From a far, the 10 men in Meru looked like they were rehearsing a new dancing style for one of those popular songs in the county.
Standing in a line, they marched while stamping their feet down, turned after reaching a certain point and continued with the clumping.
Moving closer, one realised that the men were stepping on a mass of chopped fodder laid on a black polythene paper inside a pit.
Peter Mwirigi, 32, the chairperson of the group comprising of seven members called Kingcell, backed out some instructions.
“We are in the process of making silage. Silage needs to be uniformly distributed, and then thoroughly compacted to remove any air for the process of ensiling to be effective,” Mwirigi explained.
A member of Kithiruni Dairy Co-operative Society, Mwirigi knows far too well the importance of silage-making, as he not only earns a living from it, but also enjoys improved productivity from his cow.
On this day, with his team he was at the farm making the 30 tonnes of silage to last the farmer’s eight cows at least six months.
And for the work, which they perform for different farmers at a fee, they earn handsomely.
“Myself I own an acre where I keep a cow that offers me 20 litres a day but making silage is what earns me my income.”
It all started in 2014 after SNV, a not-for-profit organisation operated by the Dutch, came looking for youths below 35 years and with at least Form Four education to train on aspects of dairy farming.
“I volunteered but I was a bit reluctant when they asked for a refundable commitment fee of Sh2,000, which I didn’t have. My mother paid for me,” he recounts.
After an interview, he was eligible for a week’s training at Mawingu Farm in Chaka, Nyeri County.
GROW QUALITY FODDER
With other youths, Mwirigi learned how to grow quality fodder, make silage, management dairy feed and preserve animal feeds.
SNV then funded the trained youths to hold demos on farms and gain competence as silage-making was unknown then in the region.
They were also introduced to different societies where they could make silage for the farmers at a fee and after five demos in February last year, the youths were competent enough.
Mwirigi and the six others now prepare silage for farmers in Meru, Laikipia, Tharaka Nithi and Thika, among other areas.
“We charge a shilling per kilo and in a good month, we make up to 700 tonnes of silage for farmers,” said Mwirigi, adding on average each of them ends up with Sh40,000 a month from silage-making.
According to Mwirigi, silage-making is labour intensive and needs precision since if not well done, the entire pile goes bad leading to losses.
“When making silage from maize crop, the plants are harvested at dough stage. We then chop them into tiny pieces with a chaff cutter or a pulveriser.”
A pulveriser is preferred to a chaff-cutter as it crushes the stems, the cobs and the grains releasing the sugar needed for fermentation.
ADDED AFRTER EVERY LAYER
“We then lay the chopped fodder in a bunker in which we have spread a clean polythene sheet. We put in small bits as we compress by stamping with our feet. Compacting is crucial as it helps remove air.
If not well-compacted, the silage will attract air and it will heat and rot,” said Mwirigi, adding that he has bought an acre, paid dowry and bought a cow from the proceeds of silage-making.
The bunker, Mwirigi explained, should be prepared according to the number of cows one has.
Molasses is normally mixed with water at a ratio of 1:3 and added after every layer.
“But with a good pulveriser, molasses isn’t necessary as the sugars are well-crushed and sufficient for the fermentation process,” said Mwirigi, adding that the silage is covered with the polythene sheet and left for 21 days to ferment before being offered to the cows.
Moses Gitonga, 35, another member of the group, who has become a dairy farmer courtesy of their work, says compacting silage is the most difficult part of their job as it is labour intensive, especially when they are working on more than an acre fodder.
SILAGE ENSURES HIGH MILK PRODUCTION
In this case, they use a drum full of water to compact the fodder and have to hire three or four people.
Kimaru Kamunde, the treasurer of Kithiruni Dairy Co-operative Society, was among the first farmers to have their fodder ensiled by the group and he attest the benefits of silage, which include great palatability that has led to higher milk production and he has minimised wastage of feeds.
Last year, the group ensiled eight tonnes of silage for his five, which he used for three months with his milk production rising from 70 to 90 litres daily.
Onesmus Mwaura, an agricultural researcher and the regional extension co-ordinator for New KCC Naivasha, said the best bunkers are those above the ground because for an underground bunker, controlling rainwater and rats may be a challenge.
“Silage ensures high milk production because it is palatable, digestible, nutritious and requires less floor area for storage when compared to hay,” he said.
He added that “silage can also be made from napier grass, oat, sorghum, several grasses and sweet potato vines.