Scientific Name: Brachiaria spp
Local Names: Mulato; Signal grass; Congo grass; Esiyieri (Luhya)
Different species of Brachiaria grass
Livestock feed shortage is now a widespread problem in Kenya. The most common fodder crop - Napier grass - is low-yielding and susceptible to diseases and climatic stress. A new fodder crop, brachiaria, is gaining traction. It has superior yields of up to 35 tons/ha of high-quality feed with 7% more protein than Napier. It is well adapted to drought, does well in poor soils, and also improves soil health.
Brachiaria is a perennial tropical C4 grass with a productive lifespan of about 20 years. This native African grass, comprising of about 100 species, is new grass and an emerging forage option for livestock production in Kenya. The grass is tufted, creeping, with short rhizomes forming a dense leafy cover. Culms arise from many nodded creeping shoots and short rhizomes, growing to a height of 1.5 m when flowering. Leaves are soft but hairy, up to 25 cm long and 15 mm wide. They are like clones of the mother plant, which is an ideal situation that is not common with many crops and forages. Hence they do not lose vigor and persistence.
Brachiaria grass species is climate-smart grass due to its high biomass production under intensive use and its tolerance of low soil fertility as well as relative freedom from pests and diseases. It requests carbon through its large roots system, enhances nitrogen use efficiency, and subsequently minimizes eutrophication and greenhouse gas emissions. It aids in erosion control and ecological restoration as it covers the ground well, withstands heavy grazing, and establishes on poor and rocky soils. Data on nutritive value indicate that forage from brachiaria is highly nutritive and palatable to livestock, leading to high intake, whether fed fresh or grazed in the field.
Soil type and conditions Brachiaria species are adapted to a wide range of soil types, ranging from Oxisols and Ultisols (low-fertility acid soils) to Alfisols and Mollisols (high-fertility neutral soils). It performs best in well-drained soils with medium fertility and PH ranging from 5-8.
Bracharia performs best within an altitude range of 1000-1800 m above sea level (m.s.a.l).
The temperature range of 19-300C is ideal. Lower temperatures slow down the growth rates, hence the grass performs poorly above 1800m.
Rainfall Brachiaria grows well in areas with at least 700mm of rainfall annually. It requires a reasonably high rainfall, though it can endure dry spells, with 1,000 mm or more being preferable. It is, however, drought-tolerant and has the potential to grow well in relatively drier areas of western Kenya with mean annual rainfall of not less than 700 mm and mean daily temperatures higher than 30ᵒC. Trials show that the grass does well under irrigation in arid and semi-arid areas, and under rain-fed conditions in the transitional zones.
Brachiaria varieties comprise cultivars (cv.) Mulato I (Brachiaria brizantha) and Mulato II (Brachiaria ruziziensis). Other cultivars include Cobra, Piata, Toledo, Cayman, Murandu and MG4.
1. Brachiaria Decumbens Cv. Basilisk: It is adapted to infertile soil and withstands heavy grazing and trampling. The grass can tolerate shading and is suitable for soil erosion control.
2. Brachiaria Brizantha Cv. Xaraes (Toledo) It grows in soil of medium fertility with an annual rainfall of over 800 mm and up to 2300 m above sea level. It holds the soil firmly and can be used for erosion control in hilly areas. It is the best for semi-arid, subhumid, and humid areas.
3. It can grow in low rainfall (<800 mm) due to its deep root system and is productive even in low soil fertility.
4.Brachiaria Brizantha Cv. Piata : It is drought and cold tolerant. It is suited to soils of average fertility and can be cultivated in sandy soils.
5. Brachiaria Hybrid cv.Mullato (II) : It can be grazed or cut and fed to animals under zero-grazing and also has high biomass production capacity making it a good alternative for making silage or hay. It is tolerant to prolonged period of drought of up to 4 months. It is adapted to many soil types ranging from sands to clays but does not tolerate poorly drained soils.
In Kenya, Mulato II is most suited for growing in the coastal lowlands because in other parts it is vulnerable to red spider mites attack.
