Carrying a bunch of grass wrapped in a polythene sack on his shoulder, Michael Muriithi Njau navigates a steep incline on his farm in Muvandori village, Embu County.
From a distance, the grass Njau is ferrying looks like napier or sugarcane, but it is not. This is bana grass, which he grows on a section of his one-and-a-half-acre farm.
Besides bana, the farmer who keeps 24 French Alpine goats and two Friesian cows, also grows caliandra, tithonia and mulberry for fodder.
However, of the fodder, bana occupies the largest section. The ‘miracle grass’ is a hybrid derived from babala (Pennisetum americanum), which is also known as pearl millet, and napier grass (P. purpureum). The name is an acronym from ‘ba’ in babala and the ‘na’ in napier.
Some agriculturalists, however, say bana is a corruption of the word Ghana, a country where the grass is widely grown for fodder. The grass resembles sugarcane and has pale green leaves of up to 3cm wide. It is densely tufted with shorter underground runners, and can grow as high as 4m.
Research indicates that bana, which is fast disappearing from dairy farms, produces good fodder of high nutritional value when used to make silage, just some 90 days after planting.
“I grow bana and the other fodder for my animals and for sale on my farm, which I have sub-divided into smaller subsections of about 18 feet each,” he says, adding he got bana planting materials from Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organisation, Embu.
“Bana grass is high-yielding, nutritious, drought-resistant, makes good silage, and above all, helps conserve and stabilises the soil,” offers the 60-year-old father of three, who has won several regional and national awards since he established the farm in 1990s.
Highly recommends bana grass
Onesmus Mwaura, an agricultural researcher at Chuka University, highly recommends bana grass to animals, noting it is rich in protein, an important component in the diet that not only helps increase animal health, but also boosts productivity.
Mwaura says that the grass matures in two-and-a-half months as compared to other grasses that take over three months and that its tolerant to harsh weather conditions, especially very cold environments.
“The grass has less water hence greater dry matter content, grows longer than napier grass and remains green unlike the former which normally turns yellow and dries up,” says Mwaura.
“I get 70 litres of milk from my two Friesian cows, and this, I believe, is because of feeding them on bana and supplementing it with dairy meal,” says Njau.
He normally cuts the grass at two-and-a-half months and ensiles for up to six months.
Bana is planted from cuttings, just like sugarcane and it grows rapidly, maturing in two-and-half months.
“You can graze your animals in the bana field as it grows, but the best way to maximise it is to cut it and make silage from it,” Njau says.
For the goats, Njau feeds them on tithonia, which helps to increase milk production as it is also rich in protein, according to Mwaura.
“He milks six goats on average, which offer him three to four litres of milk per day that he sells for Sh60 each,” he says.
Each of his goats is tagged and tattooed as required by the Dairy Goats Association of Kenya, a group he belongs to.