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Ideas & Debate

MUNENE: Address causes of livestock feed supply shortage

Many farmers have complained about high livestock feed prices. FILE PHOTO | NMG
Many farmers have complained about high livestock feed prices. FILE PHOTO | NMG  

I am writing in reaction to the Business Daily article on June 19th titled “Farmers urge manufactures to reduce cost of animal feeds”.

For the livestock farmers, there has been an acute shortage of livestock feed since mid-2016.

As pointed out in the article, prices of animal feed have risen to levels that are out of reach for many farmers and even those who can afford the feeds can hardly break even in the dairy business.

How did we get to this crisis in livestock feed supply? Is it due to drought or is it a flawed policy in the livestock sector? It is easy to blame the drought as we have now had two nearly failed rainy seasons.

But since prior to this we had other droughts, it would only mean that we do not learn from history and our livestock policy is not in tune with the times, leaving livestock producers exposed if there are any hitches in the livestock feeds markets.

To understand where we are, we need to roll back to 2013, when we ushered in the new devolved government.

There was big hype about how the dairy sector was going to be the big game changer in rural economies and we witnessed bench marking trips abroad so as to learn how to quickly to put Kenya in that coveted list of top dairy nations e.g. Israel and Netherlands.

Without being seen to undervalue the learning experience that can come from bench-marking trips and indeed any learning from peers – what these trips gave was a utopian quick fix in buying exotic dairy breeds which are feed guzzlers and they need ICU type of management if they are to produce and maintain the record breaking milk yields they are known for. An example of such a breed is the much beloved Friesian, which is kept by many small-scale farmers.

It is a human trait that we display only the positive things to our visitors and with this, delegations that mainly went abroad failed to factor in or were conveniently not informed that in most developed countries dairy farmers are highly subsidised by the state, they have on-the-call extension and veterinary services and availability of quality of animal feeds is guaranteed.

As a result of the hype on farming after benchmarking trips coupled with easy access to credit from financial institutions that were giving “cow-loans”, the 2016/17 drought found dairy farmers who were over stocked with breeds they could hardly feed and whose milk production had plummeted to levels way below the touted yields that they were expecting when they bought the cows.

No wonder there is a surplus of high yielding breeds in the livestock market and few farmers wanting to buy.

Seeing how we got here, it is justifiable to say that our decisions in dairy farming have more or less been ad hoc and not based on livestock policy that is workable for the small-scale zero-grazing or semi zero-grazing farmer.

Any intervention that the government can offer to alleviate the current feed crisis is welcome, but long term it will require policy change in the following areas:

1) The laissez faire attitude in livestock production needs to stop via a government directive. If farmers expect the government to bail them out when they have problems they must accept that the government can and should put its foot down on the type of cattle breeds they keep, the zones they are kept and number of animals a farmer can keep depending on the resources in the farm.

2) Devolve research: Most of the things that farmers and county officials were going to learn abroad e.g animal feeding and housing, are available with Kenyan research and learning institutions such as KARLO, Ministry of Agriculture Centres, ADC Farms and public universities. They should be brought to where the farmer is in the form of demonstration farms, otherwise local research will remain academic and we will always seek to go abroad for learning trips.

3) Fund Extension services: At this age of “consultants”, livestock farmers need the old school livestock hands-on extension workers. Through extension services farmers should be taught about feed consumption vs milk production. This will hopefully wean them off from the desire to keep high feed consuming breeds e.g Fresian in preference of efficient feed convertors such as Fleckvieh.

4) Use of ASALs ( Arid and Semi Arid Lands) as the main producing areas for conserved fodder ( hay) .

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