A front row view of dairying in Kenya

By Gonzalo Ferreira
Farmer Ellen (right) showing her corn silage that is gently packed into a 55-gallon trash bag.

The author is assistant professor, department of dairy science, Virginia Tech.

Farmer Ellen (right) showing her corn silage that is gently packed into a 55-gallon trash bag.

Last June, I had the opportunity to travel to Kenya, Africa. This was my first time in Africa. I traveled mainly from Nairobi to Nakuru. Nakuru is located within the Rift Valley and is characterized as a humid area. To offer some perspective, rainfall was approximately 38 inches per year.

The Kenyan dairy industry includes some “progressive” dairy farms with mechanization and intensive grazing management. However, it also includes many household “dairy farmers,” who own one to three cows and sell their product locally. In this situation, raw milk is sold at approximately $23 per hundredweight (cwt.), and processed whole milk is sold at the retail store for about $6 per gallon. It is worthy to mention that Kenya is a country where the milk supply does not meet the demand.

Being a dairy scientist interested in forage quality and management, one of the highlights of the trip was learning about their forage systems. For intensive grazing systems, I saw mostly Rhodes grass (Chloris gayana) pastures growing on deep clay soils. Corn and sorghum are also grown and harvested for silage in both intensive and household systems. Other forage species utilized for feeding cattle are alfalfa, locally referred to as lucerne, and Napier grass (Pennisetum purpureum), also known as elephant grass given its fast growth rate.

At the household level, most of the corn and sorghum is grown for grain consumption and the stover is then chopped for feeding cattle. These crops are planted in rows, and beans are typically grown in between the rows of corn and sorghum. Most of the tilling and weed control is performed manually, usually by the women.

Low milk production

Depending on the system, dairy cattle can be grazing beside the roads, either free or tied from one leg, or housed indoors in primitive stalls within the property. Milk production is quite low and ranges from 15 to 25 pounds per day. Many reasons can explain this low production, but the poor body condition scores of the cows clearly reflect a limitation of dry matter intake. It is fair to mention, too, that calves are kept close to their dams and therefore suckle for quite a few months. Obviously, cows are milked by hand at the household level.

One highlight of our trip was visiting Ellen and John, a couple of household dairy farmers. While Ellen works permanently on the farm, John works four days a week as a peddler in Nakuru. One thing that was fascinating about them was their high level of management skills and their willingness to learn new techniques. From all the farms we visited, for example, Ellen and John obtained the most milk from their cows. Even though 25 pounds per day is not much here in the U.S., for this Kenyan couple it was quite an accomplishment.

A different kind of silage bag

Ellen explained they rely heavily on their extension service personnel, who recommend nutritional strategies (for example, feeding urea and molasses). John and Ellen also produce very good quality corn silage. When I asked to see the silage, Ellen opened a 55-gallon trash bag full of a well-fermented corn silage that was manually, but gently, packed into the trash bag.

Another example of their management skill was their homemade irrigation system. Through this system, the rainfall water from the roof was directed and collected into a first tank. Then, using a “stepper system,” they transfer the water to a second tank positioned at a higher level. The water is then distributed by gravity using a network of pipes into the field.

As with everywhere around the world, there are bad farmers, good farmers, and those that go beyond boundaries. Even though at a level different to what we are accustomed in the U.S., Ellen and John are outstanding farmers who do not get stuck in problems; rather, they seek solutions. Their constant motivation to improve themselves as farmers was evident and reflected in positive results.

Kenya is a country with a dairy industry that seems to have a lot of growth potential. This growth would likely be tied to more progressive forage management. In my opinion, more mechanization, more utilization of high-quality forages such as alfalfa, and a greater implementation of rotational grazing systems are some changes that may have a great impact for ensuring food security in Kenya.

This article appeared in the August/September 2019 issue of Hay & Forage Grower on page 24.

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