Why would a farmer uproot maize and beans, which feed millions of people, to plant grass?
Easy. To make more money.
Linus Mathenge, a retired teacher living in Matanya-Mare, Laikipia County, and his wife, Grace, also a retired teacher, have no regrets about their decision to turn away from food crops as they are reaping huge gains from their new venture.
Their farm lies about 20 kilometres from Nanyuki town in the expansive Laikipia Plateau famed for its ranches. It is an area well known for the rearing of beef cattle.
“We would initially spend hours on our farm planting and caring for maize and beans, but these crops did not do well. Erratic rains would leave us with less-than-adequate produce,” said Mr Mathenge.
He said he would earn on average Sh5,000 per acre of these food crops.
He finally had enough in 2013, and grabbed at a chance to grow something different when the opportunity came round. That year, the Laikipia County government offered to supply grass seeds to interested farmers to boost economic growth through agriculture.
Mathenge, after some research, plunged himself into the venture. It turned out to be much better than maize and beans farming. He has currently dedicated six acres to growing Boma Rhodes grass.
Growing grass, he said, is not as labour intensive as growing food crops.
“We only plant once and spray it with herbicides that inhibit weeds. We then let nature take its course. There is no need to weed. My work is to plant and then I let the grass grow,” Mathenge said.
A bale of grass fetches Sh200 during the wet season, and Sh300 when it is dry. An acre of grass produces an average of 300 bales. It is harvested once it reaches a height of about one-and-a-half metres.
The crop is harvested three times a year, and Mathenge says even after it is cut, grass can grow again without the need for new seeds. However, if it is harvested when it is completely dry, the chances of it regrowing are slim.
After expenses, the Mathenges rake in a minimum of Sh50,000 per acre of grass.
And it is not only the grass that earns them an income, but also the seeds. Once grass is harvested, its seeds are sold to farmers looking to grow the same species. A kilogramme of grass seeds costs between Sh700 and Sh1,000.
Mathenge’s success and belief in the crop has made it a popular option for his neighbours. Many of the farms that border his grow grass commercially for farmers who keep livestock.
Mathenge also uses his stock to feed his six dairy cows. He attributes his cows’ produce of about 30 litres of milk a day — a majority of which he sells — to the quality of the grass he grows.
He has since invested in a chaff cutter that cost Sh45,000, which is used to cut the grass into portions small enough to be fed to livestock. What the couple are now hoping to access is a baler, which they say would further reduce the costs for farmers who grow grass for commercial purposes.
“I think the county government can come in and provide a baler for use in this area,” said Mathenge.