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Perennial Droughts Have Caused Pasturelands to Dry Up

By Alfrique Mwana and Angela Mutiso

In the pastoral lands of Kenya, a prolonged crisis has been unfolding that threatens the very survival of local communities. Climate change has brought severe drought and uncertainty for decades, making it increasingly more complex for pastoral communities and other livestock herders to find adequate food and water for their all-important cattle herds. 

Perennial droughts have caused pasturelands to dry up, leading to conflicts between farmers and nomadic herders as they struggle bitterly over water and pasture. John Lenkume, an esteemed Maasai elder of the Inkisanie community, has witnessed the devastating effects of climate change and the struggle for resources in his community. “We depend entirely on our cows for milk, meat, trade, status, and income. But the grass is completely gone, most waterholes are bone dry, and our cows grow thinner daily. Too many have died. It breaks my heart to see,” Lenkume laments.

The increasing shortage of animal feed weighs heavily across Kenya’s arid and Semi-arid regions. Over 9 million herders rely almost entirely on livestock for their livelihood and well-being, possessing herds with an estimated worth exceeding US$1 billion.

For generations, livestock has formed the foundation of health, culture, and wealth for these communities – but the severe lack of fodder now threatens their entire way of life. The resultant scarcity of fodder and depletion of animals has also sparked intense new conflicts among destitute pastoralist communities. As resources disappear, violent clashes have erupted between farmers and herders struggling to control grazing lands, water sources, and cattle routes. Desperate farmers even encroach and attempt to fence off precious open rangelands, while pastoralists increasingly invade farms with their hungry herds.  

Experts estimate Kenya faces a national deficit of millions of metric tons of animal feed annually. The country requires an estimated 55 million metric tons to sustain nationwide cattle stocks. Still, actual productive capacity only meets around 40 per cent of this demand – leaving a supply gap of over 33 million metric tons per year for dairy and meat production. According to the Kenya Agriculture and Livestock Research Organization (KALRO), a primary driver lies in the grossly inadequate cultivation and production of cattle fodder crops; only 10% of Kenyan farmers engage in livestock feed agriculture. However, an unexpected solution may be on the horizon – a resilient Chinese grass called Juncao fodder experts believe could help bridge the severe national supply gap.

Juncao grass was invented by Professor Lin Zhanxi in China and introduced in Kenya in 2021 by Jack Liu, a fodder expert. He recognized the potential of Juncao grass to transform the fodder situation in Kenya. After conducting preliminary studies, Liu now grows the grass in his model farms and sells it to local dairy farmers as a new but sustainable crop for profiting the struggling livestock industry. This unique strain is called “magic grass” because it can change the country’s fodder situation. The succulent, fast-growing green plant thrives under heat and drought. It can resist the most common diseases and pests while packing up to 18% digestible protein in its soft, juicy stems. He says a good feed of juncao will increase milk production by 50%. Further, upon maturity, Juncao has the potential to produce 180 metric tonnes of fodder per acre of land.  

“This could truly be a game-changer on all fronts,” Liu declared regarding Juncao grass. Working in cooperation with national agriculture authorities and the KALRO research division, Liu developed rigorous protocols for controlled introduction, working for over eight months to pass quarantines and demonstrations before full approval was granted. Liu wasted no time implementing expansion plans and working closely with farms across Kenya to propagate the plant. He cultivated 130,000 acres for seed production within two years. Liu also set remarkably ambitious five-year goals to entirely transform national fodder production capabilities – to revolutionize the foundation of livestock feeding for Kenya’s current generation of farmers and many generations to come.  

Livestock practices have formed a solid cultural identity across Kenya for generations while driving significant portions of the nation’s economy. Yet despite their great tradition, farmers have continued to have challenges in addressing many emerging issues that now threaten the entire industry. Persistent land pressures, prolonged droughts, lack of feeds, chronic diseases, and unsupportive infrastructure have brought smallholders to the brink of collapse. As animal health and productivity degenerate, many have understood that superior feeding alternatives may offer the last hope for survival. 

