Dairy farmers embrace technology to boost output

Milk delivery at the Kieni Dairy Products Limited (KDPL) milk chilling plant. Photo/Sarah Ooko

What you need to know:

  • Better skills improving livelihoods of small-scale cattle breeders in Kenya.

In the lush valleys of Keiyo South in the Rift Valley, 42-year-old Christopher Chepkarwa happily watches over his dairy cattle that are browsing in vast green fields.

“My cows are healthy. They produce a lot of milk which I sell and get enough money to take care of my family and pay school fees,” he says. Today, the farmer can afford a smile despite the rough times he has recently gone through.

“In 1998, I had six cows that despite taking so much of my time, only produced 12 litres of milk daily that did not fetch good prices. Also, the cows were always grazing yet they appeared thin and often became sick,” he says.

Mr Chepkarwa’s tribulations were similar to those of a majority of dairy farmers in Kenya’s Central and Rift valley regions where milk production is highest in the country.

Constraints faced by these farmers included low milk volumes, poor quality of dairy products and limited access to markets due to poor roads. The collapse of the Kenya Co-operative Creameries (KCC) in the early 2000s further compounded the problem. It left many farmers with arrears and few alternative milk markets to rely on.

Consequently, most people felt discouraged and nearly gave up on dairy farming. Though some progress was made over the years – such as government revival and establishment of New KCC as a parastatal — problems of dairy farmers were still far from over.

To address some of those challenges, an initiative entitled East Africa Dairy Development Project (EADD) was rolled out in Kenya in 2008 through a grant by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

It aimed to boost yields and incomes of more than 100,000 small scale farming families through improved production and marketing of milk for profit.

Improving livelihoods

The project, whose first phase ended in 2012, significantly increased incomes of dairy farmers thus improving livelihoods of numerous communities in Central and Rift valley provinces where it was implemented.

“My problems ended once I attended the EADD training and learned how to manage my cows well. Afterwards, I sold half of my herd and remained with only three cows. Their total milk production rose from six litres to 21 litres daily after only two months of practising what I was taught,” says Mr Chepkarwa.

The EADD project was implemented by a consortium of five partners — the World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF), Heifer International, Technoserve, International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) and the African Breeders Service (ABS) who all have a track record of supporting dairy production in Africa. The government was also involved through the Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock and Fisheries Development.

The project immensely contributed to the revival of Kenya’s livestock industry, which according to a 2011 FAO report titled Dairy Development in Kenya, accounts for 10 per cent of the country’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP).

The report further states that the country’s annual milk production from all diary species is about three billion litres. Moreover, for every 1000 litres handled, about 40,000 jobs are created which further boosts the economy.

“At the start of the project, we began by mobilising dairy farmers in selected areas to unite and form co-operative societies,” notes Esther Kamau, an expert on dairy enterprise development at ICRAF, who was involved in the EADD project.

Afterwards, all members of a society —comprising at least 2000 dairy farmers — selected a board to manage a milk chilling plant set up in their respective areas for collecting, cooling and ensuring milk brought by farmers meet high quality standards before being sold to large processing companies like the New KCC.

To ensure community ownership of the milk chilling plants, all members contributed 10 per cent of the total establishment cost. Thirty per cent of the cost was financed through an interest free loan from EADD.

The project then linked farmers to financial banks that provided loans to meet the remaining 60 per cent of the cost.

“A limit was put on the number of shares individuals could purchase, so as to avoid instances of a few wealthy individuals buying all shares and eventually displacing the community to become sole owners of the chilling plants,” says Sylvia Wafula of ICRAF, who worked as a dissemination facilitator (on dairy farming value chain) for EADD.

She adds: “As the milk business thrived, more and more people began embracing dairy farming. The co-operatives made profit and repaid loans. They now own their respective chilling plants.”

Daisy Rono of Technoserve, who worked as a monitoring and evaluation specialist for the project notes that the chilling plants— mainly located in remote areas thus easily accessible to communities — link thousands of milk farmers to available markets.

