Frantic search for answers to diminishing milk supply

Milk processing at the Meru Dairy Union. This year’s drought appears to have jolted processors into renewed action geared towards sustainable production. PHOTO | PHOEBE OKAL
Milk processing at the Meru Dairy Union. This year’s drought appears to have jolted processors into renewed action geared towards sustainable production. PHOTO | PHOEBE OKAL 

The lucrative dairy industry is facing turbulent times even as demand for milk and related products increases.

Shortage of the commodity has seen the prices sky rocket, forcing Kenyans to dig deep into their pockets.

For the first time in the history of the dairy industry, the price of a half-litre packet of milk is Sh65.

This recently prompted the government to intervene by approving the importation of 9,000 tonnes of duty free milk powder.

According to statistics from the Kenya Dairy Board, the country produced 5.2 billion litres of milk last year.

But the prolonged drought experienced during the first quarter of 2017 hit the industry hard, with milk production declining by half.

This year’s drought appears to have jolted processors into renewed action geared towards sustainable production in an enterprise that is largely dependent on rainfall.

Industry leader Brookside Dairy, which has contracted 160,000 farmers countrywide for supply of raw milk, said investment in more sustainable agriculture practices, such as animal feed conservation, is important in ensuring milk production remains optimum throughout all seasons.

“Rain-fed production is no longer sustainable. It cannot maintain stability in the market,” says Mr John Gethi, Brookside Dairy’s director of milk procurement.

According to Mr Gethi, there is a need to strengthen the strategic reserves of milk products and establish strategic reserves of conserved feed for livestock.

Brookside says adoption of smart farming techniques could be the panacea to the dwindling supplies during dry spells. “Feed conservation is paramount if we are to succeed in tackling the vagaries of weather,” said Mr Gethi.

In 2015, the law was amended to allow the Strategic Food Reserve Trust Fund to include milk powder as a strategic food commodity.

The processor has now deployed resources to impart knowledge to farmers, especially on feed preparation and conservation.

“Involvement of the youth is critical in increasing milk production. The youth need to continue embracing dairy farming,” said Mr Gethi.

New Kenya Co-operative Creameries (KCC) managing director Nixon Sigey said they had developed robust extension services covering the firm’s eight factories in Kenya.
“Feeding is the single most biggest challenge.

New KCC is training farmers on how to get quality feed and the right ration to realise maximum production,” said Mr Kosgey.

He said farmers are also trained on how to conserve fodder for use during the dry spell.

“Issues of breeding are critical to farmers so that they get the right genetics for higher milk yields,” Mr Kosgey said.

New KCC, he said, was exposing farmers to best practices by involving them in local and international exchange programmes.

“We have taken 200 farmers to Israel for training on milk production,” said Mr Kosgey.

The processor is also linking farmers to lenders and transport institutions, besides encouraging them to form co-operatives to attract financial support and affordable artificial insemination services.

The government has also stepped in to boost milk production, with the government zero-rating yellow maize imports for animal feed production.

“This will reduce competition for white maize, lower the cost of feeds and improve on quality,” said Mr Kosgey.

Zero-rating of animal feeds and provision of liquid nitrogen equipment to farmers by the government is also expected to lower the cost of production.

An associate dean in the faculty of agriculture at Egerton University, Prof Joseph Motafari, said climate change and drought are the biggest challenges facing farmers.

“Most smallholder farmers depend on rain for pasture. When the rains fail, they have no alternative means of making fodder,” said Prof Motafari, who is an expert in food safety and quality.

He said lack of enough water has also affected sustainability of milk production among smallholder farmers, most of whom do not know how to make homegrown formulations.

“Those who know how have a problem in preservation. They are hard hit during drought,” he said.

Another challenge facing dairy farmers, said Prof Motafari, is poor quality commercial feeds.

“We have done random analysis of these commercial feeds and the results are shocking. The feeds are of poor quality and don’t meet the minimum standards,” said Prof Motafari.

He said many farmers were not accessing AI services as they are expensive, forcing them to use semen from bulls which have not been tested. “Smallholder dairy farmers are using semen from bulls which have poor quality milk traits,” he said.

Management of diseases and pests such as mastitis and ticks is also affecting milk production, as are fluctuating prices which discourage many farmers.