of his cows before he began feeding them with the new grass. Now he gets 47 litres per cow.

In sub-Saharan Africa, more and more farmers like Mr. Nduva are adapting to climate change by growing Brachiaria grass. Some types of Brachiaria can survive harsh conditions such as drought and infertile soils.

In October 2016, the International Center for Tropical Agriculture, or CIAT, studied the potential benefits of Brachiaria grass in East Africa. The researchers found that farmers could produce 15 to 40% more milk by using the drought-tolerant grass. 

An Notenbaert is CIAT’s forage coordinator for Africa. She says Brachiaria grass can grow even during the dry season, unlike Napier grass, which is what many farmers use for fodder if their cows don’t graze.

Ms. Notenbaert explains, “Farmers like Brachiaria because of its adaptability to low rainfall … and low fertility and acidic soils, and its production of green forage year round without any input of fertilizer.”

She adds that Brachiaria is also rich in protein because it has more leaves and thinner stems than Napier grass.

A study in 2012 showed that Brachiaria is good for the environment because cows digest it easily. Better digestion means reduced emission of methane, which is a potent greenhouse gas. In addition, because Brachiaria grass has deep roots, it soaks up more carbon than other grasses. This helps offset global warming.

Donald Njarui is a scientist at the Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organization, a research body that’s part of the Kenyan government. He says more than 6,000 farmers are now growing Brachiaria across Kenya.

Mr. Njarui says a key next step will be registering varieties of Brachiaria. This would allow seeds to be imported, which could lead to wider distribution and more research. 

Mr. Njarui says, “This will make it possible to import the seeds from any part of the world, unlike what is happening today.” He adds that Brachiaria grass has become very important around the world, and that there is already commercial seed production in big cattle-producing countries such as Brazil. 

Erratic weather can make it hard for small-scale farmers to get good crop yields, especially in a region that depends on rain-fed agriculture. Productive, affordable, and accessible practices such as using Brachiaria grass could mean the difference between barely surviving and thriving in an increasingly uncertain future.

This story is adapted from an article originally published by Ensia, titled “How some African farmers are responding to climate change—and what we can learn from them.” To read the full article, go to: https://ensia.com/features/african-farmers-responding-climate-change-can-learn/

Photo: A dairy cow calf on display at the National Agricultural Fair in Blantyre