For livestock farmers, the good strategy is always to produce fodder during the rainy season and feed animals during the dry season.
This model works well as it cushions farmers from the frequent animal feed price fluctuations. A farmer recently asked me what fodder to grow to cushion himself from the vagaries of the dry season.
I recommended lucerne, and here is why. Lucerne is one of the fodder crops that is easy to establish and manage.
The crop is nutritious with a high protein content, is palatable and can help a farmer sustain high milk production when he feeds his dairy cattle.
The fodder requires good management practices after planting for proper crop establishment.
In addition to lucerne offering high-quality grazing fodder, it is also a leguminous plant that helps to fix nitrogen in the soil improving fertility.
And that is not all, you can intercrop lucerne with other crops such as oats and barley and the fodder acts as a cover crop, controlling weeds and soil erosion.
Lucerne does well in high altitude areas with well-drained soils that have a pH of about 5.5 and above and the land should be cleared, ploughed and prepared to a fine tilth before the onset of rain.
Well-rotted manure or compost should be applied and incorporated in the subsoil
It’s vital to inoculate the seeds by coating them with rhizobium before planting. This helps in germination, early seedling vigour as well as nodulation. Seed wetting can also be done before planting if no inoculation is being done.
The sowing of seeds is by broadcasting method or placement methods in shallow drills of about 2.5cm in depth and 30-40cm inter-row distance.
Good soil-seeds contact is essential, and this is achieved by ensuring that the soil is well moist during planting. Fertiliser application is necessary during planting. The soil test analysis determines the type of fertiliser to be applied. However, DAP can be used during planting to encourage proper root development.
Sowing lucerne without intercropping results to its faster establishment, which can be uneconomical.
The germination rate of lucerne can be affected by various factors, and this include fungal or insect attack of the seeds, moisture stress or deep sowing.
Control of weeds during the initial crop development is key to good lucerne pasture growth since weeds compete for space, light, and moisture and in some cases harbour pests.
Early weed control helps to reduce the cost of production before the weeds have fully developed.
Lucerne is prone to pests such as aphids, cutworms, and diseases such as root rot, stemphylium leaf spot. Continuous application of farmyard manure in the field helps to improve soil fertility, structure texture and increase the yields.
In most cases, farmers usually have good lucerne establishment, a first good harvest but fail to get the second one due to lack of good management practices especially during harvesting.
It happens when the farmer allows the animals to graze by themselves and pull out young lucerne plants off the ground destroying or killing the crop.
The crop is harvested mostly when it's 50 per cent flowering since the protein content is high. This also allows the plants to build up better roots and enables stronger and faster recovery, which leads to the proper establishment of the stand.
Harvesting can be done using a sickle or machete to a stubble height of about 5cm above the ground. This allows the plant to regenerate as long as there is adequate moisture.
Lucerne is cut and fed while green after a little wilting to avoid bloating. It can also be preserved as hay for future use. The crop can last to about 3-4 years under good management.