Kenyan Dairy Farms

Text and photos by Katy White, UCVM Veterinary Student and VWB Intern
Julia Nguyen, OVC Veterinary Student and VWB Intern

The internships with the Wakulima Dairy group are a joint initiative of Veterinarians without Borders and Farmers Helping Farmers, an organization of globally-minded people from Prince Edward Island partnering with Kenyan farmers and families. This project is also supported by the Sir James Dunn Animal Welfare Centre.

This past week Kelsey Goodick, a FHF intern, visited us from where she has been working in Naari. It was nice to have an extra set of hands as we had a big week full of some challenging construction projects. While on a walk one afternoon to the nearby river Sagana, Kelsey asked us what surprised us the most about being in Kenya. At the time we both remarked about how many people live in the “rural” area of Mukurwe-ini. It was a surprise to us to be living in such a populated area, when we expected something more rural. Of course in a country smaller than Ontario with a larger population than Canada, rural has a bit of a different meaning. Over the course of the week, and a visit to Nairobi, I think this question highlighted some of the other differences we have noticed here in Kenya and got us thinking about them. Specifically, the way an average dairy farm works is much different than in Canada.

Blog 6 - 01Julia, Katy, and Kelsey at the river Sagana, a beautiful place for reflection, and an important water supply to the Mukurwe-ini area.

The average farm we have encountered in the Mukurwe-ini area has only one or two cows, and is managed by a single person or family. It will often have other animals such as chickens, goats, sheep, and dogs or cats. The cows are housed within wooden cow sheds. Within a typical cow shed there would be a feed bunk area, a resting stall, a milking stall, and the cow’s open “alley way”. The cow’s manure and urine is often collected and piled or pooled outside the cow shed and composted.  One farmer we met, Solomon Waribu, was in the process of installing a biogas system whereby he could use his cows’ waste to produce gas to use in his home.

Side note: While in Nairobi this weekend we visited the Kibera slum, an area of four square kilometers with a population of 1.6 million people. Kibera has eight different biogas facilities that collect human waste to create fuel. For 40 KSH, people can hook up to the fuel created and cook their meals.

Blog 6 - 02An average dairy shed here in Kenya. We actually constructed the stalls in this shed from scratch!

The farms in Mukurwe-ini are zero-grazing farms, meaning that the famer has to harvest all of the food the cow eats and bring it to her. This helps to minimize parasite borne illness and ensure the cow’s daily nutritional requirements are being met. The farmer is required to grow, harvest, transport, and process the forage entirely on their own. Since the land area of a single farm is often quite small (about 1 acre), farmers often have to lease land elsewhere to grow their crops. Once they harvest their crop (using a machete) they have to transport the forages of foot or by boda boda (motorcycle). We are always in awe of the amount of forages or water that farmers are able to transport on their own. Walking several kilometres with 100 lbs of napier grass on your back is no small feat! In addition, water supply can be an issue. Some farms do not have direct water access so they must rely on rainwater collection tanks or travel to rivers to fill containers and bring water back to their farm.

Blog 6 - 03A local woman carrying napier grass to her cow back home.

To prepare for the dry season, some farmers are able to make silage. Indeed, this is one of the key ways a farmer can ensure that their cows’ nutritional needs are being met year round, and it is something we strongly encourage on our farm visits. This begins with a large harvest of maize and other forages, then everything is chopped into small chunks with the use of a chaff cutter and packed into silage bags. The protein and energy of the forage is preserved through the ensiling process making it an excellent feed for cows. Silage and other forage is then fed to the cow several times throughout the day. Farmers’ component feed their cattle here, meaning that forage is fed separately from dairy meal, minerals and other supplements. This is different from Canada where cows are fed a balanced total mixed ration containing everything the cows need in a day. While a nice idea, it would be very hard for a Kenyan famer to determine the proper balance of nutrients need in a TMR and so it is easier to ensure the cow is receiving everything she needs by feeding separately.

Blog 6 - 04Peter Ndegwa (a farmer in our project) preparing forage with a chaff cutter for the ensiling process.

Blog 6 - 05Finished silage bags ready and waiting to be fed to nearby cows.

Since this is all a very labour intensive process, farms with more cows often do poorer than smaller farms. The more cows you have, the less each cow gets to meets its daily energy demands. Making milk is a very energy demanding process, and so if a single cow is getting the proper amount of food she can make much more milk than several cows whose energy demands are not being met. A good dairy farmer in the Mukurwe-ini area is producing an average of 20L of milk per day. Milking is done entirely by hand and collected into stainless steel cans. Milking one cow from start to finish will typically take about ten minutes. The farmer will then walk with the full can or cans to the nearest milk collection point (up to a few kilometres away). Here the milk is weighed and collected into larger milk cans which are then transported to the dairy. Farmers are paid for their milk every month. The rate is about 35 KSH per litre of milk, that’s equal to 45 Canadian cents per litre of milk.

Blog 6 - 06Farmers wait with their milk containers for the afternoon milk pick up. There are two pick ups per area per day. One in the early morning around 5:00am, and the other shortly after noon.

Blog 6 - 07A milk collection station, you can see here how the milk is weighed before putting it in general collecting tanks for transport to the dairy.

The differences we see in Kenya highlight how dairy farming is a lifestyle here as much – if not more – than it is in Canada. In most cases it is more than a full time job, but when farmers are successful they can make a decent living off a small dairy farm. One that will allow their children to go to school, and ensure there is food on the table every night. Being part of a supportive dairy group, that ensures a steady income, makes all the difference for the families we work with. By helping them to increase their milk production even a little bit we are working to make that living even more worthwhile. Plus, we get the bonus of improving animal welfare on farms, making new friends, and working with passionate and hardworking farmers in the process!