Dry winds blow heavily in Weruga village, Taita Taveta County, carrying away all manner of debris.
As I ride on a boda boda along a dusty earth road, it is easy for one to note the extent to which soil erosion is a problem in the area, particularly this dry season.
Our destination is Jimson Kambale’s home, about 2km from Wundanyi town.
Kambale keeps eight dairy cows, two of which are in-calf, two are calves while four are lactating, offering him an average of 100 litres of milk a day.
“I left my job as a surveyor in 1999 and put Sh50,000 I had into poultry farming, starting with about 50 kienyeji birds but it did not turn out as expected because the birds used to lay few eggs and a good number of them died due to Newcastle disease,” recounts Kambale, noting he had increased the number to 200 by the time tragedy reduced them to 20.
He quit poultry farming and switched to dairy in 2002 after visiting a friend who kept 20 animals under zero-grazing.
“I started with one cow I had been offered as my sister’s dowry, improving the breed through artificial insemination,” he says.
It took him seven years to end up with five improved cows, three from his own farm and two that he bought as the venture picked up, making him pump in over Sh200,000 to establish a zero-grazing unit.
“The reason why I went for zero-grazing was that it offers higher yields due to the controlled movement, feeding and ease of monitoring.”
His current stock is a mix of Friesians and Ayrshires. He feeds his cows mainly on hay that he sources from suppliers in the region and napier grass that he buys from his neighbours at Sh3,000 per pick-up truck.
He further buys dairy meal directly from manufacturers who offer him good prices.
“I chop my fodder using a chaff cutter and feed the animals twice a day, immediately after the morning milking session and at around 2pm in the afternoon. I milk the cows twice a day and ferry the milk to Voi town to sell a litre at between Sh50-Sh60 depending on the season.”
He seems to be doing well, but Kambale, as many other farmers in far flung regions, struggles to access veterinary officers. This has made him teach himself many things about dairy cows to survive.
“As a good farmer, you should always have a thermometer. A sudden change in temperature may be a sign of disease, and you can only know that if you have the gadget. The normal temperature of a cow should be 38.6 degrees Celsius,” he offers.
The farmer says he does extensive reading of literature on livestock production, attends agricultural exhibitions and regularly visits established farms for lessons.
“Keeping animals comes with various challenges and it becomes difficult in areas where the veterinary officer is miles away. At least you should have first aid skills as a farmer. I lost a cow that was producing 30 litres of milk a day to milk fever recently, but I believe I did my best in offering first aid,” he says
His knowledge in dairy farming has earned him popularity in the region, as farmers visit his farm regularly to learn. They each pay him Sh300.
“A local NGO recently contracted me to train farmers around the county and I earned Sh6,000 per day during the period. Farming has really done a lot for me,” says Kambale, who sells mature cows at between Sh120,000 and Sh140,000 to keep a manageable stock.
His effort has seen one of his cows win prizes at the Mombasa ASK show in 2013 and 2014. Besides the trophy, he received Sh100,000 cash.
Wilfred Kioko, a livestock production officer with the Ministry of Agriculture in Voi, advises farmers to learn basics in livestock production.
He says that a good farmer should be able to detect any slight change in the behaviour of his animals to take immediate action before it is too late.
“Whenever you notice your animal has lost appetite, has become inactive, lost weight and has a rough coat or has started isolating itself, there must be a problem and you need to take action immediately,” he says.