Farmers who are at pains to make their cows produce more milk should give a shot at Brachiaria grass. This grass has mesmerized farmers who have planted and used it. Dairy farmers who have tried it in Malindi, Kilifi, Machakos, Makueni, Uasin Gishu, Trans Nzoia, Nyandarua, Nyeri, Embu and Meru have reported massive boosts in milk production without supplementation with concentrates.
From a distance the grass looks like Elephant (nappier) grass (penisetum puperum), but on a closer look, you notice significant differences. It does not have the irritating stinging hair, a quality that makes it very attractive for cut and carry. Its thick leaves make it hard for weeds to thrive. But before we get into the details of Brachiaria grass, let’s take a second look at Nappier grass which for a long time has been the grass of choice for dairy farmers in Kenya.
Nappier grass has been the most promising and high yielding fodder among dairy farmers in Kenya giving dry matter yields that surpassed most tropical grasses. It has a crude protein content of 7 to 10 percent on average. Serious problems of disease outbreaks have threatened to wipe out the grass. Diseases such as the Nappier Grass Stunt Disease and the Head Smut Disease have devastated small holder dairy farmers in Western Kenya and Central Kenya respectively, forcing them to find alternative fodder or abandon dairy farming all together. Brachiaria grass is proving to be a better alternative even without the Napier grass disease problem.
The crude protein content of Brachiaria grass ranges from 9 to 20 percent. Other advantages the grass has over Nappier grass and other tropical grasses in Kenya is its high plant vigour producing more biomass even on low fertile soils and fast recovery after grazing. It is tasty to livestock, more nutritious and easy to digest. It is drought tolerant, has less pests and diseases and produces less greenhouse gases per litre of milk produced. It can play a significant role in soil improvement, soil conservation, increasing bio-diversity and minimizing greenhouse gas emissions. More importantly, Brachiaria grass produces seeds which do not lose the hybrid vigour. Unlike Nappier grass and being very aggressive, it is difficult to intercrop Brachiaria grass in long term associations with fodder legumes. But it can be used in crop pasture integrated systems where the grass seed is oversown on maize crop planted earlier for the production of high quality forage in the off season.
Brachiaria grass consists of over 100 species but so far only four varietiess are cultivated as pasture in Kenya. Brachiaria decumbens cv. Basilisk, B. brizantha cv. MG4, B. brizantha cv. Piata and B. brizantha cv. Xaraes are the best varieties for semi-arid, sub humid and humid areas. Brachiaria hybrid cv. Mulatto II is suitable for coastal low lands and many regions in Kenya.
Agro Ecological Zones
Brachiaria grows well in a wide range of agro-ecological zones but does best where rainfall is above 700 mm and mean temperature exceeds 19o Celsius. Lower temperatures slow down the growth rates, hence the grass performs poorly 1800 meters above sea level. It grows on a wide range of soils including those of low fertility. Locations that experience longer dry seasons of over 5 months are not suitable, unless there is provision for irrigation.
The seeds require fine soil therefore prepare a very good seedbed. Plough, harrow and thoroughly mix soil with well cured manures at a rate of 2 to 4 tonnes per acre. Where the soils are low in phosphorous, apply 100 kg triple super phosphate (TSP) fertilizer per acre.
Brachiaria grass can be propagated by seeds or vegetative methods. Planting materials include seeds, root splits and stem cuttings. Vegetative propagation can be done on a small scale but may not apply to large scale farming.
Plant at the onset of rains. Create shallow furrows (1 – 2 cm deep) spaced at 50 cm. Drill the seeds along the furrows and cover with light soil. An acre of land requires 2 – 3 kg of good quality seeds. Alternatively, sow the seeds in a nursery bed and transplant the seedlings at the age of six to eight weeks. In the nursery bed, sow the seeds in furrows, spaced at 5 cm and mulch with dry grass.
Plant the Brachiaria root splits on each hill at a spacing of 50 cm between rows and 25 cm within rows. For proper establishment plant at the onset of rains or irrigate if the rains are scarce. A total of 64,000 to 96000 root splits are required per acre.
Manure and fertilizer
Pasture in the cut and carry system removes substantial amount of soil nutrients therefore to maintain soil fertility, it is necessary to apply 2 – 4 tonnes of well cured manure per acre. Brachiaria is highly responsive to nitrogen and application of 80 kg calcium ammonium nitrate (CAN) fertilizer per acre per season is advised.
Weed infestation is likely at early stages of the crop cultivation. Remove weeds manually, or use herbicides to control broad-leaved weeds.
Pests and diseases
Red spider mite and shoot borers are the common pests that attack Brachiaria grass. Some of the diseases observed in Kenya include rusts, ergot, smut and leaf spots.
Optimal intake of digestible nutrients occurs when pasture utilization coincides with the late head stage or early bloom stage. After sowing, the grass takes about 21 weeks to flower and this is the most suitable stage for feeding livestock. Regrowth takes about 3 weeks. Harvest the first crop five months after planting by cutting at a height of 5 cm above the ground. Harvest the next crop after every 8 – 12 weeks depending on rainfall, soil fertility and management. The grass can persist up to 20 years with good management.
Brachiaria grass is suitable for both cut and carry and grazing systems, and can be conserved as hay or silage.
With good management, the grass can yield up to 140 kg per hectare of seeds with maximum yield at the second year of establishment. The average dry matter yield ranges from 10 to 40 tonnes per hectare depending on soils, rainfall and management.
Breeding of Brachiaria grass is a low- risk and highly profitable enterprise that will have a major impact on animal production in Kenya. There is a growing interest in Brachiaria and the demand for planting material is increasing by the day. Farmers with entrepreneurial skills can seize this golden opportunity for Brachiaria seed production.