Management of kikuyu (Pennisetum clandestinum) for improved dairy production.
South African dairy farmers have generally used kikuyu pasture to tide them over from one ryegrass season to the next, and as a result of its resilient nature, have assumed careful management of it to be unnecessary. This has resulted in its mismanagement which is unaffordable in current times where the profitability of dairy farming is increasingly dependent on low input, pasture-based systems. Kikuyu pasture may play a larger role in supplying nutrients to dairy cattle over the summer months in future as the alternative home produced feed sources such as silage and perennial ryegrass become increasingly unaffordable. Improving animal production from kikuyu is difficult as there is little information relating kikuyu pasture management to dairy cow performance. Efficient utilization and quality of temperate pasture have been more comprehensibly researched. The relations discovered between the chemical compounds in temperate grass species have been applied to tropical pastures such as kikuyu with limited success and often confusing results. For example, crude fibre in kikuyu was found to be positively related to digestibility. In South Africa, much research has been done on the use of kikuyu in beef production systems. This information has been applied to dairy farming systems with limited success, owing to the higher metabolic demands of dairy animals. Pasture farming needs to become more precise to improve pasture quality and hence milk yields as research trials focussing on stocking rate and grazing system comparisons have yielded results that are too general with little application at the farming level. A need for integrated and flexible management of animals and pastures has been recognised. The grazing interval is a key aspect in improving pasture and animal performance and fixed rotation lengths and stocking rates have been identified as being detrimental to performance. The relation between growth stage and pasture quality has lead researchers to identify plant growth characteristics, such as pasture height and leaf stage, as signs of grazing readiness. At the four and a half leaves per tiller stage of regrowth, the chemical composition ofthe kikuyu plant is more in line with the requirements ofthe dairy cow, with the leaf to stem ratio at its highest. The primary limitation of kikuyu pasture is a lack of energy, particularly readily fermentable carbohydrate, which makes the fermentation of structural carbohydrates difficult and dry matter intakes are reduced. Other limitations to animal performance include high cell wall constituents, low calcium, magnesium and sodium content and antinutritional factors such as nitrate and insoluble oxalate. These deficiencies and antinutritional factors are in some cases unique to 5 kikuyu pasture, meaning that kikuyu specific supplementation may be the key to improving performance from dairy cattle grazing kikuyu pasture. The objectives are to evaluate current kikuyu management systems in South Africa and their impact on dairy cow performance and to evaluate the use of pasture height and burning as quality control tools.