Hay is a type of grass that is grown to feed livestock. It is usually a type of grass that grows tall and is usually cut, let to dry and then kept in storage. This can usually be bound with some type of tying material like string by hand or by machine.
We decided to grow hay so as to have feed for the cows during the dry season. The most common hay grown in Kenya is boma rhodes. It grows relatively well and can be quite tall when it receives adequate rainfall and fertilizer. It can also be cut at least twice a year in ideal conditions. I believe the other reason it is popular with farmers locally is also because it is palatable to the cows and nutritious especially when cut at the right stage.
Growing hay requires adequate land preparation. It begins with clearing the land and involves cutting overgrowth, weeds, brushes and any trees that will not be needed. The next stage is digging or ploughing the land. Next the big soil lumps are broken up using a harrow. This may need to be done more than once to attain a fine tilth required by the boma rhodes seed. This is due to the tiny seed size.
The seed is then sown. Since the seed is so tiny and fine, it is a good idea to mix it in with saw dust or other similar material. This is because we usually sow by hand using broadcast method. If planting using machinery, the saw dust can be skipped as the machine will have some sort of precision when planting the seed. It requires a seeding rate of 6 kilos per acre.
Planting should also be timed to coincide with the rainy season to ensure good germination. Irrigation can also be an option though flood irrigation should be avoided due to the high chance of the seed being washed away.e seed should be buried very shallow due to its size to ensure germination.
After the grass has germinated and is starting to grow, the field should be scouted regularly for weeding purposes. When the grass is very young weeding is done manually by plucking them. Once the grass is taller, a selective herbicide is used.
The first season after establishing a boma rhodes field, the grass will grow sparsely. It should continue to grow thicker and cover all the land after the second season onwards.
Some tasks like scouting and weeding should be done continuously during the growth of the hay. Others like fertilization should be done at the bolt stage when there is very vigorous growth.
Boma rhodes requires well drained neutral soil for good germination to occur. Soil testing should be done before planting to know if additional measures such as liming should be done.
When the boma rhodes grass has matured and flowered, it usually has a star like filament with reddish hue. It is usually quite a sight especially when pure stand as it looks like a thick greenish reddish carpet in the field.
The grass should be cut when it has the reddish hue ans still has the whitish filaments attached to the reddish heads. This is because it will not have dropped the seeds. At this stage it has the highest crude protein. Cutting the grass after this stage will reduce its crude protein value and thus be less beneficial to the livestock.
Once the weather forecast has been considered for at least 2-3 days of good sunshine, the grass is cut and let to dry for at least a few hours to at least a day, depending on the weather, how well the grass is spread out to dry and how thick and tall the growth was. Once it has lost at least 70% of its water content, the baling can begin.
At first we used to do everything by hand, but is proved to be expensive and time consuming to send people out with machetes(pangas) and sickles to cut, spread, collect and sheaf the hay. When manually done it never took less than a week, even with people working flat out.
The hay is then collected onto sheaves, tied up and stored in the store.
Mechanization has made the work easier as the whole process can take a minimum of 2 days, good weather being the only determining factor. I actually really enjoy mowing the hay with the tractor. The only thing is that it tends to be dusty because of the grass pollen and dust. A handkerchief over the nose or a face mask is usually a good idea when working on hay.
We usually bale the hay into the small rectangular ones. This is because it is the most common baler found around. Also the bales which weigh from 15 to 20 kilos average are easier to handle without machinery.
Would I do it again?
Feed is the most important requirement when going into animal production. It can constitute 50% or more of the cost of production. Dairy cow production falls squarely into this category. Hay is one of the important feeds for dairy production. The only other important feed being silage. Boma rhodes grass made into hay is good as kept in a dry well aerated place, can keep for long. This is especially important for projecting feeding of the cows during the dry period, when pasture may be sparse and need to be supplemented.
From about 3 acres of h we can get a minimum of 500 bales and a maximum of about 800, when the weather and fertilizer application is adequate.
This supply of hay is usually just enough to feed our herd in between the two cuttings. During the dry period, silage is also added to the hay to feed the cows. This helps further out the stock of the hay.
As feed is an integral part of animal production, and hay is one important feed source, I would not only continue growing it, but also advocate for any other serious farmer keeping grazing animals to consider growing it too.