Napier grass, elephant grass or Uganda grass is a favourite of many small holder dairy farmers. There are several reasons for this — the grass grows relatively fast and can give “elephant” feeds after just three months.
Napier grass has the ability to withstand drought conditions, this coupled with dwindling land size for small dairy holders has made it a preferred choice. Napier has good root systems that can cover a wide area and this has made it a master of soil erosion control especially on river banks.
When combined with Desmodium it is an effective biological control agent for the African Maize stem borer through the push and pull technology. Additionally, the grass can be used as a hedge around maize plantation and it will serve as a wind breaker.
Its invasive nature also endears it as a good weed control as it can easily outgrow and smother other plants around. Napier is also easy to propagate.
I will not dwell on this grass for the above reasons; that can be done well by my agriculturalists friends like Dr Orek Charles, Kelvin Omondo, Mike Mbakaya and Grace Mureithi. They can tell you more about the Napier smut and stunt diseases. As a vet, I will focus on it because it is a land mark that you can never miss in any livestock farm, just like ugali in any Kenyan home.
Indeed napier grass is the livestock ugali. Elephant grass is a staple livestock feed. It has good dry matter content in addition to other nutrients like proteins. Its nutritive value can however vary depending on a number of factors key among them how it is cared for in the field, how it is prepared on farm or how it is conserved. You can choose to use napier grass as pasture or conserve it as silage or hay.
Napier grass can withstand heavy grazing, but this must be compensated with good weeding, irrigation during dry seasons and application of nitrogenous fertilisers.
If you choose to let animals graze on it directly from the field do it in a rotational manner— bring in animals after three months and then give the grass about a month to sprout thereafter. It is however recommended that for maximum use, the cut and carry method is better.
This is where you harvest the grass and feed it to livestock. This is more so when you are in a zero grazing arrangement. Harvest the grass when it is young before it becomes fibrous and the stem unpalatable.
The best time to harvest napier is when the grass is about one metre long or three to four months old. Any time after this the fibre content goes high and digestibility is low. Harvest the grass by cutting at five metres above the ground for good re-growth. Palatability is further enhanced by chopping the foliage and stem either manually using a machete or a chuff cutter.
Napier grass at this stage has relatively high moisture content and this can be reduced by wilting (exposing them to the sun for one to two hours). This process improves digestibility. Napier can also be made into good quality silage and sometimes hay.
If you want to make silage from napier grass it is advised that you harvest when they are two months old or one month re-growth. Adding molasses during ensiling improves fermentation process and makes it a delicacy to livestock.
It is better to conserve napier this way rather than leaving it to overgrow in the field like many farmers do as they wait to use it during dry seasons. Leaving napier in the field reduces its utility as it greatly lowers its nutrition level.
That said, napier shouldn’t be used alone as an animal feed, it must be supplemented with other feeds rich in mineral, vitamins and other nutrients. Consider feeding the animal on high protein legumes like desmodium, sweet potatoe vines and calliandra, concentrates and mineral licks in addition to napier to increase milk production.