Alex Ndungu, a Dairy Farmer. He has adopted modern ways of keeping Dairy cows. [Jenipher Wachie, Standard]

Dairy farmers, especially the smallholders who keep cows on a hectare or two of farmland, must adapt climate-smart practices or hang up their milk jars. This is because the frequent and prolonged droughts and rising costs of inputs is kicking peasant farmers out of business- if they were really in business in the first place. We used to have seasons of milk glut but now the dairy sector in Kenya is characterised by shortages and high consumer prices.

Does dairy farming really pay? Many mull over this question, from retirees to telephone (or zoom) farmers and those who quit white-collar jobs to venture into dairy business. Some succeed but many rush in, invest in the best of breeds, structures and technology and rush out of the business as the excitement dissipates into disappointed. Meanwhile, peasant farmers with modest ambitions seem to thrive well. So what is the secret? Experts say feed and breed are ultimate variables that must balance off for successful dairy industry. But is it? 

Prospective dairy farmers often ask, “How many litres does this cow produce in a day?” Yet in essence, they also ought to be asking also about the amount and type of feed, hygiene of the habitat, access to clean water etc. Sometimes even reliable labour can be a critical variable.

A small-scale farmer will easily break even by feeding cows with forages that are readily available on the farm- those natural weeds and bushes or some legumes they have grown. Their unsophisticated strategy of getting the best they can from what the cows freely browse, is impressive.

It is the same strategy that Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organisation, (Kalro), international NGOs and Self Help Africa, calls forage-based dairy system.

The idea is to develop breeds of cattle that easily adapt to on-farm feeding using climate smart forages. Farmers are encouraged to plant lucerne (including lucerne trees), napier, sweet potato vines, sorghum and other tree or shrub for the benefit of the livestock. Doing so cuts down use of concentrates purchased from the shops by up to 90 per cent, thus dramatically reducing production costs and increasing profitability.

SNV, the Netherlands NGO that works with dairy farmers, calls this “on-farm investment”. That said, it is worth noting that it takes considerably compromises to achieve profitability in dairy farming.

Forage conservation

The Friesian breed, for example, is known for high milk yield. But it also eats a lot. The Sahiwal eats less and produces less milk. The middle ground, which suits the small-scale farmer, is a cross-breed that involves the hardy Sahiwal breed. This is what more than 800 small scale farmers, from Nakuru and Nyandarua Counties, recently learnt from a dairy open day at Kalro, Naivasha.

The Innovation Support Unit at Kalro has managed to rank animals in Kenya and imported genetics according to their suitability for the Kenyan production system. They were able to showcase the different cross-breeds from the Sahiwals and to sensitise farmers on forage conservation for the long dry seasons. 

The cross breeding of the indigenous long-horned Ankole cattle with some exotic breeds certainly holds the secret to success in dairy keeping. Despite remarkable efforts by government and donors to turn around the fortunes of dairy farmers in Kenya, the road to self-sufficiency in milk production and subsequently improved food security in Kenya, is still long. That is why we still import a lot of milk from Uganda.

There are gaps in capacity building, provision of extension services and social inclusion, especially among the youth. We need to bring back the glory of our dairy industry that saw us in the past convert milk into powder milk during times of plenty. In this elections season, we need to hear from politicians on their strategies for strengthening this sector in the campaigns and debates. Dairy farming matters and it can pay.