Community finds lifeline in hay in face of prolonged drought

Bales of hay stacked during the annual ASK show at Jamhuri show grounds. [Silas Otieno, Standard]

In Laikipia County where arid lands and erratic rainfall have plagued farmers for years, a new glimmer of hope has emerged.

Farmers have found hope in an unexpected place: hay farming once an unfamiliar concept. After enduring five consecutive seasons of failed rains, these farmers have now embraced hay farming.

Through a community initiative known as Tigithi Hay Shed, farmers are finding a lifeline, ensuring their animals have sustenance even in the face of prolonged drought.

Joseph Muhio, a local farmer, spoke with optimism about the Tigithi project, a communal hay shed designed to store hay for dairy and beef animals.

"This project helps us harvest pasture when it's plenty, and then we preserve the rest for use during dry seasons. It has transformed our lives," he exclaimed. With a capacity of 22,000 bales, Tigithi Hay Shed has provided a storage solution for 50 farmers in the area.

Muhio, who invested in 400 bales for his nine cattle, highlighted the economic impact. "I sold 400 bales at sh 350 per bale, providing much-needed income for my family. Hay farming has given us stability amid the uncertainties of weather."

Kinoti, another farmer in the region, shared the daily challenges faced by small-scale livestock keepers. "I have two cows which are zero grazing, but my neighbors have exotic animals. The farms are not so big; a person with a large farm pride on one-acre piece of land," he said.

He revealed that their animals walk for over 10 kilometres in search of pasture because their farming space is so limited.

"We can buy hay at cost, but some hay is of low quality. One bale goes at sh400. If it doesn't rain, even the grass in the forest goes dry. We buy hays made from wheat husks; our farms are small; even napier grass is not sustainable," he lamented, highlighting the struggle faced by many farmers.

Sammy Sakita, the Lewa Conservancy Community Liaison Officer, acknowledged the challenges faced by farmers due to the competition for pasture between livestock, wildlife, and the community. "Climate change and drought have exacerbated these challenges. However, initiatives like Tigithi Hay Shed provide hope," he explained, emphasizing the importance of collaborative efforts.

Daniel Muraguri, the Livestock Production Officer in Laikipia County, emphasized the comprehensive approach. "We focus on livestock breeding, grass reseeding, disease control, and hay reserves. These strategies not only enhance animal health but also ensure a sustainable meat value chain," he explained.

Elkana Kipkoech, the Hay Program Assistant for Central Highlands Ecosystem Foodscape (CHEF) at Centre for Training and Integrated Research in ASAL Development (CETRAD) shared insights into the challenges faced by farmers in Laikipia.

He emphasised the importance of engaging with farmers to understand their fodder preferences, turning this process into a learning experience to address the area's unique challenges in animal feed.

According to him, they leverage seasons of abundance, effectively storing surplus grass to make it available during dry periods. He mentioned their data-driven approach, collecting information from farmers to determine the most beneficial fodder varieties for livestock keepers.