Brachiaria grass, natively from Africa, has undergone decades of improvement in Colombia and now promises better returns for dairy farmers all over the world. There are more than 100 species of the grass but improvements have been done on the hybrid varieties B. mullato and B. mullato II.
International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) has developed a new variety of grass, Brachiaria spp., which will improve your herd's productivity by a whopping 40%. It is highly palatable to cattle, even in dry season due to late flowering. Adopting this forage crop could help generate millions of dollars in revenue to the national economy through direct and indirect returns.
According to their research findings, brachiaria is a very hardy forage crop that will resist harsh climatic conditions and produce bounty yields. In addition to that, this grass could be the next big thing in cutting carbon emissions that is currently a global challenge. Since it is a permanent forage grass, it is suitable for establishing pastures for grazing or hay production.
This comes as a big relief to farmers who have had to struggle with pests and diseases affecting other forage crops like Napier grass, alfalfa, and clovers. According to Dr. Solomon Mwendia, a Forage Agronomist at CIAT, brachiaria grass is able to defend itself from the effects of these devastating effects that can lead to total loss of the pastures.
Brachiaria grass thrives in harsh conditions where other forage grasses fail
Research findings indicate that this grass has a chemical response that enables it to produce metabolites that repel the pests. Consequently, the grass is able to survive pest and diseases attack. This comes as a good news to the farmers who can expect to reap big following the recent surge in the consumer demand for dairy products.
Bracharia also has a well-developed root network system that enhances water uptake from the soil, making it one of the hardiest forage crops around. Reports from trials carried out in Kenya indicate that Bracharia is able to survive in areas where other grasses fail due to water unavailability. It can tolerate low rainfall (700mm p.a.) but does best between 1000 - 3500 mm p.a.
CIAT researchers developed the brachiaria grass to survive harsh growing environments yet still be able to produce a bounty harvest with numerous nutritional benefits for the livestock.
"Our research shows that brachiaria grasses could be the cornerstone of productive and resilient livestock systems that quickly provide more milk and money for small-scale dairy farmers." Dr. Solomon Mwendia (CIAT).
Feeding takes the greatest percentage of the costs of dairy production. Every farmer would appreciate a crop that can relieve them of losses and improve their productivity at the same time. The additional income is very likely to positively impact on the lives of smallholder farmers.
Brachiaria grass increases milk production in dairy animals
It is important to ensure forage quality to improve production output. Farmers in Rwanda reported improved yields and markedly reduced losses in their farms since they started using brachiaria grass.
The improved varieties of brachiaria grass is easily digestible and have higher conversion rates. This means that a farmer gets every liter of milk at a lower methane emission rates than with the conventional feeds.
Brachiaria grass cuts down on greenhouse gas emissions
This is an excellent news for the environmentally conscious farmers because they know that their activities do not exert much pressure on the environment. What a smart way to reduce the carbon footprint.
Brachiaria is way smarter than conventional grasses when it comes to carbon and nitrogen fixation. Through its well-developed root network, brachiaria not only mitigates soil erosion but also captures carbon and fixes it into the soil.
It can tolerate low nitrogen in the soil but will need nitrogen fertilizer supplementation for intensive production or seed production.
Fertilizer application helps synchronize seeding and encourage foliage which traps falling seeds. Application rate can range between 50kg/ha/year (sub-tropics) to as high as 350kg/ha/year in the tropics. When using organic manure, apply about 3 tonnes/ha/year. The grass tends to flower late and produces about 100kg/ha of seeds (B. mullato) and over 250kg/ha (B. mullato II). Each kilogram contains about 130000 seeds on average.
Another glaring advantage of this grass is its ability to capture nitrogen and fix it into the soil. Up to 40 percent of nitrogen fertilizers applied to crops is lost through conversion into nitrous oxide (N2O), which is a greenhouse gas with over 300-fold potency than carbon (IV) oxide.
Biological Nitrification Inhibition (BNI) capacity of brachiaria grass
Bracharia grass produces a chemical called brachialactone through its roots into the soil, which is a Biological Nitrifying Inhibitor. The ensuing slow release of nitrogen drastically cuts down the volume of the greenhouse gas emission from farms as a result of fertilizer use.
Currently, the researches at CIAT are investigating the genes responsible for BNI and the possibility of transporting such genes into other forage crops to help cut down on emissions.
Propagating brachiaria grass
The grass can be propagated through seeds and splits. The seeds tend to be dormant after harvest hence the need to scarify them to break the dormancy. Propagation through seeds requires the seed rate of 4-6kg/ha (uncoated) for certified seeds with over 90% viability and >70% germination rate. Seed rate for pasture fields may rise up to 10kg/ha (uncoated).
Grazing animals on the pastures after 4 months will encourage regrowth. The grass also responds well after cutting and can regrow after wild fires. It is not highly aggressive and may be smothered if a dominant grass is planted before brachiaria establishes. It colonizes its surrounding through rooting down on tufts, especially during the wet season.
Since this variety is relatively new, the seeds may not be very readily available at your local agrovet. However, CIAT is currently conducting field tests to ascertain the viability of commercial production of this grass to feed the demand.
The best way to get your hand on the grass right now is to get in touch with a farmer who has an established pasture and pick splits for propagation. In the past, cultivar propagation has shown vulnerability to spreading pasture pests and diseases. Even though no major pests and diseases have been reported to affect the grass, vegetative propagation may just expose the grass to certain diseases.
Brachiaria grass pests and diseases
Some of the diseases that may affect the grass in the tropics include head smut, leaf rust/spot and ergot. Check for red mites and shoot borers immediately the grass begins to come out of the soil. They are vulnerable at this point.
Control weeds that may harbour these pests and diseases pre-establishment by using broad spectrum herbicides. Since the grass can tolerate low fertility, lime treatment of acidic soil will be rarely required.
Brachiaria grass has better dry matter content than regular grass. It produces up to 15% more DM with up to 20% crude protein when grown on fertile soils with optimum rainfall. Total volume harvested per hectare varies depending on agro-ecological zone, amount of rainfall, type of soil and whether the field has been fertilized or not. On average, one can expect to harvest from 10 tonnes/ha on unfertilized field and up to 28 tonnes/ha when fertilizer is applied on the field.
With average digestibility of 70%, this grass has better returns for the farmer given the time it takes to maturity and the inputs required during production. Available research findings also indicate that the grass does not loose hybrid vigour even under vegetative propagation. Since the grass makes good quality hay, the harvest can be preserved for later use (or for sale) making it more profitable in the long run.
So, have started using this wonder grass?
Let's hear your story in the comments. You can leave your contacts if you have the seeds to sell to other farmers. Please state your country and region too so farmers near you can reach out easily.