The Seeds of Gold team catches up with her as she explains to a group of farmers how to grow brachiaria grass. In her hand is a bunch of the grass vegetative material.
Her name is Mary Ndirangu and she is a fodder farmer in Tetu, Nyeri County. Apart from cultivating fodder grass, she sells the planting materials and hay.
Mary, 55, alternates a variety of fodder and pasture, which include brachiaria, calliandra, desmodium, boma Rhodes, lucerne, purple vetch, sesbania, oat and yellow maize on four acres that she leases. “I went into farming in 2007 after investing Sh2,000 in buying sesbania and calliandra seeds,” says Mary, isolating brachiaria, Boma Rhodes, yellow maize and sesbania as fodder and calliandra, desmodium, leucaena, Kikuyu grass and alfalfa/lucerne as pasture.
She began reaching out to farmers directly at field events two years ago, when she saw the opportunity in supplying livestock fodder and pasture seeds for cultivation.
Most of the grasses she grows do not require much water, take a relatively shorter period to mature, from three to five months, and are not labour intensive.
However, for better yields, she stresses that before cultivation, the soil where the grass will be planted should first be tested to determine the pH.
“Grasses do not necessarily do well in just any kind of soil. Testing will determine which grass to plant and in which soil conditions and if need be, the soil should be treated before cultivation.”
Brachiaria, for instance, grows in well-drained soils of medium to high fertility with a pH of 5-8.
Like napier grass, it thrives in well-manured soils and is drought-tolerant. The fodder is best cultivated through seeds, though it can sometimes be planted from vegetative material.
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“When using seeds, a farmer needs about three to five kilos per acre, whereby the seed is first sowed at the onset of rains on seedbeds before being transplanted,” says Mary.
The seeds sprout in seven days and they then remain in the bed for the about 21 days after which they are transplanted to the larger farm where they grow for the next 45 to 60 days.
The mother of three employs four workers depending on demand in the fodder and pasture farming, and hay making businesses.
She makes up to 420 bales of hay from each acre whenever she harvests, which she sells from Sh280 to Sh320 each.
“I leave the grass intended for seed production over-mature for more than the usual four to five months. I then collect seeds from the grass and dry. I send my samples to the plant health inspectorate for verification and validation before marketing it,” she says, noting she buys certified and uses them to produce other seeds once.
She sells a kilo of brachiaria at Sh6,000, Sh2,000 for calliandra, and between Sh1,500 to Sh2,500 for sesbania. For desmodium, lucerne, yellow maize, purple vetch and oat seeds, she sells a kilo at between Sh2,000 and Sh4,000.
Dr Aphaxard Ndathi of South Eastern Kenya University says from an acre of pasture, one is capable of getting a profit of up to Sh400,000 per year.
“Seeds are, however, the jewel of such an agribusiness as prices hardly ever go low than Sh2,000 per kilo.”
Farming pasture also offers benefits such as soil and water conservation, stabilising the soil, retaining nutrients in the soil, curbing pests and diseases and creating micro-ecosystems for the thriving of vital bio-microorganisms.