Improving fodder quality with legumes

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The cost of feed concentrates has increased and it takes up a good part of the dairy farmer’s earnings. Adding legumes in fodder production and preparation can help cut down feed costs and improve profits. Legunes provide fodder for livestock and improve soil fertility.

Almost every small-scale farm in Kenya has Napier grass, which provides fodder to feed dairy animals. Grasses such as Napier, Boma Rhodes, Nandi Setaria alone cannot meet a dairy cow’s daily nutrient requirements. As production costs continue to increase due to the cost of feed concentrates like dairy meal, it is important that farmers add legumes in their pastures to improve the quality of feed to increase milk production.

There are many legumes that can be grown together with grasses to provide the much needed proteins and minerals for improved milk production and quality. These include lucerne, desmodium, sweet potato vines and even root crops such as beetroot, radish and turnips. Below we provide farmers with guidelines on how to grow some of the legumes to help improve fodder quality:

Common Lucerne (Medicago sativa)

Lucerne is a high yielding perennial forage legume that grows upright to about 1 metre. It is ideal for conservation as hay or silage. Lucerne can remain productive for 4 to 6 years. Lucerne is best grown as a pure stand. It is drought resistant and is a deep-rooted legume.

Climatic requirements: Lucerne requires a well-distributed rainfall of about 860mm and above. It requires well-drained soils with a pH of 6 - 6.5.

Planting: Seeds can be planted at a depth of not more than 10cm or broadcast. The seedbed should be well-prepared and firm for good germination. The seed rate can be maintained at 6kg per acre with a spacing of 20cm by 25cm.

Maturity: Lucerne matures at between 4 to 5 months depending on the weather.

Yield: Lucerne can produce between 6 and 8 tons of dry matter per acre every year depending on the weather. Cutting can be done at intervals of 4-8 weeks.

Feed value: Crude Protein 19-22%, Dry matter 21%, Crude Fibre 21%.

 Purple vetch (Vicia sativa)

Purple vetch is a fast growing legume with a high nutritive value. It can be grown with Napier grass, oats, barley, other grasses or on its own.

Planting: Purple vetch does well in well-drained soils that are not acidic. Planting should be done in well-prepared seedbed for good seed germination. Broad cast or drill the seed. A spacing of 45 cm by 30cm is recommended. About 5kg of seed per acre is recommended when planting a pure stand or 3kg per acre when intercropped with grasses and fodders such as Napier grass and oats.

Maturity: Purple vetch matures in 4 months (120 days) and can be used for hay production. It produces 1.5 to 2.5tons of hay per acre when mixed with other grasses.

Feed value: Purple vetch has Crude Protein (CP) content of 17- 22 per cent, 89% Dry matter (DM) and 30 % Crude Fibre (CF).

Sweet Lupin (Lupinus albus)

There are two varieties of lupin Lupinous albus and Lupinous angustifolius. 

Climatic requirements: Sweet Lupin prefers high rainfall (1000-2000mm), a cool climate and can tolerate low temperatures.

Planting: Sweet Lupins grows in well-drained soils. A seed rate of 20kg of seed per acre is ideal. Seeds should be planted at a spacing of 45cm by 30cm.

Maturity: Sweet Lupins matures in 4 to 5 months. Crop rotation is and seed treatments can reduce disease and pest infection.

Yield: Sweet Lupins produce between ½ ton to 1 ton of grain per acre. The grains can be milled and mixed with maize to make high quality feed.

Feed value: Lupinous albus - Crude Protein 29-32%, dry matter 95%, crude fibre 10% kilo calories per kg 2,444.7. Lupinous angustifolius – Crude protein 30-36% , dry matter 93%, crude fibre 4 %, Kcal/kg 2173.6.

Desmodium (green and silver leaf)

Desmodium is a climbing perennial legume that has deep roots and long stems that grow freely and roots at the nodes. It can grow in areas of low temperatures and can be mixed with Napier and Kikuyu grasses. The silver leaf can withstand frost better than the green leaf.

Climatic requirements: Desmodium requires well-distributed rainfall of 850mm and above. It prefers light soils to clay loam soils with a pH of more than 5.

Planting: The seedbed should be well prepared for good germination. Seeds can be broadcasted or planted in holes that are not more than 1cm deep and well covered. Desmodium vine cuttings or root splits are the easiest to grow. About 4000 pieces of cuttings or vines can be planted in one acre.

Spacing: A spacing of 1ft by 1ft for cuttings is recommended.

Yield: One acre of desmodium can produce between 5 to 8 tons of dry matter per year.

Feed value: Crude Protein 15-20 %, Dry Matter 20-26%, Crude Fibre 25-30%.

.........other fodder sources;

Sweet potato vines (Ipomoea batata)

Sweet potato vines are drought resistant. They are palatable and easy to digest for dairy cows. The ideal varieties for fodder production include KEMB10, KSB20, Ex–Mukurweini and Exisinya. Sweet potatoes should be planted as pure stands. These are chopped when mature and mixed with Napier, maize stalks or grasses at a rate of 50% of the feed.

Planting: Dig hills of soil 15cm deep and plant when the soil is 15cm wet. Cut vines of 30cm to 60cm and bury ¾ of the potato vine in the soil. Plant 3-4 vines per hill. Apply plenty of well composited manure that is well mixed with the soil before planting the vines. Plant 8,800 vines in 1 acre.

Yield: About 5 to 6 tons of fresh vines can be harvested in one acre. Harvesting can be done every 2 to 3 months depending on the weather.

Root tuber crops

 Fodder root crops include root tubers like mangold, beetroots, radish and turnips. The tubers are drought tolerant and contain simple sugars that provide animals with quick energy. The root tubers can stay fresh in the soil and can be harvested and stored with little loss of nutrients. After harvest they can be covered with straw. They do not change milk taste when fed to dairy cows.

Planting: The seed rate at planting should be 2 to 3kg per acre with a spacing of 45cm by 60cm depending on the size of the tubers. Thin the plant population at 15cm between one plant and the next when they are 5 to 10cm high.

Maturity: The tubers mature in 3 to 4 months.

Yield: Root tubers produce between 16 to 100 tons per acre depending on the variety and weather conditions.

Feeding: A dairy cow can feed up to 20kg of tubers in one day. Allow the tubers to wilt for about 2 weeks before feeding to prevent diarrhoea. The leaves (tops) can also be fed to animals. Before feeding, the tubers must be chopped to avoid choking the animals.

Feeding value: Crude protein 11%, Dry matter 20%, Crude Fibre 16%.

Farmers can buy seeds for all the legumes in the above article from KALRO, Ol Joro Orok Tel. 0710 854 357, 020 202 6 510 Email: Additional information obtained from Kanegeni N, KALRO Ol Joro Orok.

>>Tell us how useful this information is to your farming enterprise. Share your experience by email to or leave a comment below this article. You can also send an SMS to 0715 916 136.

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