When Brazil started growing Brachiaria, a wonder grass that is native to Africa, its annual milk production went up. One cow produced more than 1,382 kilogrammes of milk compared to Kenya’s paltry 732 kilogrammes.
A majority of farmers on the continent rely on Napier grass as the wonder grass variety disappeared from Africa in the colonial era transforms global dairy sectors.
Its first stop was in Australia where the grass revolutionised the livestock industry.
Later, South American scientists visited Australia with an aim of unearthing the secret behind the success of the livestock sector.
South America quickly started growing the grass. It is now the continent with the largest Brachiaria grass plantation globally and a booming livestock industry.
In Brazil alone, for instance, the grass occupies 110 million hectares of the country’s land.
Brachiaria’s contribution to the country’s dairy sector is immense, making it a favourite destination for many African nations—including Kenya—seeking tips on developing thriving livestock sectors.
East Africa has now brought the wonder grass home.
“This grass has transformed livestock industries in other countries yet it’s native to Africa. So we believe that it can do much more here,” Dr Donald Njarui, the senior principal research scientist at the Kenya Agricultural Research and Livestock Organisation (KALRO), told the Business Daily. Kenya and its neighbours like Rwanda have started growing the grass.
The livestock sector is a major pillar for Africa’s economy providing farmers with income, food and crop inputs like manure, but it has the lowest livestock production trends worldwide.
Perennial shortage of forages has contributed to low milk and meat production.
In Kenya, the livestock industry contributes about 10 per cent of the country’s gross domestic product (GDP) — a figure that economists predict will easily rise if hurdles in the largely untapped sector are addressed.
A majority of livestock keepers in Kenya, just as in most parts of Africa, are found in arid and semi-arid lands (ASALs) which occupy more than 70 per cent of the country.
Livestock yields in these areas are often low due to long dry spells and poor quality soils that cannot support the growth of high quality forages like Napier and Rhodes grass which thrive in the highlands.
Climate change has further aggravated the adverse environmental conditions in dry lands. But hope lies in the wonder grass.
This consequently predisposes a majority of ASAL families whose livelihoods rely on livestock farming to hunger and poverty - two 'enemies' of economic growth that the new sustainable development goals (SDGs) seek to eradicate.
“This grass is unbelievable. It’s like magic. You give it to the cow and the impact is immediate. After just one week of feeding it to my cow, milk production rose by three litres and kept going up,” said Albernus Mulwa when the Business Daily visited his farm in Kanzalu village.
The 32-year-old from Kangundo is one of the more than 1,000 Kenyan farmers participating in the field trials of Brachiaria grass.
He said he first learned about the grass variety during a field demonstration day at Kalro Katumani branch.
Farmers were offered practical intensive training on various aspects of the grass before they were eventually allowed to plant it.
“I used to rely on Napier and it was good. But this new grass is much better. It’s the best. And so I even want to cultivate it in more acres of my land,” he said.
The first part of the project, already underway in Kenya and Rwanda, involves bringing back to Africa some of the high yielding climate-smart Brachiaria grass varieties doing well in South America.
As they have been away from ‘home’ for such a long time, these grasses evolved through breeding or other natural process to be able to withstand environmental conditions, pests and diseases specific to South American countries.
Therefore, before they are fully reintroduced and commercialised in Africa, researchers are first conducting field trials to identify varieties that can cope with environmental conditions here.
The preliminary results are promising. They have indicated an increase in milk production of about 20 to 40 per cent in Kenya, and up to 100 per cent in Rwanda where trials began much earlier.
Studies comparing Brachiaria and traditionally used high-quality forages like Napier and Rhodes grass are still underway in Kenya.
But results from Rwanda show that controlled on-farm feeding with Brachiaria led to an increase in milk production of 37 per cent over Napier feeding.
Similarly, substitution of Napier with Brachiaria led to animal weight gain of about 205 grammes daily over duration of four months when cows were fed on the wonder grass.
“The weight gain shows that Brachiaria is also good for meat production,” explained Dr Sita Ghimire, the lead scientist of the Brachiaria project at BecA-ILRI Hub.
With these positive results, the grass is already boosting livelihoods of ASAL small-scale farmers who are major players in Kenya’s livestock industry.
