x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Farmers told to plant 'greener' grass

A new government programme hopes to reintroduce indigenous grasses to farms to reduce water wastage.

Sami Hassan tests Buffel grass at his farm in in Dubai as part of the Al Awir programme.
Sami Hassan tests Buffel grass at his farm in in Dubai as part of the Al Awir programme.

A new ministry programme hopes to reintroduce indigenous grasses on farms.

The programme would reduce water waste and combat the transformation of habitable land into desert.

Most farmers currently rely on the thirsty Rhodes grass and alfalfa to feed their livestock. But local plants such as Buffel grass could be just as nutritious, and better for the environment.

First imported from Africa, Rhodes grass was made popular as an easy-to-grow option for farmers. However, it is prodigiously thirsty, accounting for three-fifths of the water used in the Emirates' agriculture.

Now, the Ministry of Environment and Water, and the International Centre for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (Icarda) are hoping to make Buffel grass just as popular. In the process, they also hope to reduce the need for scarce water.

Buffel grass, which is indigenous to the Arabian Peninsula, is already used as fodder in Australia, southern Africa, India and Pakistan.

It has been reimported from Pakistan and planted at research stations throughout the UAE.

Currently, of the 1,000 farms in the Al Awir programme, only eight are signed up to receive the grass. Experts say production must be boosted for the grass to become widespread.

The project is meant to reduce stress on the land, according to Essam al Alzon, a technical engineer at the Ministry.

"We need to try to determine which grasses can withstand poor quality soil and high heat," said Mr al Alzon, who spearheaded the Al Awir programme.

Buffel grass has similar nutritional content as Rhodes grass. However, with drip irrigation, it needs only a fifth as much water.

Older watering methods, such as sprinklers, meant watering the grass for six hours every day. With Buffel grass, irrigation time can be cut to just 20 minutes.

One of Sami Hassan's 12 farms is part of the trial, testing different kinds of re-imported local grass.

He first planted local and imported Buffel grass two years ago, and last year swapped the rest of his crop over to theman grass from Pakistan and America.

While he prefers Buffel grass, he said the plants that have been cultivated abroad produced more hay.

"The local species can grow with seeds, but the plant is not as thick or green and doesn't have as big of a crown," Mr Hassan said.

The fodder he grows is used to feed 100 cows and 3,000 ostriches at a nearby farm.

The project began around a decade ago, when Icarda, experts and government officials worked with herders to catalogue the UAE's grasses.

Of the 350 species commonly identified in the UAE, a handful were put up against Rhodes grass to see which were less thirsty.

"In the summertime, with a small amount of water, the Rhodes vanished, but the [Buffel grass] was doing quite well," said Mr Moustafa.

They also tested the nutritional value, as well as whether the grasses produced any toxins. After five years, they had perfected a growing system, with ideal planting times and a care regime.

In 2008, Icarda established a seed unit to increase the number of plants available for farmers.

Now, it is planning to develop facilities in the UAE, Oman and Saudi Arabia to check whether seeds are healthy.

"One disease can destroy everything," said Mr Moustafa.

Oman's unit is set to open next month.

According to Mr Moustafa, farmers need a "complete package," with easy instructions, technical advice and small subsidies to modernise irrigation if they are going to be tempted to switch to Buffel grass.