A little-known wild grass could be a double blessing to farmers in arid areas, not just for their crops, but also for their livestock.
Research by the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) and the Kenya Agricultural Livestock Research Organisation (Kalro), shows that the grass called brachiaria, fixes minerals in the soil that are crucial for plant health. These minerals including nitrogen, phosphorous and carbon, are often lacking in arid areas.
Not only is this grass good for plants, it is also a resilient feed for livestock in arid lands where farmers often lose their livestock during periods of drought, due to lack of pasture.
In an article on ILRI’s website, Sita Ghimire, a senior scientist who led the research, said: Brachiaria has been used to transform livestock production in South America. However, despite the immense benefits it demonstrated in that region, the true potential of this grass is yet to be realised in its motherland, Africa.”
Brachiaria looks like napier grass, which is commonly used by Kenyan farmers as feed, but it grows taller and produces seeds unlike napier grass.
Napier grass is also prone to diseases, unlike the resilient brachiaria. Previous studies on the wild grass showed that it is harvested four months after planting, can be harvested every two months, and can live as long as 10 years.
It produces 19 tonnes of green fodder per acre, and about nine tonnes after drying.
These traits make it a potential “saviour” for arid areas that account for 80 per cent of Kenya’s land. These dry lands are only famous for nomadic pastoralism, not for crop production, with the Food and Agriculture Organisation, estimating that 70 per cent of livestock is reared on this barren land.
The low amount of rainfall they receive as well as soil erosion, makes agriculture unsustainable in arid areas.
Farmers in these areas also bear the brunt of the negative effect of climate change, with their herds of livestock dying during periods of drought and famine.
However, with the introduction of grasses such as brachiaria, the dry lands hold potential for food security for both humans and animals.
Since the launch of a project funded by the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency in 2013, four improved varieties of the grass have been piloted by Kalro, with positive results. Counties that were covered included Kilifi, Malindi, Machakos, Embu, Meru, Makueni, Uasin Gishu, Trans Nzoia and Nyandarua, where the grass aims to increase farmers’ resilience in the face of the effects of devastating climate change.
Brachiaria’s crucial role
The wild grass is native to Africa and has been used to transform livestock production in South America.
It fixes soil minerals such as nitrogen, phosphorous and carbon, which are often lacking in arid areas.
Brachiaria looks like napier grass, but grows taller and produces seeds which replenish the grass after harvest.
The wild grass is disease- and drought-resistant.
Brachiaria produces 19 tonnes of green fodder per acre and about nine tonnes after drying.
Arid lands make up 80 per cent of land in the country, and livestock farmers found in these regions need resilient animal feed.
90 per cent of livestock is reared in arid areas where the land is barren.
Four improved varieties of brachiaria grass have been planted in various counties for use as fodder by livestock farmers.