NB: Brachiaria hybrids cv. Mulato I (Congo grass) and Mulato II (Signal grass) were developed from two and three way crosses between B. ruziziensis, B. decumbens and B. brizantha by the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) in Columbia, and have been evaluated and promoted for forage production in Kenya. Mulato I and Mulato II are apomictic (nonsexual reproduction), meaning that the seeds they produce are true-to-type (their genes do not change), hence they don’t lose vigour or persistence.
Plough the land early before the rains and harrow the seedbed to a fine tilth.
Bracharia is best established from seed, although it needs to be stored for six months after harvest to break dormancy. Grass germinates better when planted on a seedbed. After 30-40 days, transplant to open field. Vegetative propagation can be done on small scale but may no apply on large scale farming.
Planting from Seeds: Seed is sown at the onset of rains in well-tilled seedbeds. Make small furrows on the nursery 1-2cm deep and spaced 5cm and sow seeds. Cover the seeds lightly with soil and then mulch using dry grass. Transplant seedlings 6-8 weeks after sowing, spaced at 50cm. Alternatively, direct seeding can be done, make furrows 2cm deep in the main seedbed then drill seeds in the furrows and cover lightly with soil. Mulch using dry grass to conserve soil moisture for easy grass establishment. Seed rate ranges from 2.5kgs to 3kgs per acre or 10 to 12 kg/ha. Seed is the most appropriate mode of establishment for farmers who want to plant large plots of the grass..
An important feature of the Mulato Brachiaria is that its stems are capable of rooting when they come into contact with moist soil especially caused by trampling of animals. Mulato II performs very well not only in grazed systems, but also in cut and carry systems.
Planting from root splits and stem cuttings: Obtain root or stem cuttings from healthy and mature mother plants, plant the materials on each hill at a spacing of 25cm by 50cm. One acre will require roughly 32000 splits. obtain brachiaria seeds from Amiran Kenya, Kenya Seed Company or Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organization (KALRO).
Fertilizer and manure application depend on pasture production system used. Grass grown under cut and carry production system will require fertilizer and manure application as pasture under this system removes most of plant nutrients from the soil. Under such pasture production system add 4 tons of manure and 80kg CAN per acre to improve pasture production, quality and quantity.Add 100kg TSP fertilizer in case the soil has phosphorus deficiency.
Brachiaria grass is able to out-compete weeds on its own once it is well established. Its thick leaves make it hard for weeds to thrive.
Red spider mites and Shoot borers are the main pests though hardly do they compromise pasture yield. Smut, Ergot, Rust and Leaf spots are the main diseases but the grass tolerates attack.
Harvest by cutting the grass 5cm above the ground using a machete or a sickle. A motorized brush cutter can also be used. Subsequent harvests can be made every 8–12 weeks, depending on the climate. The grass can remain productive for 20 years under better pasture stand management.
Brachiaria can be grazed or cut and fed to dairy animals in stalls. It is ideal for silage and hay. Where animals graze, the duration depends on the number of animals. Sufficient time must be given to pasture to grow back after intensive grazing. Rotational grazing will give the grass time to regrow. Where farmers cut and carry to feed the animals, the grass is ready for the next cut in about 45–50 days during the rainy season. At this stage, the grass has higher nutrient content, especially protein, than Napier grass.
Brachiaria has high biomass production capacity. Therefore, it is a good alternative for making silage and hay. Its production and nutrient content depends on soil fertility and its management, as well as the stage of harvesting
The average dry matter yield ranges from 10-40 tons/ha/year depending on soils, rainfall, and management. With good management, the grass can yield up to 140kg/ha of seeds with the maximum yield at the 2nd year of establishment.
Brachiaria holds huge potential for the dairy industry, especially in the drier areas and in areas affected by the Napier stunt disease. It has also shown potential to be incorporated in the smallholder maize growing farms under the ‘push pull’ system that helps farmers to deal with pests while providing a source of fodder for dairy cattle. The average protein content of Brachiaria grass is 13%, which ranges between 9 to 17%, while that of Napier (elephant) grass ranges between 7-12% depending on the variety