Anyone driving along the Makindu-Wote Road in Makueni County would marvel at the barrenness of the land covered in shrubs and acacia trees among other desert plants.
But on reaching Kathwonzweni, things change for the better. A pile of aluminium cans containing milk waiting to be delivered at a cooling plant in Kathonzweni town reveals the new form of agribusiness taking shape in the region.
Dairy farming, often a preserve of areas with cool climates, is gaining foothold in the larger Ukambani mainly due to an increase in fodder production.
Peter Mang’eng’e is one of the farmers who is growing fodder on large-scale for sale and also keeps two cows, a Friesian and Ayrshire, getting 70 litres that he sells at Sh55 each.
“I was pushed by drought to fodder growing about seven years ago,” said the resident of Kiaoni village.
On his four acres, he now grows Boma Rhodes and African foxtail (Cenchrus Cilliaries) grasses. The latter is known locally in the region as Ndanda Kivumbu.
“The little rain we receive here lasting barely a month is enough to grow the grasses to maturity,” he says, adding he recently earned Sh93,000 from selling fodder seedlings and Sh252,000 from selling fodder and more money came from milk.
At Karatini village in Kibwezi, we meet Jeremiah Ngaya, who specialises on fodder production on his 76 acres.
“From an acre, I used to harvest five 90kg bags of maize and get about Sh10,000,” he says, noting from the same piece of land, he harvests 150-200kg of fodder seeds that he sells at between Sh400-Sh800 per kilo depending on demand.
Besides the seeds, he also gets about 400 bales of hay which he sells at an average of Sh200-Sh300 each.
He learned the trade at a seminar at the Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organisation (Kalro), Kiboko in 2011.
“I was also given 12kg of four varieties of fodder seeds that include Maasai love grass (Eragrostis superba), horse tail grass (Equisetum arvense), African Foxtail and Panicum maximum (Megathyrsus maximus).
He planted on four acres with each variety taking an acre. And as the crop did well, Ngaya increased the number of acreage by multiplying seeds.
His initial investment, he says was almost zero, as he got free seeds from Kalro, used his cattle to cultivate the land and family labour to plant and harvest.
“I harvest seeds and grass twice a year and no longer worries what my family will consume even when there is a dry spell. I tell people that I eat grass, educate my children with it and dress it but it takes time for most of them to understand me,” he says.
Seed production, for him, involves waiting for the grass to mature and produce the seeds and once the rains start, he harvests them using a hook and dries under a shade, covered with a piece of gunny bag for about a week.
He then takes them to Kiboko centre for a moisture test, with good drying leaving a 9-11 percent content.
“I sell seeds to residents and NGOs which distribute them to encourage fodder production.”
Besides, he has also formed Kabatini Pasture and Livestock Improvement Group with a membership of 200 people who produce or have potential to produce fodder.
EMBRACE FODDER FARMING
Dedas Mwambui, a dairy specialist at Kenya Agricultural Value Chain Enterprises (Kaves), says while most dry areas are suitable for fodder and fodder seeds farming, farmers are yet to learn and embrace the goldmine.
“Currently there is shortage of fodder because of dry spell but many farmers in other parts of the country do not know that they can easily buy the produce from Ukambani because they don’t expect it.”
The fodder production has opened new agribusiness opportunities for people like Johnson Gachuhi, who harvests the grasses and bales it for farmers using machines.
“I harvested 18,000 bales of grass in Masongaleni Kibwezi during the December season alone,” says Gachuhi.
He charges between Sh50 and Sh60 to harvest a pile of grass, which goes from Sh350 to Sh500, depending on the season of the year.
He also trades in fodder, selling to cattle farmers, schools, retailers and large dairy farms.
Joyce Mutua, the technical director in-charge of milk at Kaves, says the market for animal feeds is insatiable.
“A cow requires 14kg of roughage and 12kg of fodder legumes per day, which translates to huge demand,” she says, adding farmers are also growing napier grass, maize, legumes, sorghum and Boma Rhodes grass, Columbus grass and calliandra for sale.
She notes the crops should be harvested just before they mature when the nutrient content is at the highest and fibre content is low.
THE GEM IN THE VENTURE
Fodder cultivation is a low cost business as one needs between Sh3,000 and Sh9,000 per acre for fertiliser.
Mutua singled out Makueni, Kitui, Machakos, Tharaka Nithi and Taita Taveta as an area with big potential for fodder farming.
Dr Aphaxard Ndathi, the Pasture Improvement Programme (PIP) lead at the South Eastern Kenya University, says fodder farming is now the big thing in Ukambani, after mangoes.
According to him, from an acre of pasture, one can get approximately Sh400,000 per year.
“Seeds are the gem with farmers selling them from Sh500-Sh1,000 per kilo,” he says, adding the university’s PIP works in domesticating different types of grasses for pasture cultivation especially in arid and semi-arid regions.
Buffel grass, African Foxtail grass, Maasai love grass, wild rye grass, horsetail grass and five different types of brachiaria grass are some of the grasses the group is working on.
Pasture farming has created a niche in agribusiness, with livestock feed farming, seed collection entrepreneurship and provision of feeds for zero-grazing, such as hay, emerging as the major beneficiaries of their programme, he says.
- Planting fodder starts with preparation of the farm.
- Land preparation involves ploughing the farm using a conventional tractor or oxen drawn plough.
- This is done shortly before the rains start.
- In Makueni, farmers prefer planting fodder crops during the December rainy season as the April long rains are unreliable.
- Afterwards, the farm is seeded with grass through broadcasting.
- It takes about three months between planting of fodder and maturity.
- Experts recommend that fodder crops should be harvested shortly before they are fully mature as this is the time they have nutrients.