By Makeli phiri
Genesis 1:30 “And every wild beast of the earth and every flying creature of the heavens and to everything moving upon the earth in which there is life as a soul, I have given all green vegetation for food.”
The above quotation shows how important the grass and some plants are to the nutrition of the cattle kept by our farmers.
Therefore, the natural grassland which is made up of a number of plants viz a viz grasses, legumes, other herbaceous species that is trees and shrubs, all these sustain our animals. However, as today man plays an important role with his farming activities in determining the balance of these greens for the livestock. The proportion of these is influenced by some activities brought about by man for example fire.
Fire does not start on its own in a field or bush. If well used it is a very good tool in controlling vegetation because the relatively needed plants would be stable once established. This can be considered as creating a climax vegetation.
In livestock farming especially cattle, grasses are the most important components of the natural veld. These are mostly fast maturing grass especially during our rainy season. Within six or so weeks during the December to January period the grasses make most of their growth and then flower and set seed. Once this is done they almost stop growing.
Should cattle keep grazing before they set seed, then, they would keep growing longer.
The only problem is that when subjected to this grazing usually they do not maintain a high nutritive value when it comes to nutrition in addition do not produce very much dry matter which is so much needed by cattle. This can also depend on the soils where such grasses are growing as well as rainfall.
The two mentioned usually result in low quality and quantity of this growth affected by the soil and rainfall where the grass is growing to have low production, especially if this is meant for dairy cattle. But for beef animals it is okay.
Dambos in certain areas do give good grass growth during the dry season. There, the dairy cattle can benefit and contribute to high milk production during such periods. A dambo is an area of land that is usually poorly drained, but gives good grass during the dry season.
Because the natural grassland in most cases is low in productivity during the most part of the year, this calls for the need to introduce improved pasture for the dairy animals. Improved pasture would contribute massively to the milking herd which require the best quality feed. Once improved pasture is established this would also call for stocking – rate. The reason is to set a level which allows the animals eat to appetite and be able to select a high proportion of grass leaves and not stems.
Proper stocking rate maintains the productivity of the natural grassland. Overgrazing would lead to a number of nutritious and productive plants to be reduced and consequently a reduction in production of the animal. But should the farmer think of increasing the stocking rate, the amount of grass equally must be increased.
This can be through bush clearing by either ringbarking the big trees so as they dry they let the amount of light reach the grass needed by these plants. If it is stumping this may require more labour and this is the most effective.
Plenty of bush regrowth on cleared land does reduce grass growth. Regrowth is encouraged or can be controlled by allowing grass to grow without grazing or being disturbed by the animals. Such grasses if time allows burning can be introduced but must be controlled, young bushes are easily killed.
This kind of practice can be done every three or four years in order to maintain good bush control.
To have a substantial improvement in cattle productivity from the natural grass is to introduce pasture legumes, these can improve grass growth by increasing nitrogen levels in the soil and also increase protein intake. So cattle which would be grazing on such pasture would produce more meat or milk over the period put to that area.
Establishment of improved pasture would also be very beneficial in areas of crop production and also in the control of erosion. Consistent crop production of an area makes the soil get depleted nutrients wise as the crop draws nutrients year after year from the land. The fertility of the soil drops to an extent that lower crop yields are obtained. Such a piece of land once put to grazing where properly fertilized and managed pasture which has legumes included will have the effect of restoring the fertility of the soil to its former level. Improved pasture helps to break the building of weeds, pests and diseases in a crop field, once this is established for a number of years. Such is controlled. In tobacco production this has been used and is still used to control eelworms which are a problem in this crop. Tobacco farmers prefer to use Katombora Rhodes grass to fight this pest.
In addition to the above pasture establishment in areas that are prone to erosion would help to stabilize the soil. It forms a good soil cover therefore prevents, soil erosion and allows rain water when it rains to sink into the soil. Pastures planted in stream and dam catchment areas would help preventing flooding equally also in strip cropping on sloping land.
Introduction of improved pasture is because in so many areas of the country especially under traditional and emerging livestock farmers, Grazing areas in such places mostly are unsuitable coupled with low rainfall to some extent or poor soil.
It can also be attributed sometimes to the farmer’s lack knowledge about pasture species suitable for such areas. This is where the agricultural extension officer becomes handy especially now when the field of extension officers is to be beefed up by the employment of staff hence, reducing the ratio of contact farmers by each extension worker. These can also now introduce the right seed or planting material which might not be available.
Improved pasture performs well (i.e. species) under good soil fertility conditions. Therefore, for cattle farmers who are venturing into establishing pasture for the animals or livestock must be prepared to apply fertilizer to start the pasture since it is treated as a crop. For a dairy farm this is a must as this pays the farmer as his milk production makes it worthwhile to invest in this. To do this the farmer must consult the extension agricultural officer for advise on the species which may adapt well to that particular area or land.
To be continued….