David Mbithi, another Kenyan farmer is counting his gains.
“Since I began using Brachiaria, the profit I get from my milk has tripled and I am just getting started. The grass grows so fast allowing me to harvest every four months,” he said.
Kangundo region is semi-arid but farmers are able to enjoy a constant supply of animal forage since Brachiaria grass thrives all year round, retaining a green appearance — appealing to livestock — even during dry seasons.
Compared to Napier which has large stems, the Brachiaria grass has numerous leaves (main forage) while stems take only a small part of the plant.
“So my cows just consume a little amount of Brachiaria. But they produce a lot of milk,” said Mr Mbithi.
Grass leaves are usually more palatable and easily digestible. Stems on the other hand are tough. Animals, therefore, spend a lot of time chewing and trying to digest them.
“This is wasted energy that would have gone into the production of meat and milk,” says Dr Ghimire.
Aside from the starch, by the time Brachiaria is ready for harvesting — usually after six months — it possesses protein quantity of about 12 per cent that can be sustained over a long period.
With Napier, the protein concentration often starts diminishing after about four months.
Giving cows a balanced nutritious feed, boosts milk and meat production. After a bumper harvest, Brachiaria can easily be dried in the sun and conserved as hay for sale or future use.
On the contrary, Napier cannot make hay. It has to be preserved as silage (green fodder) whose processing is usually deemed complicated and labour intensive.
Due to its large root system, Dr Ghimire said, the grass improves soil structure, organic matter, water infiltration and guards against soil erosion hence improving soil fertility.
Brachiaria grass is also an efficient user of nitrogen thus requiring minimal fertiliser or manure growth to thrive. It mitigates climate change by acting as carbon sinks.
Through the project, the scientists seek to provide alternatives that farmers can use as animal forage.
OVER RELIANCE ON NAPIER
They note that the current over reliance on Napier is making the grass vulnerable to diseases such as Napier stunt. It does not also do well in most dry lands.
“We aren’t trying to replace the Napier or other grasses. We are simply looking for other feed options that farmers can rely on to boost livestock production in the country,” Dr Njarui, the researcher at KARLO said.
Even though the Brachiaria research initiative mainly seeks to address challenges faced by livestock farmers in ASALs, the trials are taking place in both high and low altitude areas in the country — representing the vast livestock industry in Kenya that stand to benefit from this grass.
The regions include Katumani in eastern Kenya, Mtwapa at the Coast, Oljororok in central and Kitale in western Kenya.
Because the grass is yet to be commercialised — as the trials are still ongoing — its increasing demand is being met by farmer-to-farmer transfer of vegetative planting material (splits).
Interested Kenyans are linking up with the about 1,500 farmers participating in the trial from different regions of the country to get planting material.
The researchers are also looking at ways of producing Brachiaria seed locally to further speed up its commercialisation. The seed will also be primed for the export market.
As they test improved Brachiaria varieties imported from South America, the researchers have also embarked on a mission of identifying and classifying different types of Brachiaria that still grow naturally across East Africa. The exercise has been completed in Kenya, Rwanda and Uganda but is ongoing in Tanzania and Ethiopia.
“We want to eventually start a Brachiaria breeding programme and develop our own improved varieties made in Africa,” said Dr Ghimire.
These initiatives aim at promoting the mass cultivation of the grass in Kenya and other African countries so that the continent can eventually also reap the benefits of ‘her’ grass.
As the research work continues, Africa is slowly but surely paving the way for the return of Brachiaria grass—her long lost child.
It is due to such promising convictions that in 2012 a consortium of scientists from the Beca-ILRI hub, Kalro, Centre for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT), Rwanda Agriculture Board (RAB) and GrasslaNZ initiated a research programme on Brachiaria grasses in the Eastern African region.
Kenya’s population growth - currently at about 40 million- is rapidly rising and expected to double by 2050.
For the government to adequately feed this booming population in future, agricultural analysts note that it cannot afford to ignore the livestock sector in ASALs whilst focusing solely on highland areas as has been the case in the past.
Lauded as a highly nutritive and climate-smart grass that is well adapted to drought and soils with low fertility, experts note that Brachiaria has the potential of addressing most of the challenges affecting the livestock industry in ASALs.