Livestock farmers insulate themselves from dry spells with plastic bags

Dairy farmers are insulating their livestock in dry spells and increasing milk production by upto 45 percent through storage of fodder in plastic bags, a move that has also stabilized the erratic national milk production. Many farmers rely on nappier grass as the chief livestock fodder which has worked against them due to the grass' seasonal nature, sprouting during rainy season and doing badly during the dry spell.

During the three month dry spell between December and March farmers spend some Sh2,000 every month in keeping their livestock alive including buying extra fodder. Even with the additional costs, they lose Sh1500 worth of milk per cow monthly due to low milk production occasioned by dwindling pasture. However the new fodder storage technology dubbed tube silage has now allowed the farmers to store excess fodder during dry season.

The technology involves chopping fodder into small sizes, compacting it and storing it in the bags. The technology is now giving the over 600,00 farmers who own between one and 10 cows a way of ensuring that the cows are fed during the dry season, when fresh fodder is scarce, expensive or simply non-existent. The fodder is chopped into one inch lengths, mixed with molasses diluted with water and then tightly packed into 2 by 1.5 m polythene tubing in 150 to 200 kilos. Once the tube is full, it is then tied on both ends and safely kept to ferment into silage for use in the dry season.

And although the technology is predominantly used with nappier grass, it also works well with other crops such as sorghum or maize. Farmers mainly in Central, Rift Valley and Eastern province who have courted the technology say the benefits especially in dry spells are unrivaled. Josphat Kienu one such farmer from Mwea area of Central Kenya says he has increased milk production from 4,000-5,000 litres per 300 day lactation period to between 7,000 and 8,000 litres after adopting the technology.

During the dry season, Kienu's three dairy cows would reduce milk production to as low as 4-8 litres per cow, but with the tube silage technology milk production has been ranging from 15-18 litres per animal even in dry spells. “We have to rely on nappier now especially with the unbearable cost of buying commercial feeds. And with nappier being available during rainy season and completely unavailable during the dry period, any method that would conserve nappier when its available has been very welcome to us. Tube silage allow s fodder for cows throughout the year,” said Njuki Wanderi one of the pioneers of the tube silage technology in Kenya.

The Kenyan government alive to the fact that pasture has created a spiral effect starting with lack of enough supplies to processors which then affect availability in stores and eventually a price rise, is working with farmer oriented not for profit organizations and community based organizations to spread the plastic bags to as many farmers as possible. “The traditional bags could experience wear and tear and so we are in the process of designing harder bags that can be recycled for long without experiencing wear and tear,” said Philip Ndegwa from the Ministry of Agriculture.

In Malawi where the tube silage technology has been entrenched since 2008, milk production during dry season has increased by 60 percent since the bags were introduced, with monthly income growing by between $50 and $60 dollars through demand for milk by processors in dry spells.