For many farmers, growing your own hay to feed your livestock is one satisfying step closer to a self-sufficient farm. If you’re lucky enough to have several large, open fields on your farm, growing your own hay can be a very viable project. But as with any crop, growing hay has its share of complexities and challenges that must be considered before you get started.
Whether you need it for livestock or other uses, growing hay at home is a cheap and easy alternative to purchasing it in bulk. Depending on your preferences, you can use grass, alfalfa, or a mixture of both to make hay. Once you’ve grown your crop, all you have to do is cut, dry, and store your hay for use as needed. Let’s look at the Rhodes grass.
There are several varieties of Rhodes grass with few differences such as ecological (its relationship with other varieties and also with the environment) preferences, the productivity levels and the ability to withstand grazing at the establishment period. Furthermore, there are also a number of methods that one can use to plant Rhodes grass.
Varieties of Rhodes grass
Those common in the country include Boma, X-Tozi, Elmba, Mbarara and Masaba.
Boma: This drought-tolerant perennial grass that grows up to 90cm high and is very good for hay production is the most common in the country. Moisture requirement is 600-850mm, and does not tolerate acidic soils. It prefers loose textured loam soil of volcanic origin. It prefers pure stand (grown on its own), but it can also be under sown with oat or maize. Propagation is normally by use of seeds, but stolons (creeping stems that have nodes that have the ability to develop roots) and root splits can be used on small plots. It reaches maturity for grazing at 4-6 months after planting and its highest production is in the second year.
It produces up to 300 hay bales/acre with cutting intervals of 6-8 weeks and produces good quality hay at early flowering stage. Seeds are available from leading producers in the country and after the first batch, one can subsequently make their own seeds from this lot. Up to 350kg/ha is achievable.
X-Tozi: The grass was introduced in the semi-arid coastal areas in 1984. It has since spread to other moisture stress parts of the country that include Makueni, Kwale, Tana River, Kilifi and Lamu. It is a perennial plant that grows to a height of 30-150cm. It spreads through stolons and runners. It prefers sandy/loam soils of volcanic origin. The seeds germinate easily but they are fluffy and hence difficult to handle. Moisture requirement is 600-2,000mm per year. Seeds and cuttings are available at Kalro offices of Mariakani, Mtwapa, Kiboko and Msabaha. The grass grows in all arid and semi-arid areas of the country.
Elmba: The grass has a high seeding vigour and forage production. It is suitable for a wide range of climatic conditions, but does best in sandy soils. It does better at attitudes of 1,200–1,850m above sea level and moisture of 1,000–2,500mm. It has a high growth rate suitable for intensive grazing.
Mbarara and Masaba: Mbarara was introduced from Uganda. It is somehow stemmy, very productive and gives high seed yield with good vigor. Masaba is leafy and productive but the seeds are affected by Smut, a fungi disease that affects the seeds, leaves, stems and flower parts to form a sootlike mass.
The East African Dairy Development Programme (EADD) agricultural initiative has a well-documented pasture establishment. The methods include direct sowing, under-sowing or over-sowing.
Direct sowing is establishing pasture grasses as pure stands without a nurse or cover crop.
Seedbed preparation: On previously cropped land, plough towards the end of the preceding rainy season. Follow with dry-season ploughing and harrowing for weed control. On virgin land, three ploughings and two harrowings may be required to make a good seedbed.
Sowing time and method
Sow as early as possible in the rainy season. In areas that receive bimodal rainfall, sow during the short rains. This timing has the advantages of eliminating annual weeds and also guaranteeing harvesting for hay making in a dry period.
Sow seeds close to the surface (not more than 2cm) to get them in contact with moist soil so that they will absorb moisture and germinate.
Either broadcast grass seeds or drill in rows 30–40cm apart.
Mix the seeds with sawdust, rough sand or phosphate fertiliser for even distribution. If the seed is mixed with fertiliser, plant immediately to prevent the fertiliser from scorching the seed.
Grass seeds are most effectively sown with a wheat drill and hand sowing is recommended for small acreages.
Immediately after sowing, compact the seedbed to enhance germination of the grass seed by improving contact with the soil. Use tree branches or trample by foot on small plots. In mechanised farms, use a roller. The seeds germinate in 1-7 days.
Prepare the Soil
A healthy, attractive grass starts with proper site preparation. Optimum soil conditions boost successful seed germination and support healthy turf growth. To prepare your soil for planting, do the following:
Test your soil. Proper soil pH is critical to a healthy, thriving crop. Most grasses do best when soil pH is between 6.0 to 7.5.4 Taking accurate soil samples is simple to do on your own, but you’ll need to send those samples to a reputable soil laboratory for testing. OXFARM ORGANIC can help with soil testing kits and information about testing facilities. The test results will give you an accurate picture of the state of your soil’s pH and nutrient levels, plus recommendations for changes you should make.
Amend to alter soil pH. If your soil test shows that your soil pH is outside the range for healthy turf growth, soil amendments can restore pH balance. In areas where soil is acidic, having overly low pH, you may need lime to restore nutrient availability. Always follow your soil test recommendations and product label instructions carefully.
Add nutrients to soil. The recommendations from your soil test will outline your soil’s nutrient needs. A high-quality fertilizer can help restore optimal nutrient levels for healthy grass growth. Very sandy soil or heavy, compacted soil affect seed germination, growth and the overall health of your grass. For healthy grass growth, soil needs to contain sufficient air, yet it also needs to retain the nutrients and moisture grass needs. Improve your new soil’s aeration and water penetration by removing rocks and incorporating organic matter, such as compost, at a depth of 2 to 4 inches before planting.
Insect pests, such as alfalfa weevils, can also be serious problems. For large infestations of alfalfa weevils, which can destroy an entire crop of alfalfa, spraying with insecticides may be necessary, although another solution is to cut the hay earlier than usual, which kills the weevils while preserving the hay from further damage. Consult an expert to determine the best approach.
It’s also important to be on the lookout for blister beetles. Although they don’t usually cause much damage to crops, blister beetles contain a bodily fluid that causes blisters, and horses that eat hay containing the beetles will develop internal blisters that can cause death. Blister beetles are usually found in bunches, and should you discover them in portions of your fields, it might be wise to avoid cutting those sections rather than risk baling the beetles in your hay.
Hay can be baled in a variety of shapes and sizes, depending on available equipment and personal preference. Small square bales and large round bales are the most common; large square bales that weigh similar to round bales also exist.
Small square bales require more handling than larger bales, but offer the benefit of being more manageable. Weighing between 40 to 60 pounds, they can easily be moved around by a single person, whereas machinery is required for moving large square and round bales.