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Kenya: Growing fodder helps dairy farmers increase milk production

It’s partly cloudy and the morning sun is shining intermittently on Samuel Mbogo’s green field of brachiaria fodder. The 55-year-old is wearing a blue dustcoat and black gumboots and inspecting his field to ensure that he is producing enough for his livestock.

More fodder means more milk, healthier animals, and more income for Mr. Mbogo. But he had been struggling to feed his cattle until he starting growing fodder. 

He recalls, “I had challenges getting grass to feed my cattle. Even the rice stalks baled into hay and sold on the roadside in nearby Mwea town proved hard to get due to high demand.”

Mr. Mbogo lives in Ndindiriku village in central Kenya’s Kirinyaga county. He says: “When I saved money to buy cattle, my goal was simple: feed them and sell the milk to improve my livelihood. But I realized that feeding my cattle so little was compromising their health and the milk yield was low.” 

Mr. Mbogo and many other dairy farmers in Ndindiriku village and the surrounding villages are rapidly expanding brachiaria production to tackle the shortage of pasture and fodder, which stems from persistent droughts and poor rainfall patterns brought on by climate change.  

Mr. Mbogo grows drought-resistant Basilisk and Toledo varieties of brachiaria grass on two acres. 

He started dairy farming in 2017 with only one cow, and in 2018, joined Tebere Dairy Farmers Group.  Mr. Mbogo says that, although he was trained by other farmers on how to make silage, getting raw materials such as maize was difficult due to scarce supplies. 

He explains: “[The] silage was over-exposed to heat and it got spoilt easily. In addition, chopping silage into uniform sizes compromised the quality of the maize silage I was feeding my dairy cattle.” 

According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, forage should be chopped into non-uniform pieces between 2 and 4 cm long before being used to make silage. This makes it more digestible, with mature crops cut shorter, and younger forage cut larger.

Mr. Mbogo adds: “I sought advice from the veterinary officer in my area whenever I noticed a drop in milk yield and a deterioration in the health of my dairy cattle. And the veterinary officer always told me that the cows had issues related to stomach discomfort as a result of spoiled silage.”

He says, “Milk production went down and the fertility of my animals was also reduced because it took them long to come into heat due to lack of nutrients.”

Things started changing for the better when Mr. Mbogo was chosen by the Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organization to be one of five farmers group members to grow brachiaria fodder on a trial basis.

He explains: “I was given a 250-gram packet of two grass varieties: Basilisk and Toledo. I planted them in two quarter-acres of my land. The germination and establishment of the grass was very good.” 

After a few years, Mr. Mbogo wasn’t producing enough grass to feed all his dairy cattle, which had increased to eight. To deal with this challenge, he planted another acre, using brachiaria seedlings from the two existing plots.

He says, “I started seeing changes in my herd. The fertility rate increased. And after feeding the fodder to my dairy cattle, they were always satisfied.”

Before growing brachiaria grass fodder, Mr. Mbogo spent 36,000 Kenyan shillings (US $288) to buy 150 bales of feed at 240 Kenyan shillings (US $1.92) per bale.

According to Mr. Mbogo, growing brachiaria fodder is not labour-intensive. After the crop is established, the farmer only needs to water, apply manure, and harvest the grass. 

Brachiaria seedlings are ready to be transplanted in four to six weeks, and farmers prepare their land before the onset of the rains. Transplanting happens during the wet season and planting holes are 25 centimetres apart in lines placed 50 centimetres from one another.

The grass is ready for first harvest three to five months after sowing, when 10 per cent of it starts flowering.

Harun Wachirai is a dairy farmer in Mbambaine village who also grows brachiaria to feed his dairy cattle, and whose income from dairy farming has increased as a result. 

He explains, “I used to get 15 litres of milk from my three cows. With brachiaria grass, I am now able to get 30 litres. I sell the milk at 50 Kenyan shillings (US $0.40) per litre.”

Mr. Mbogo’s milk production has also increased. He says: “Since I started feeding my dairy cattle with brachiaria fodder, I have seen a positive change. Previously, I got an average of six litres between my two cows. Currently, I milk three cows and [between the three of them] they give me an average of 40 litres of milk per day.”

Photo: Kesia A. Kaaya feeds her cow in her compound in Valeska village near Arusha on October 7, 2013.