By Anne Munene, founding manager of Lukuai Hay Farm
We are half way through a very difficult year for the small holder farmer in Kenya. From maize, sugarcane to coffee, farmers are singing from the same song sheet of challenges. In the dairy sector they’re literally milking challenges with low milk prices, high costs of production, substandard inputs and animal feeds.
While our agriculture is mainly rain fed, I am reluctant to hoist the lack-of-rain and climate change flags as our main challenges because other countries, including our neighbors, are in similar situation but they have successfully found ways of ensuring that they are not only food secure but they have surplus for export.
So what fails our agriculture?
Could it be that our policies and politics, which are conjoined twins with a lifespan of five year electoral cycle cloud our long term planning on food production?
Is it our affinity for big ticket government and donor funded projects e.g. dams and irrigation projects, while neglecting the high ROI low hanging fruits e.g extension services.
Could it be that having agriculture executives who have to calibrate their professional judgment to suit power jostling on county level is not the best motivator to the technical staff?
Time has unfortunately caught up with us and we no longer have the luxury of debating the answers to these questions in conference halls.
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This is because today’s farmers have access to information, are business oriented and their loyalty to agriculture is fickle.
They are card carrying members of ‘my shamba my choice’ brigade which cannot be placated with branded T-shirts and catchy phrases, while they wait for the completion of fact finding missions.
They are good at packing their days; in the morning they will uproot tea, cut down coffee, sell their prize winning dairy cows and leave their fertile maize farms farrow.
In the afternoon they will be buying timber in Elburgon, selling hardware in Ruiru and checking up on the land surveyor for the subdivision of the land to 1/8 plots.
In the evening they pass through their new farm aka supermarket to stock up with imported onions, rice, tomatoes, oranges, eggs, garlic and ugali flour.
We need to see the above scenario for the national tragedy that it is, because if the agriculture sector collapses, the repercussions will be felt in every sector in the Kenyan economy.
Therefore stakeholders in agriculture must continue lobbying for legislation of farm/farmer friendly and practical bills, while keeping an eye for nefarious bills that could finally snuff off the remaining morale with farmers.
Sufficient budget allocation for the agriculture sector at the national / county governments would help to breathe some life into the nearly dying extension services.
But in all this mayhem, there are small holder farmers who go out of their way to seek solutions that make their farming worthwhile and we need to celebrate them.
I am impressed with the dairy farmers who cut out the noise on feed quality, brokers, high prices, underweight hay bales – and they purposely come to our farm to learn about hay when the grass is standing in the field.
I would therefore like to give a big shout out to some farmers from Kajiado, Samburu, Isiolo, Laikipia and Meru counties who have given me the joy and privilege of taking them on the grass to hay journey in the farm as very keen “students”.
As a commercial hay grower with hands full opening up new land, servicing machines, and marketing – a day spent with energized and eager to learn farmers brings back fond memories of teaching agriculture in secondary school and I love it.
Discussing things like colour of the grass, leaf-to-stem ratio, plant density, height, contamination with weeds –which are all visually noticeable and are indicative of the quality of grass, is always a big eye opener to the farmers.
In the absence of a lab test that would chemically analyse grass/hay per batch, a field visit when the grass is standing is the closest bet in assessing the quality of the hay.
In all my grass/hay training I stress on the NINO (Nutrients In, Nutrients Out) effect on grass. If your hay is grown as a “crop” on fertile soils, it is rich in nutrients which are consequently transferred to your cows.
This is easier to demonstrate to the farmers when they see the areas we top dressed with organic manure only, others with manure and a Urea based fertilizer and control area with no treatment. These results allow us to have a market differential based on quality of our hay.
What if a farmer has gone for a bench marking tour locally and/or abroad – does he still need field training on hay?
Yes, because these tours are often about herd management and they can’t substitute the need to learn about feeds in a localized content.
It is also important to note that in the countries popular for dairy tours, there are structured systems that ensure that hay (as well as all animal feeds) meet the recommended standards for maximum production and herd safety.
Considering that feed consist 70% cost of keeping dairy cows and hay is a major component in many TMR (Total Mixed Ratio), training with us equips the farmer to understand their hay, reduce the supply chain and importantly elevate hay from an inert fiber to an essential component with a nutritional value.
There is no silver bullet that will overnight solve the problem of quality of animal feeds (hay) in Kenya. But proactive dairy farmers who individually or through their cooperatives do the ground work for vetting (feed) hay suppliers, may be a good starting point to improve the standards of feeds/hay in Kenya.
A word of caution to dairy co-op officials – peace I will not name and shame. Those who are reluctant to bring farmers (members) for training lest they know the farm gate price for hay take note; the future of your co-op and your elected position depends on your members being successful and choosing to stay active in your co-op.
To bank on the county / donor funded milk coolers that are currently operating below capacity, while milk brokers in your area are paying better prices and on time – touch a cow, that your co-op will survive and you will not be forced to switch off power from your coolers for lack of milk.
Anne Munene is the founding manager of Lukuai Hay Farm in Laikipia North. She has helped to convert the 462 acres overgrazed and degraded arid land to a model hay farm supplying hay to several counties in Kenya.