Forage Finder: a list of recommended forage varieties for Kenya
Damaris Kikwai is working on a list of recommend forage varieties for farmers and dairy professionals in the NEADAP community. Forages such as grasses, cereals and legumes but also crop residues play a key role in milk production. But how to choose the forage that best fits in the situation and ambitions of your farm? In this article, Damaris explains why forages are important and how the Forage Finder is being developed. The Forage Finder will be launched by NEADAP in the next quarter.
The dairy sector in Kenya contributes 44% to the livestock GDP, 12% to the agricultural GDP and 4% to the national GDP highlighting its significance to the country’s economy (KDB, 2023). In Kenya, dairy cows produce approximately 3.9 billion litres of milk per year, primarily sourced from smallholder farmers who own land averaging between 0.2-3 ha. The National dairy masterplan 2010-2030 highlighted an increase in milk prices, indicating a rise in milk demand. However the production demand gap has resulted in a shortage of milk, leading to the country importing significant quantities of milk and milk products to meet the deficit as reported by Rademaker (et al., 2016)
The dairy sector in Kenya is marked by under-performance, primarily caused by issues related to feeding of dairy cattle but also the choice of breed and farm management skills play a role. The feeding issues include poor quality feeds, lack of technical expertise, limited access to credit and poor infrastructure. Solving these issues and improving forage production also reduces the competition for land resources with food crops.
Forages such as grasses and legumes but also crop residues play an important role in milk production because they provide the dairy cow with the necessary nutrients to maintain their body and produce milk. Dairy cows need a substantial portion of their diet in the form of fibre rich feeds, and they are able to utilize grasses and other herbaceous feeds which humans cannot digest. In addition, forages are a relatively cheap source of nutrients for the dairy cow.
In recent years, due to adverse weather conditions, farmers in Kenya have been faced with acute shortages of cultivated forages as well as grass in the natural grasslands. With increasing land pressure (less land per farmer and different land use options), successful and reliable forage production on the remaining land is increasingly important for a competitive dairy sector.
The Kenya National Dairy Masterplan 2010-2030 has proposed amongst others, increased acreage under pasture & fodder to enhance better feeding for increased animal productivity. Improved forages which are more productive per unit of land, yield more biomass of better quality (higher protein and/or lower fibre content) can play an important role in reducing the shortage and consequently high prices of (low quality) forage in the market.
Higher quality forages can meet a substantial part of the nutritional demands of the continuously increasing genetic potential of dairy cows in Kenya. Farmers can benefit from better forage production, reducing feed cost and giving cows the opportunity to express their dairy potential.
The NEADAP Forage Finder is a list of recommended, improved, forage varieties. The Forage Finder is a new guide for farmers and stakeholders in selection of suitable forage varieties and meeting the increased demand for quality forages in Kenya. This will ensure the sustainability of milk production and a persistent milk supply to the Kenyan dairy industry.
Firstly, it can help farmers make informed decisions about which forage seeds are available, which forage crop to plant considering soil characteristics, location and farming system (grassing, cut and carry, combined). This will increase the chances of a successful harvest and ensure that farmers are able to achieve the best possible yield from their land. Secondly, it gives farmers an option to choose as many forage varieties to spread risk in case of failure of one.
The Forage Finder can give guidance to farmers during decision making, but it is also important to provide farmers with information and technical expertise on how to plant, maintain, harvest, preserve and feed the forages and if need be organize access to training to reap the full benefits of improved forages.
Some of the parameters that NEADAPs Forage Finder has considered include:
The yield of a forage variety is a measure of how much biomass it produces per unit area. High yielding varieties can help farmers to maximize their land use and achieve higher overall forage production.
The nutritional quality of a forage variety is an important consideration to increase animal productivity. Some of the nutritional components of interest are: Metabolizable energy (ME), Crude protein (CP), Neutral Detergent Fibre (NDF, it is a parameter related to the amount of fibre in the feed). The fibre content affects negatively feed intake and rate of digestion of a forage.
Adaptability. The quality of the variety of being well adapted to the local climate and soil conditions to ensure optimal growth and survival (rain fall, altitude).
The ease of establishment is an important parameter to consider as it affects the cost and time required to establish a forage stand. For some species this depends on whether splits or seeds are used.
Tolerance for drought, pest and diseases. Drought tolerance is a key factor for forages under Kenyan conditions and can help farmers to maintain forage production during dry periods. Water use efficiency has been considered as a measure of a plants ability to withstand drought conditions. Pest and diseases resistant varieties can help minimize the need for chemical treatments and reduce the risk of crop failure.
Maturity refers to the time from planting to harvest. Early maturing varieties are at times preferred as the allow farmers to take advantage of the rainy season. Maturity for grasses, legumes and annuals differ. As a forage matures, maturation is associated with a decrease in the nutrient content, digestibility, and subsequent nutritional value of the forage. Grasses are best harvested at vegetative stage if fed fresh and for grass hay should be harvested after the grass becomes fully headed. It is recommended to harvest legumes at the bud stage and annuals at the dough stage.
Palatability affects the intake quantity and intake rate of a forage variety by ruminants.
Farming system The Forage Finder list has categorized the forages into different farming systems including cut and carry, grazing, hay making and silage making. A forage can be used in different systems. Even though all the discussed parameters above are important when compiling a list of recommended forage varieties, some information is still not available, and more research and testing needs to be done. Once the first version of the list is out it can be easily updated annually ad new information added as it surfaces.
In the Forage Finder, the categories of forages include:
- Cereal / grain crops Example; Maize, forage sorghum, oats, triticale, wheat. In general, this category is a good source of digestible energy with a high starch content. For example when whole maize plant is used for silage, the nutritional quality can vary depending on factors such as the growing conditions, stage of maturity at harvest and in this case, also the fermentation process.
- Tropical grasses- These are high in fibre content which can provide a good source of roughage for ruminants. Tropical grasses generally are characterized by low protein content, high fibre content and low digestibility. The fibre content of grasses and the protein content tend to have an inverse relationship. As grasses mature, a notable portion of the protein present may become indigestible as it becomes bound to the fibre.
- Forage legumes- forage legumes are generally higher in protein and are less fibrous compared to tropical grasses. They are digested more rapidly and allow a higher feed intake. It is important to note that biomass production of legumes is however less compared to grasses.
- Root crops- Root crops can be a valuable source of forage for livestock. They are used as a source of energy and they are especially useful during drought period when other feed sources may be scarce. They are able to tolerate different soil types and climatic condition. However, it is important to ensure that they are properly processed before feeding and to monitor their intake to avoid any potential health issues from the anti-nutritive factors in them. Sweet potato vines is the most popular root crop used as forage in the country. Others include cassava and yams.
Are you interested in learning more about the NEADAP Forage Finder?
Please contact Damaris Kikwai at email@example.com
Junior consultant NEADAP
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