“This is important because even with good cows and a lot of milk, farmers will only value dairy farming if it gives them good income.”

Once the chilling plants were fully functional, EADD trained selected dairy farmers—chosen by the community — who subsequently worked as volunteer trainers and passed the knowledge to many more people.

Mr Chepkarwa notes that before the training, he didn’t know about exotic breeds like Friesian and Ayrshire which produce high milk volumes, yet he had been keeping cattle for years.

“Thereafter, I began improving the quality of my local cows by crossing them with exotic breeds through artificial insemination,” he says.

In addition, Mr Chepkarwa says he was informed that animal diseases can significantly impede milk production. “So I spray my cows weekly to prevent tick borne diseases and deworm them after every three months to keep them healthy.”

Ms Kamau states that they sensitised farmers on the importance of establishing fodder for their dairy cattle.

“I learned that for dairy cows to reach their optimal production capacity, you can’t just depend on normal grass. The animals need a balanced diet comprising a good quality carbohydrates, proteins and vitamins,” notes Agatha Ngori, a dairy farmer in Nyeri County.

She adds: “I now know that as I plan for my family, I also need to plant crops specifically for feeding my cows like improved Napier grass and green maize that provide energy rich fodder for the animals.”

Similarly, David Kenduiywo’s farm in Bomet County comprises fodder shrubs such as lucerne, callliandra, desmodium and sweet potato vines that are great protein sources for cattle. “I no longer need to buy manufactured protein concentrates that are expensive as I have better alternatives,” he says.

Animal fodder

Ms Wafula notes that instead of giving wet feeds like fresh napier or green grass to animals, cows should be fed on dry fodder which contains high quantities and quality of required nutrients.

“Once I harvest napier grass or green maize stalks, I always leave them in the sun to dry and wilt for about three hours before feeding them to the cows,” says Mr Chepkarwa.

Ms Kamau notes that during rainy seasons when improved animal fodder such as boma rhodes or elmba rhodes grasses are in plenty, they should be properly dried and conserved in form of hay for use during dry spells when feeds are scarce.

In the same vein, green maize or napier grass can be used to make silage (high moisture fodder preserved through fermentation in the absence of air).

“Fodder conservation cushions dairy farmers from climate change impacts such as long dry spells. It also enables cows to produce milk during dry spells when market prices are favourable,” states Ms Kamau.

Christopher Koech and his wife Rose who are farmers in Bomet county —explain that they use hay boxes which compress volumes of dried grass and take up less space.

“This way we can store fodder for our cows for even a year,” says Mr Koech as he completes making a cube -shaped hay bundle.

Meanwhile, Ms Koech prepares to milk one of the dairy cows in her homestead. She ties it up in the milking shade and gives it some fodder. “Eating relaxes the cow allowing it to produce more milk.”

Ms Koech first washes her hands and the cow’s teats. Then she begins the job and milk slowly pours into a plastic container which she had earlier cleaned and rinsed with warm water. “Without good hygiene, the milk will be contaminated,” she warns.

Martin Kariuku, a milk quality officer at Kieni Dairy Products Limited, notes that to maintain high quality standards, milk obtained should be delivered — within three hours—using aluminum cans to nearest collection points.

Ms Ngori was also trained on zero grazing which she immediately adopted.

“I built a proper unit for my cows where they now permanently reside. “Once I have properly fed them, I no longer need to worry about the animals,” she says.

Ms Ngori recalls the challenges she previously faced while practising free range grazing.

“It was so stressful. The cows held me hostage as I had to watch over them the whole day or employ a herdsman whenever I wanted to take a break.”

In free range grazing, notes Ms Kamau, the cows use so much energy looking for food, which would have otherwise been channelled towards milk production.

Ms Kamau states that EADD trained dairy farmers on value addition techniques such as making yoghurt and simple cheese which are sold to generate additional income.

“We make about Sh50,0000 and Sh42,0000 a week selling yoghurt and milk respectively,” says Gladys Wangui, who is employed at a milk bar run by Watuka Farmers Co-operative at Kieni West in Nyeri County.

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