Braving the midday sun, Jane Njoki carries trays of lush, green sprouts to feeding troughs as her cows moo impatiently in a nearby shed.
“They can’t wait to have their lunch,” said the dairy farmer as she arranged the trays in a neat line. “But three years ago, they nearly starved to death as there was no pasture left.” Recurring dry spells across are destroying crops and pastures, starving animals and leaving millions of people at risk of food insecurity, say experts.
To guarantee livestock fodder even when pastures are dry, farmers like Njoki — working in Timau ward, central Kenya — are switching to hydroponics, a soil-less culture technology which uses less water and land and can yield up to 10 times the crop grown in an open field. The method mixes barley, wheat, maize and other grains with water in trays and takes only days to mature — compared to months for ordinary fodder like Napier grass, said Donatus Njoroge, a researcher at Mount Kenya University and director at Hydroponics Kenya, a business that teaches the technique to farmers.
“Barley and wheat sprouts are high in nutrients and proteins, so good for livestock,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Severe drought and lack of pasture nearly forced Njoki to sell her five dairy cows in 2014.
“I was spending over Sh5,000 (about $50) per month on grass for my livestock,” she said.
She started growing fodder using hydroponics after hearing about the technology at a training session, and says she now produces enough of it to feed her cattle, even during droughts.
“My cows’ milk production is no longer affected by drought,” she explained. “I earn between Sh15,000 and Sh20,000 ($147-196) per month by selling milk to local hotels and residents, compared to less than Sh12,000 ($118) before,” she added. Njoroge said the fact that hydroponics uses cereals like barley, rather than staple crops like maize, ensures farmers do not need to deprive themselves of food to feed their livestock.
Samuel Mbugua, director of Grandeur Africa, another company that trains farmers to grow hydroponic fodder, thinks it also helps avert conflict between herders.
“Herders in arid areas often encroach on other farmers’ land in search of grazing areas, if they don’t have enough pasture,” he said. Although it has helped improve farmers’ fortunes, hydroponics is not without its challenges, said Njoroge.
Many farmers lack the financial resources to buy the trays and shelter needed to grow hydroponic fodder, he explained.
“A simple shed can cost 10,000 shillings ($100) to set up, but smallholder farmers often don’t have that capital,” he said.
And while hydroponic fodder needs less water than varieties like Napier grass to grow, it still requires about a litre per kilo of fodder, he added.
“So we encourage farmers to harvest rainwater from their rooftops or from the ground,” he said. More needs to be done to teach farmers the specialist skills associated with hydroponics, with not enough extension officers available to visit farmers, say experts.