In desperation before Juncao’s arrival, farmers developed Hydroponic Fodder systems to sprout green feed from grain. While the nutritious feed showed promise, the high infrastructure and energy costs soon rendered operations economically unfeasible for all but the wealthiest producers. Small-scale dairy farmers need help feeding their animals from maize husks or sugarcane husks after harvests. Juncao grass has since emerged as an attractive and affordable fodder alternative. Lucas Ole Saiya, a pastoralist in Kajiado County, decided to experiment with juncao grass on his small farm; the results have been excellent. His dairy cows immediately took to the sweet, tender grass. Milk productivity rose to 20% within weeks, and Ole Saiya has continued expanding his Juncao stand since.  

Liu emphasizes that his global vision transcends merely fodder production alone. By working closely with smallholder farms to improve yields, generate new revenues, and promote sustainable community enrichment, Liu insists Kenya can achieve a competitive advantage to build a thriving national dairy industry. With specialized feeding systems optimized for Juncao’s exceptional digestibility and nutritional content, farms can substantially increase incomes while creating hundreds of thousands of rural jobs. Moreover, Liu believes the initiative can serve as a model to inspire innovative agricultural development across Africa. 

With 18.6% digestible protein and an ideal balance of critical nutrients, veterinary scientists have positioned Juncao superior to traditional crop residues and grass hays. Juncao establishes rapidly, achieving mature green chop in just three months. After cutting stems down to 15 cm, the vigorous root system continues generating new shoots for years without reseeding. Chopped Juncao also yields exceptionally well to ensiling, preserving nutrition as fermented silage fodder for three years. This flexibility offers farmers tremendous advantage in planning their nutritional programs over seasons. Juncao’s profound and sturdy roots also help conserve moisture and prevent topsoil losses from wind and rain, making it a uniquely sustainable multi-year crop.

Juncao is increasingly hailed worldwide as an environmentally friendly solution for its reliability, climate resilience, self-propagation, and resistance to most common pests and diseases. Experimental farms have proved that Juncao production systems excel in either pure stands or intercropped with other forages, grains, or legumes. Though the plant thrives under irrigation, Juncao grows well in low fertile soils under purely rain-fed conditions. This broad adaptability makes Juncao suitable for cultivation across an extensive range of moisture levels – from flooded rice paddies to severely moisture-stressed drylands. Accordingly, Liu has developed ambitious expansion plans to spread Juncao’s cultivation across thousands of acres in over 24 arid and semi-arid (ASAL) counties.

Jack Liu intends to commence his county aggregation of Juncao grass, focusing on six vital ASAL counties: Kajiado, West Pokot, Mandera, Narok, Wajir and Garissa. An additional 80,000 acres are slated for Turkana County once local nurseries meet seedling demands. With strong producer interest following early successes, Liu plans to roll out Juncao to 20 additional midland counties better known for crops like maize, beans, and sugarcane. This second phase adds over 100,000 acres across counties, including Nakuru, Transmara, Kakamega, Embu, Migori, Kisii, and Bungoma. Liu states that these ambitious benchmarks are but a starting point. He fully expects Juncao to continue spreading to many more countries as farmers share their experiences and generations inherit Juncao’s sustainable practices.

Tragically, Kenya has lost an estimated three million heads of cattle during the latest periods of severe drought, according to National Drought Management Authority statistics. For agro-pastoralists and mixed farming households across marginal county lands, the repeated climate shocks and lack of feeds have caused devastating hardship – forcing many out of generational lands. However, this ongoing crisis has motivated fodder experts like Liu to prioritize climate-smart crops and capacity-building assistance for vulnerable farmers. With adequate investment backing, leaders hope improved feeds like Juncao grass can help them restore regional stability and give them hope. Maasai elder John Lenkume is convinced that Juncao may sustain Maasai traditions through the problematic seasons ahead.

Compared to common Napier grass varieties that have sustained Kenyan

farms for decades, Juncao does require more labour and land preparation but

offers far more reliable production. While Napier stands may persist five or

more years before replanting, Juncao has continuously generated harvests for over thirty years. Juncao's absence of seeds avoids stem-wasting

reproductive cycles, while Kenya's pest and disease pressures have proven

far less harmful to Juncao than most local grasses.

Alfrique Mwana is a communication professional. Angela Mutiso is the Editorial Consultant of the Accountant Journal.[email protected][email protected]


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