Cattle feeding on lucerne hay. FILE PHOTO | NATION MEDIA GROUP

Many dairy farmers are grappling with feeding their animals, particularly protein feeds that are usually the most expensive feed type.
A farmer might easily be tempted to reduce protein feeds in a dairy animal’s ration to keep production costs low. In so doing, they end up affecting production.
Unlike energy, protein is usually not stored in a dairy cow’s body hence cannot be retrieved from body reserves during periods of scarcity.
This makes protein the most limiting nutrient in a dairy ration. In essence, protein must be availed every day at about 16 per cent of the total dairy ration.
It is, however, not all gloom and doom as far as protein feeding is concerned. Dairy farmers can minimise the costs of protein feeding by using farm grown sources in the basal diet.
One excellent source that has been successfully utilised world over is lucerne. Lucerne, also known as alfalfa (Medicago sativa), should be the protein roughage of choice.
So why grow lucerne?
There are numerous benefits of growing lucerne and if done well, it significantly reduces the need to supplement dairy rations with the costly commercial concentrates. Incorporating lucerne in a dairy ration will have huge benefits that include;
High quality feed: According to its stage of growth, the protein content in lucerne ranges from 15-22 per cent. Grasses usually contain way less than 12 per cent crude protein yet dairy animals require between 16-20 per cent.
It is also rich in vitamins and minerals, and if cut at the early flowering stage, it supplies a good blend of energy and fibre. The roots are known to penetrate to a depth of 3m, thus enabling the plant to draw moisture and minerals from a considerable depth.
Cheap protein: An average-sized bale of lucerne currently costs about Sh450, which translates to around Sh23 a kilo. On the other hand, a kilo of good quality dairy meal may cost up to Sh48.
Assuming that a cow is provided with good quality grass and lucerne, the amount of supplementary dairy meal will definitely be reduced in a dairy cow’s ration.
Flexibility of use: Apart from being utilised in wilted form upon harvesting, lucerne can easily be conserved in either hay or silage form and, therefore, be well-stored during seasons of plenty.
Lucerne should never be fed fresh as it will cause bloat to your dairy animals.
Soil fertility improvement: Lucerne is a legume that is able to fix atmospheric nitrogen into the soil, thus, improving soil fertility in the long run.
The breakdown of the plant’s deep roots also contributes to the fertility of the soil by increasing the humus content while at the same time assisting in soil drainage.
Bumper harvest all-yearlong: On average, lucerne can be harvested twice or thrice in a rainy season. When established in areas with regular rainfall or under constant irrigation, the crop will give a very high dry matter yield with over six harvests annually.
Each harvest can yield between 1.5 to 3 tonnes depending on region, prevailing weather, stage of growth at harvest and crop maintenance standards.
Long lasting:Being a perennial species, this crop should last for many years once established. It does not need re-establishment every other year.
Impressive adaptation to tropical conditions: Lucerne is a tolerant deep-rooting crop, which can survive even at times of low rainfall albeit with diminished herbage mass production.
Therefore, irrigation is required during periods of suppressed rainfall if this crop is to produce all-year round.
Lucerne is best established as a pure stand in seed form though splits can still be used for propagation. When using seed, drill shallow furrows 15 to 30cm apart under irrigation systems or 60 to 90cm under rain-fed systems.
Sow a mixture of 4kg of seed and 75 to 100kg of NPK fertiliser per acre into the furrows before lightly covering the mixture by pulling a tree branch over the furrows.
In some areas, it may be important to first carry out inoculation by dressing lucerne seed with about 100g of inoculants for every 15kg of seed.
The soil pH must range between 6.2 to 7.8 for root nodulation to take place. The crop is known to be quite intolerant to low pH (acidic soils).
Liming of soils will be necessary in such areas using six tonnes per hectare. The field must as well be free from water-logging as this will kill the lucerne.
The crop is very sensitive to poor drainage and compacted soil conditions that restrict root growth. It is advisable to sow lucerne seed just before the onset of rains.
Lucerne has a huge potential of turning around the fortunes of dairy farmers, many who depend solely on grass pasture based feeding systems oblivious of the associated nutrient deficiencies.
The writer works in the Department of Animal Sciences, Egerton University.