Brachiaria grass is gradually replacing Napier grass because it grows fast with less water producing 18 to 20 tonnes of forage per acre and has been found to tolerate dry conditions better than Napier grass.
Small-scale farmers who keep crossbred dairy cows which have a potential of producing 10 litres or more of milk per cow per day face the challenge of inadequate quantity and quality of fodder which pushes production of milk down to 6 litres per cow per day and this can even go down further to 3 litres or even less during the dry season.
More than 90% use of small-scale farmers Napier grass is one of the most important forages as fodder for their cows, sheep and goats. This is mainly because Napier is a fast growing grass that can grow up to 4 metres tall. Napier is favoured because it is easy to establish.
Unfortunately, Napier grass is a heavy feeder with a very high water intake. It takes up a lot of nutrients from the soils and is highly demanding on nutrients and manure. Napier is also vulnerable to diseases like the Napier stunt and Napier smut diseases. Napier is not suitable for direct grazing since stumping results in poor regeneration.
Farmers switching to Bracharia
As climate change and global warming become a reality in Kenya, CIAT scientists working closely with farmers are now shifting focus from Napier grass to Brachiaria grass following adoption of climate smart agriculture technologies.
Brachiaria grass closely resembles Napier grass but when one looks closer, the difference becomes more pronounced. The grass grows to up to 1.5 metres in height, it has dark green blades, and produces seeds unlike Napier grass. Originally from Africa, Brachiaria has undergone improvement in South America, the repatriation of the grass back to Africa by CIAT has increasingly gained popularity among cattle farmers in Kenya.
There are two varieties of Brachiaria, Mulato and Mulato II, which are tolerant to drought, recover fast after grazing, they show high plant vigour, give good quality forage and are tasty to livestock. Brachiaria can produce between 18 to 20 tonnes of fodder per acre.
It is pest and disease resistant
The grass comes as a big relief to farmers who have had to struggle with pests and diseases affecting Napier grass.
Brachiaria grass is able to defend itself by producing a chemical response that enables it to repel pests. Consequently, the grass is able to survive pest and diseases attack saving the farmer from immense forage loss.
Bracharia also has a well-developed root network system that enhances water and nutrients uptake from the soil, adapting well and showing resilience to climate change. Brachiaria can be propagated by seeds, root pieces and stems. Mulato Brachiaria is best propagated by seeds, though it can also be planted from vegetative material. Seed is the most appropriate mode of establishment for farmers who want to plant large areas. When using Brachiaria seeds for propagation, a farmer needs 2.5-3kgs per acre. Seed is sown at the onset of rains in well-tilled seedbeds.
For planting material, you can visit your nearest KALRO branch and inquire from there. This is particularly important because you will also be advised on the best mulato seeds to suit your ecological zone.
It establishes easily
Farmers can also use vegetative propagation by cuttings. An important feature of the Mulato Brachiaria is that its stems are capable of rooting when they come into contact with moist soil. Farmers are advised to carry out routine top dressing after every cutting or grazing; using well-matured compost, farm yard manure and rock phosphate. The grass has thick leaves, which makes it difficult for weeds to thrive.
Do not allow heavy grazing of the field during the rainy or dry season. Towards the end of the rain season, about four months after planting, the seeds will be ready for harvesting. You will notice that they fill grain and start to drop on their own. Harvest them and store in gunny bag, dry them ready for the next planting season.
Regenerates within a short time
Where farmers cut and carry to feed the animals, the grass is ready for the next cut in two or three weeks after the rainy season. At this stage, the grass has higher nutrient content, especially protein, than Napier grass. Allow the harvested grass to dry for two days in sunny weather before packing it and bailing it into the sizes you desire.
Graze or cut it to feed livestock
Mulato Brachiaria can be grazed or cut or fed to animals in stalls and feedlots. Where animals graze, the duration depends on the number of animals. Sufficient time must be given to a pasture to grow back after intensive grazing. Rotational grazing will give grass time to regenerate. Mulato Brachiaria has high production capacity of biomass; therefore, it is a good alternative for making silage and hay for use during the dry season.
Its production and nutrient content depend on soil fertility and management, as well as the stage of harvesting. Brachiaria grasses cultivars Marandu, MG4 and Mulato II establish well in terms of germination percentage and seedling vigour. Llanero, another variety is excellent in spreading, covering the top- this attribute can be used to protect soil from erosion apart from use as forage.
MG4, Mulato II and Xaraes are able to supply quality feed for longer periods than the rest of the cultivars. All the cultivars are available at KALRO research centres in the country. In general all Brachiaria grass species have potential to reduce feed stress for both the dairy and beef industry in Kenya, especially in the drier areas where Napier grass does not do very well and in areas affected by the Napier stunt disease.