Know your pasture grasses: Foxtail, the choice grass for beef farmers in arid areas.

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Beef producers often incur losses when fodder is in short supply. But adjusting animals’ feeding program can help farmers produce quality beef during periods of drought. Beef production is mostly done in the arid and semi arid regions of East Africa. 

But these are fragile and largely unable to support livestock in times of drought. In such conditions, pastoralists desperately sell their animals at low prices. This should not be the case!

Seasonality of pastures

In the dry lands, pastures are seasonal, available in plenty during the rainy season and scarce during the dry season. In the rainy season, farmers should produce adapted grasses like Cenchrus ciliaris, Enteropogon spp, and make hay or silage for use during the dry spell. It is also important to grow the pasture grasses under irrigation as it happens in Baringo and release the animals on the pasture during the dry season. When you feed hay, do not waste it by providing cows with more than they can eat or use in their bodies. For example, feeding hay on the ground results in excessive waste. Using containers or troughs greatly reduces wastage of the fodder. Also, consider feeding alternative feeds that include crop residues like chopped maize stalks.

Select the right breeds

Select breeds that are adapted to dry areas. The hardiness, heat tolerance and disease resistance of the Zebu cattle enables them to better cope with having little feed. These animals are also excellent in converting feed for increased body weight (feed conversion efficiency is superb).

Stocking densities

Should be lower than the land’s carrying capacity. This means that the number of animals should be well supported by the size of land. Rotate animals on pastures in such a way that the animals do not leave the grass degraded in the paddocks. Excessive grazing affects the quality of available pasture.

Consider culling

Remove cows from the herd that have been identified as poor mothers, have poor udders, teats, feet and legs, bad disposition, and other physical problems. There is no reason to spend scarce resources on animals that will not stay for a long time in your herd. The earlier you do it the better.

Early weaning of calves

Essentially, the nutrient needs of a dry cow are lower than that of a lactating cow. A dry cow needs 50% to 65% of the feed of a cow nursing a calf. Young calves have an efficient feed conversion rate for dry feed. It is better therefore to wean calves early as a way of using the limited feed better especially during the drought. This must, however, be done well so as not to affect the performance and survival of the weaned calves.


Farmers should never sell emaciated animals (those in poor body condition). This means you have to store feed for your animals for use during the dry season. Sell the cattle when everybody is buying and buy when everybody is selling. Have your pasture ready under irrigation and feed the emaciated animals to be ready for sale when the market conditions improve.

Foxtail, a drought tolerant grass for arid and semi arid areas

Also, called the foxtail grass, Cenchrus is a nutritious grass that is often used to fatten beef animals in the rangelands. It is a tolerant grass, perennial, matures fast and has multiple benefits. The grass is suitable for areas with an annual rainfall of 300 to 1200 mm. Though drought tolerant, it does not tolerate flooding or water-logging. It is used as a permanent pasture for grazing, for making hay or silage. It responds quickly to rain, which makes it an ideal pasture for the arid and semiarid areas.

Growing Cenchrus

Foxtail grass is grown from seeds, mainly during the rainy season. You need 3-6kg/ha when planting. Growing the grass successfully depends on land preparation. Plough the land to loosen the topsoil. Use a rake or harrow to prepare the soil into fine tilth, then broadcast the seed.

Since the seeds are light and can be blown away by the wind, plant on a day with minimal wind and moist soil. Avoid days with heavy rains, as the seed will be washed away by runoff water. To cover the seed lightly, drag tree twigs over it. If you plant too deep then they will not germinate.

How to manage the sown grass

The amount of grass harvested is dependent on how the grass is managed. Apply manure during planting to promote good root development. Apply 4 tonnes of farmyard manure at planting. To remove weeds, manually pull them by hand once the grass has grown and you can identify the weeds. It takes 3 – 6 months for the grass to grow, although this depends on the amount of rainfall available.

Utilization of the grass

Fattening emaciated animals on Cenchrus ciliaris for the market

Foxtail grass can be grazed directly or cut, carried and fed in stalls or feedlots. The best time for animals to graze is at the piping stage - just before flowering or cut and carry when the field is at about 50% flowering. Avoid over grazing

Cenchrus pastures as they get degraded as they take time to grow again when the rains come. For places that mostly lack pastures during the dry season, foxtail hay is excellent as it provides the much-needed nutrition for the animals especially when they are being fattened for the market. Although the yields of the grass depend greatly on management, soil fertility and available rainfall, the harvest in the second year may double that of the first year.

Commercial pasture

Other than storing the grass to feed animals during the dry season, you can make hay for sale whether you have animals or not. Although the size of the farm is not critical, the bigger the farm the higher the profit because of economies of scale.

 Notice: Interested farmers can get Cenchrus seed from KARI Marigat at KES 600 per kilogramme. Talk to the Marigat sub-county Livestock Production Officer 0724848816.

>>Tell us how useful this information is to your farming enterprise. Share your experience by email to [email protected], send SMS to 0715916136 or leave a comment below this article.


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