With the October sun broiling over the vast sprawling grassland of Amaka Ranch in Voi Sub-county, most life forms have taken refuge under trees and any available shade.
Phillip Chokwe, the Ranch Manager notes that the heat has been part of his daily company over the years he has worked in the 15,000 acre ranch.
Chokwe says he is immune to the sweltering temperatures. With the sweat droplets beading his face, he adds that he feels the heat but he can’t take a break as he has a tight deadline to beat.
Shouldering a huge bale of hay, Chokwe dumps his cargo some distance away on another larger pile.
He wipes his hands against his apron and goes back for another bale. This is the fifteenth bale and he hopes to make over fifty bales before the day is over.
During this season where the ranchers in the region start harvesting grass for hay for their livestock, he anticipates to have made over 3, 000 bales by end of November.
Mr. Chokwe’s Amaka Ranch is amongst the initial five ranches in Taita-Taveta County that partnered with the Kenya Markets Trust under the Hay Commercializing Program.
The other ranches, include Luarenyi, Mgeno, Kasighau and Taita ranches which occupy a total acreage of 320, 000. Out of this, only a paltry 1, 000 acres is set aside for hay production. The five ranches manage to harvest about 10, 000 bales of hay annually.
The program intends to offer technical and marketing support to 28 Taita-Taveta ranches to hit a maximum annual production of one million bales of hay by the year 2020.
We are still having an acute under production of grass but with support from our partners, we are hopeful to produce more, says Mr. Chokwe.
Taita-Taveta County has 28 ranches that collectively occupy over 1.4 million acres. This is slightly above 23 per cent of the total land mass in the county.
However, there has been a serious underutilization of the land in the ranches with nearly all the farms being leased out to wealthy beef industry players for commercial fattening of bulls targeting international beef market.
This has forced the ranchers and other players in the livestock market to embark on a hay commercialization program that targets all the ranches in a bid to promote hay farming in the region.
The ranchers have partnered with the Kenya Markets Trust (KMT), an organization that creates networks to establish markets for farmers. The program will be implemented through Kenya Promotions and Marketing Company Holdings Limited (KPMC), a firm that deals with feeds and fodder value chain.
Through KPMC, the program intends to increase hay productivity, improve the hay quality, enable ranchers access harvesting equipment and link them to large-scale milk buyers such as Brookside and the New KCC amongst others.
The 1,000 acres represent a negligible 0.14 percent of that total acreage of 1.4 million covered by all the 28 ranches which would ultimately be targeted for the project.
Hay Commercialization Project Manager in the ranches Mr. Alfred Mwanake says the ranches aimed at increasing their hay growing acreage to boost production.
By 2019, the ranches target to have over 1,000 acres under hay production which would raise the annual production rate from the current 10,000 bales to 100,000 bales.
The five ranches were used as pilot study cases. We have seen that it can work. We will increase the acreage and our production is going up, he said.
An official with KMT, Ms. Slyvia Wafula says that Taita ranches have massive potential that has gone underutilized or unutilized for decades due to lack of proper programs to harness its full capability.
She points out that the bulk of the ranches remained unutilized while the ranchers remained largely poor.
Ms. Wafula notes that with the establishment of commercialization project and creating of marketing networking, KMT targets to achieve a financial shift where ranches would view land as a productive resource that could sustain all their activities when exploited maximally.
With full hay production and good markets available, the returns for ranchers are assured, she said.
Mr. Mwanake said that Hay Commercialization Program is central in the Taita-Taveta Ranches Strategic Plan.
In the plan, the issue of illegal herders would only be wholly addressed through the full scale roll-out of the program across all the ranches.
He points out that when all the ranches have embraced the program, the hay production level would rise exponentially to such levels that the ranchers might not see the need to lease out their ranches to commercial herders. Instead, the herders would enter into an agreement with the ranches on a fattening program for a specified duration of time where the animals would be fattened on selected feedlots in the ranches.
He adds that such a program could be a big boost for ranches in that there will be controlled animals movement in and out of the ranches depending on the size of the feedlots and numbers of bales of hay each ranch has produced.
Once operational, we will have the animals come in ranches where they will be fed on hay and water for a fee. This means the animals will not be moving all over destroying the environment inside the ranches. We are aiming to have controlled fattening of animals for herders after which they pay for fodder and water, he notes.
Taita-Taveta Ranchers Association Chair, Bon’gosa Mcharo, opines that the project might be what the ranches need to deal with the menace posed by illegal herders in ranches.
He points out that it was nearly impossible to regulate the numbers of cattle streaming into the ranches that resulted to overgrazing as the number of animals kept swelling.
Overtime, most ranches have become so degraded that the herders themselves have started looking for other pastures for their animals.
He added that the ranchers themselves were the biggest losers when ranches are degraded.
The herders will go away and leave behind a devastated land. If we are to save our ranches, this project is the way to go, he observes.
Economically, the commercialization program might give the ranchers adequate incentives that will persuade them to embrace it. Currently, a bale of hay goes for between two hundred shillings and three hundred and fifty shillings.
If the ranches manage to produce one million bales annually, the ranches will have a net return of over quarter a billion shillings.
Mwanake said such returns could be ploughed back into the ranches to boost productivity and enhance conservation efforts.
However, over-reliance on rain-fed farming might pose a challenge for realization of the million bale target, he adds.
Mwanake noted that the targeted production might be lower should the rains fail. He says to counter this, Amaka Ranch is drilling a bore-hole while the other ranches are still exploring how to have sustainable hay growing initiatives.
He enumerates other challenges that include destruction of hay pastures by elephants and other wild animals. However, he adds, in Kasighau Ranch, solar-powered lights have been installed around hay plantations to scare away the elephants at night.