Farmers get smart with new grass to fight head smut disease

A recently introduced nappier grass variety by the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (KARI) is cushioning farmers from the devastating effects of the head smut disease which wipes between 40 to 100 percent of the grass and has threatened the livelihoods of over 1.8 million dairy farmers in the country who largely depend on nappier for forage.

The disease was first detected in Central Kenya in 1997, where 90 percent of the smallholder farmers grow the grass which accounts for 40 to 80 percent of cut and carry dairy system. It has since spread not just to other parts of the country but to East Africancountries in what was attributed to cross border trade.

Head smut disease, caused by the fungus Ustilago kamerunensis, has a devastating impact on Napier grass, turning vigorous, impenetrable clumps of valuable livestock feed into thin, shrivelled stems. Napier grass, also known as elephant grass, is the most important type of ‘cut and carry’ grass used to feed dairy cattle across the country. Leaves become thin and tough, greatly reducing its feed value.

Healthy napier grass yields between 25 and 30 tonnes of fresh material per hectare, which is enough to feed a dairy cow of about 450kg weight for 160-250 days. However, when attacked by NSD, the farmer could lose between 40 per cent and 100 per cent of the yields.

Now years of research have finally led breeders and scientists to two new varieties, Kakamega 1 and 2, named after the center where they were developed through collections supplied by ILRI, that have resisted the headsmut disease. “A healthy nappier is about 2 meters tall, but when infected it becomes shorter, way shorter by upto 50 cm tall, with thin leaves and thin stem and this greatly affects yields,”said Athanus Kibe a breeder from KARI.

The varieties grow well in low to medium altitude areas in a wide range of well drained soils and are known to mature within weeks. Farmers however complain that they dont yield as much as the traditional grasses. “Since I started planting them I havent had a problem with the head smut diseases. But the yields are not that high, although I would rather work with them than the traditional one which was constantly under attack,”said Frashia Watiri a dairy farmer in Limuru.