Most dairy farmers in Uganda find difficulty in getting nutritious feeds for their animals. This usually results in low production.THE SOLUTION
Many organisations, including the The Green Elephant are coming up with fast-growing grass
Started about two years ago, The Green Elephant (TGE) is adding value and improving pastures, especially grass. The farm has a factory for processing briquettes from waste wood and grass, plus around three acres for growing grass. The farm has also got another branch in Luwero, sitting over 25 acres and is specifically used for growing grass.
The main forage here is improved napier grass. Napier, commonly known as elephant grass (pennisetum purpureum) is a major feed among smallholder dairy farmers in Uganda, especially those who practise zero grazing.
According to Chris Littlejohn, the in-charge of the pasture development at the farm, Uganda’s climates is good because of the two six-month growing seasons.
“In Europe, growing season can only last four to five months,” Littlejohn says.
He further explains that, there is grass known as ‘energy grass’ that improves fertility in a very short time. Such grass includes napier or elephant grass.
“Energy grasses, of which napier is the main type in Africa, have the ability to deliver high yields on poor 26 NEW VISION, Friday, April 20, 2018 HARVEST MONEY Creative solutions to the challenges you face on your farm FARMING Innovations THE CHALLENGE Most dairy farmers in Uganda find difficulty in getting nutritious feeds for their animals. This usually results in low production. THE SOLUTION Many organisations, including the The Green Elephant are coming up with fast-growing grass Farmers to get improved grass soils and they improve soil quality,” he says. Littlejohn explains that in countries like Thailand, energy grasses are used to regenerate depleted soils of paddy rice fields.
Napier or elephant grass has been cross-bred with other crops to get varieties with improved growth as well as protein and sugar content.
“Two notable new cultivars are sweet napier, napier x sugarcane and Pak Chong, napier x millet,” Littlejohn says.
Sweet napier, napier x sugarcane and Pak Chong, napier x millet are the varieties that are being grown on this farm. The latter has higher protein content and the former is higher sugar content than native napier. Yields of Pak Chong on good soils in Thailand reach an impressive 450 tonness per hectare annually.
“Pak Chong was recently introduced into Uganda by The Green Elephant and the average weight of the first harvested plants after four months of growth was 15kg. At a planting rate of 10,000 per hectare, it translates into 150 tonnes,” Littlejohn says. This was despite the fact that it was planted on poor soils with fertilisers and irrigation. Regrowth to harvest time, once established, is two months with a yield of 60 tonnes per hectare.
The improved napier also has the advantage that its production cycle is seven years, so establishment costs are once in seven years.
“There is no requirement for annual tillage and once established, it will outcompete most weeds, reducing the need for weed control.
The main diseases and fungal challenges are stunting disease and smut,” Littlejohn explains.
Harvesting is done by cutting off the stems about 30cm from the base and then trimming off the upper leaves for feeding cattle while the stems cuttings are re-planted.
Sweet napier produces an average of 25 stem cuttings per plant and Pak Chong 50.
“For Pak Chong, only 50 plants are required to provide enough cuttings for one hectare or one-and-half acres and this is repeated every two months. The one hectare will then provide enough cuttings for 50 hectares,” he says.
The role of TGE is to utilise the growth potential of the leading napier cultivator to, in the first instance, develop a profitable forage producing plantation and secondly to enable this model or attributes of it, to be adopted by other farmers.
The knock-on benefit will be the increased supply of feeds to the cattle industry.
Dr Jolly Kabirizi, a forage and livestock consultant, who worked with National Agricultural Research Organisation (NARO) for over 30 years, says the introduction of these fast growing and high yielding livestock grasses will greatly improve the sector.
At the moment, the farm has started selling cuttings to farmers, while the leaves are sold to cattle keepers as feeds. A 60kg bag of cuttings goes for sh20,000.
Farmers around Kampala, most of whom practise zero grazing, now have a guaranteed supply of quality forage.
“The quality of cattle is good and yields of 35 litres per day at peak yield are achievable by farmers who feed their cows adequately,” Littlejohn says.
Paul Magala, a zero grazer with three dairy cows, who has used improved Napier says that his cow’s milk yields are improving. “Milk production goes up by three litres when you feed with this napier every day,” he says.
The rapid growth and high yields napier grass requires regular application of nitrogen (N) and phosphorus (P) either through farmyard manure or inorganic fertilisers such as urea and NPK. High yields of Napier grass can be maintained with application of dairy cattle slurry, a mixture of cow dung, urine and feed left over, available from the zerograzing stable.
This should be buried between napier grass rows to avoid loss of nitrogen by volatilisation. The slurry is applied after the onset of long and short rainy seasons.
Napier grass is ready for harvesting 3 - 4 months after planting when the plants are about one metre high depending on soil fertility, soil moisture and overall management.
Cut the plants to about 5cm from the ground during the rainy season and 10 to 15 cm during the dry season. Regrowth can be harvested when it reaches 2-3 feet (60-90 cm) high about eight weeks between cuts.
Napier grows best in deep, fertile, well-draining soils. It is drought tolerant and can be used as dry season reserve in dry areas and can be obtained from plants about to flower.
Littlejohn and The Green Elephant worker prepare to cut napier grass on their plantation. Photos by Joshua Kato
Napier grass is easy to propagate and manage.
Littlejohn is optimistic that the new varieties will improve dairy production