Erratic weather hits farmers the hardest
Years ago, that the rains would start from March to May for the long season and October to December for the shorter spell was as sure as the sun rising from the east and setting in the west.
A good number of farmers remember such times with nostalgia, as they were assured of when they would grow their crops and when they would harvest.
Today, however, the weather pattern has become too erratic for any correct prediction, and these changes are hitting both livestock and crop farmers harder — on the farm and in their pockets.
So far, this year is perhaps turning out to be one of the worst for farmers. The long rains delayed until late March and ended in May as predicted. But so intense were the rains in some areas that crops were washed away.
And soon after the rains ended, a cold spell set in various parts of the country starting June and is still there to date. Both livestock and crop farmers are grappling with the chilly weather — the longest ever experienced in the country.
The short rains season usually starts in October, but heavy rains are already pounding various parts of the country at a time when normally there is a dry spell, thus, interfering with the harvesting and drying of maize.
In Elburgon, Nakuru County, many farmers are counting losses following a heavy downpour accompanied by hailstones that has been pounding the area for the last few days.
Acres of maize crops that were readying for harvest or tasselling have been destroyed. Mary Anyango and her husband Duke Nyarani sit outside their two-bedroomed house looking at the sky hoping against hope that it does not rain.
“All the maize and cabbages I planted on my five acres have been destroyed by the rains,” says Nyarani.
The maize plants now resemble napier grass, with the leaves having been shredded by the hailstones.
The destruction on his farm is the second this year. “In April, just immediately after I had planted, and the crops had started to germinate, heavy rains hit our area washing away my crop. I lost Sh70,000.”
Nyarani and his wife were forced to replant the cereal crop but as fate would have it, the bad weather has once more wrecked havoc on their farm, heaping on them losses.
The couple was expecting to harvest at least 100 bags of maize, which they would have sold at Sh2,000 each.
Ken Kurui, a farmer from Molo, says that earlier this year, he lost tonnes of Irish potatoes due to prolonged rains that made it impossible for him to transport the tubers to the market.
Willy Kirwa, a dairy farmer from Kapseret, Uasin Gishu County, with silage made from grass that he keeps in plastic bags. The feed will help him survive the dryspell. PHOTO | STANLEY KIMUGE | NMG
The farmer, like those growing tomatoes, is currently struggling with cold weather diseases that include blight, making them spend more money on chemicals.
The disease has forced some farmers to go the expensive route of growing crops like tomatoes in greenhouses. This has pushed up the cost of tomatoes to as high as Sh20 each, but consumers are not willing to pay for the extra cost, heaping misery on farmers like Kurui.
IMPOSSED HUGE COSTS
Livestock farmers have not been spared either. Burnish Malingo, a poultry farmer from Tala in Kangundo, says that ongoing cold weather has eaten into his profits.
“The cold season has pushed my egg production from 80 birds to 40 daily, instead of 70.”
This has directly affected his income, and to try and offer his birds some warmth, Malingo resorted to using more saw dust in the poultry house, but this has come with challenges that include flea attack.
Dr Joseph Mugachia, a veterinary surgeon, notes that the current climate variation has imposed huge costs on livestock farmers.
“Personally, I have seen a surge in cases of diseases like pneumonia in cattle and poultry because of the cold spell. This means farmers have to spend more on drugs and treatment to save their animals. The unlucky ones are grappling with deaths.”
He says during the cold weather, animals and birds eat more and spend the energy to maintain their body temperatures, instead of using it to produce more eggs or milk. This leads to a decline in milk or egg output.
“The cold weather also leads to stress in the body system that makes livestock prone to attack from diseases like pneumonia and coccidiosis.”
Farmers, therefore, have to dig deeper into their pockets not only to buy more feeds and medicine but also heat poultry houses to keep the birds warm.
“Many farmers use charcoal, whose price is currently Sh3,500 due to the ban on logging. This has led to rise in cost of production amid low output,” says the expert, who blames the erratic rains to environmental degradation.
According to Dr Mugachia, dairy farmers also have to buy appropriate clothing for their workers to protect them from the cold weather, especially those who milk as early as 3am, which means rise in costs.
Growers of fodder grass are another category of farmers worst hit by the climate variation. The erratic rain coupled with the cold spell made it rough for the farmers of Rhodes grass.
The heavy downpour affected the timing of harvest for many as the farmers could not harvest and bale in rainy conditions. Therefore, many were forced to leave the crop on the farms until when it was conducive for easier harvesting and baling.
A Murang’a farmer points to a section of a farm destroyed by heavy rains. PHOTO | ISAIAH ESIPISU | NMG
But just when they thought things would get better, the cold spell set in, affecting most parts of the country, with temperatures falling in some growing areas to 30C. Most grasses have, therefore, overgrown on the farms as the much-needed sunny conditions have been elusive.
The sunny conditions are important when harvesting so that a farmer gets the desired leaf to stem ratio to maximise on the nutritive value and the yield of the grass.
David olé Maapia, who has lived a pastoralist lifestyle for all his life, has first-hand experience on how the erratic weather has affected pastoralists.
After losing more than half of his 48 herd of cattle to tough climatic conditions last year, the herder vowed never again to keep cattle for more than a day. Instead, he has invested in goats and sheep as a way of adapting to the changing climatic conditions in Kajiado County.
“I now buy one or two cattle every day, slaughter them that very day, sell the meat to designated hotels in Nairobi, and use the profit to buy goats and sheep,” says the father of six who trades in cattle in Isinya.
Scientists have described the current phenomenon as part of the effects of climate change, which happen periodically.
A recent study dubbed Pathways to Resilience in Semi-Arid Economies (PRISE) by scientists from the Kenya Markets Trust (KMT) reveals that temperatures in most arid areas have risen tremendously in the past 50 years, hitting harder cattle.
Cattle population in all the 21 arid and semi-arid (Asal) counties has reduced by 26 per cent, with a county like Turkana, whose temperatures have increased by 1.80 Celsius recording a cattle population decline of 59.7 per cent.
However, in the same period, the rising temperatures favoured goats and sheep whose population increased by an impressive 76 per cent, and 13 per cent for camels across the Asal counties.
“This is a clear impact of climate change,” says Dr Mohammed Said, a researcher on climate change.
“One of the future scenarios is that temperatures are likely going to rise even further, and therefore counties must use such scientific data when developing their spatial plans, and climate change policies.”
Obed Koringo, the Regional Facilitator for Africa — Southern Voices on Climate Adaptation, says there is need for development of climate change policies at county and national level, where each county should develop policies that are responsive to prevailing climatic conditions to cushion farmers.
So far, three counties namely Kitui, Tharaka Nithi and Embu, are collaborating with Trócaire and the Pan African Climate Justice Alliance (PACJA) to develop their first policy documents through which the county governments will be able to budget for climate change adaptation and mitigation projects.
Additional reporting by John Njoroge