The vehicles leave a cloud of dust on the murram road that meanders to Pokea Farm in Njoro Sub-county, some 15km from Nakuru town.
It has not rained for about two weeks and the dust is reaching unbearable levels, especially for the residents living near the road.
Adjacent farms hosting several crops that include maize and wheat are equally chocking in dust.
A signpost with the inscriptions “Pokea Dairy Farm, distributors of Hoisteins genetics for longevity and fitness cows built to last from Germany. Ask for artificial insemination services,” informs us that we have arrived at our destination.
“Welcome to Pokea Farm,” farmer James Ndung’u says as he ushers us into the 17-acre farm that he has built to one of the finest dairy outfits in Kenya.
He is not only a top breeder but also a leading milk producer, supplying his produce to Brookside Dairy, Njoro Farmers Cooperative Society and individuals.
His Holstein Friesian animals are distinctively black and white, although some light brown animals can also be spotted from far. They are sparkling clean, are big and bulky with sagging udders dripping with milk.
The cows have short horns and weigh between 500kg and 650kg, according to the records.
Away from the cows, the cowsheds are well-ventilated with fine timber dust that is changed at least thrice a week to ensure high levels of hygiene making the beddings.
The drinking troughs have clean water while the feeding mangers had some hay during our visit.
“Eight acres is under Boma Rhodes grass, napier grass is on two acres while maize is on four acres. Sorghum occupies one acre, lucerne a quarter acre while the rest host barns, milking parlour and grazing field,” says Ndung’u of his meticulously planned farm.
The enterprising farmer has 60 cows, 30 of which are pedigree and from the current 10 lactating stock, he gets an average of 400 litres of milk each day.
His cows produce about 40 litres a day each, a feat that many farmers dream of. But there is one which offers up to 55 litres.
“This is the magic cow. It gives me the most,” says Ndung’u as he strokes the animal. “I have never treated it against any diseases apart from now when I am closely monitoring mastitis as it is getting old.”
And he has a piece of advice: “If you want to reap big from dairy farming, invest in your breeds because what you put in is what you get.”
The Holstein Friesian pedigree animal has brought him fame and fortune.
The ‘champion’ produces an average of 44 litres of milk a day, hitting the over 50 litres some days, with no problem with mastitis. At between Sh35 and Sh50 per litre, it means the cow, which is now nine years old, earns Ndung’u a fortune.
When he bought semen from the US at Sh7,000 sometimes back, recounts Ndung’u, some farmers chided him, saying he was wasting money yet he could go for cheap semen of Sh500.
“But I do not regret. Every time dairy farmers ask me the secret of success, my answer is very simple: The choice of high quality semen is the first step to running a profitable dairy enterprise because you are assured of a top breed with minimal disease concerns,” Ndung’u, who started the business in 1979 with one cow after investing Sh50,000 loan from Agricultural Finance Corporation, says.
Every Tuesday, Pokea Farm is a beehive of activity as farmers from across the country and outside assemble there seeking fresh ideas on how to boost their milk production.
Farmers who come as a group are charged Sh300 per person while individuals pay Sh500.
We found four filled visitors’ books signed by guests from Kenya, US, Norway, Germany, Hungary, South Africa, Zambia, and even Somalia.
Ndung’u, whose body frame and energy does not betray his 80 years, engages in the best animal husbandry practices.
Once a calf is born, it is critical that it develops a straight top line by making it almost skinny to prepare for a high milk production in future.
FORMER SCHOOL TEACHER
“This is a secret that not many farmers know. To make a calf produce that straight top line, give it salt, hay and water in the first three months and reduce the consumption of early concentrates. The calf will look ill-fed with protruding ribs but this is an indication that the veins are now stronger and will allow faster blood movement and increase food efficiency resulting later to more milk production,” says the former primary school teacher.
Dr Permius Migwi, a veterinary expert from Egerton University, says the feeding of animals with salts and adequate minerals help to build a strong backbone.
“Minerals and good feeding in the early stages is crucial as it culminates in a strong backbone,” says Dr Migwi.
According to Ndung’u, raising healthy animals has a lot to do with managing a cow’s stress, an area many farmers score poorly.
“A cow also needs enough rest and should not be moved from one point to another unnecessarily as this will stress it and interfere with its milk production system,” says Ndung’u, a father of three.
“At the same time the animals should be left to relax after milking and should not be moved hurriedly.”
Cows at Pokea Farm are bathed twice a week with hot water mixed with Sunlight powder. Special attention is given to the udder.
“We also clean the cowsheds twice a day to make sure teats are not infected with mastitis or other diseases.”
Besides the animals, the more than 20 staff on the farm too maintain high-level of hygiene.
“There is no point of having a clean cow that is being handled by a dirty worker as this will definitely affect the health of the animal. All my workers bath before handling animals,” says Ndung’u, who has invested heavily in training staff. He also spends Sh300,000 on salary monthly.
Training has equipped his workers with knowledge to detect problems an animal has and the remedy to take.
Ndungu feeds his dairy cows on napier grass, Rhodes grass, lucerne, maize and sorghum silage, which is nutritious and contains energy and protein.
“I mix a tonne of silage with 20kg of dried pyrethrum to curb aflatoxin. You have to feed a cow according to its weight. We feed a cow that weighs 650kg with 30kg silage and 20kg roughage twice a day,” he says, noting the animals are fed at 9am, 1pm and 5pm.
“If a dairy farmer strictly adheres to such a feeding programme, which includes concentrates, the animals will remain healthy and produce more milk.”
EMPHASIS ON HYGENE
Unlike many farmers, he does not bury his silage in the ground. He harvests his fodder at dough stage and covers it in a canvas and then puts soil on top, avoiding excess moisture.
He sells heifers at between Sh150,000 and Sh250,000 while pedigree cows go for between Sh300,000 and Sh600,000. His clients range from the small farmer to who-is-who in Kenya.
“I import Friesian Holstein sexed semen from Germany to serve my cows, which guarantees me the calves born are all female,” says Ndung’u, who also sells semen to farmers at between Sh500 and Sh9,600.
Interestingly, Ndung’u has not embraced milking machines, noting his aim is to teach the community how to milk cows with a lot of emphasise on hygiene as most of those who come to visit his farm own one or two cows and do not need machines.
However, he says he has plans to expand the farm, which is managed by his wife Miriam Wangui, and install a milking machine.
His animals are vaccinated against diseases such as lump-skin, foot and mouth and East Coast Fever.
Recordkeeping and a strict business plan is also part of the high milk yield strategy on the farm. “All the details of every cow, including the artificial insemination date, date of birth, diseases and milk production, among others, are documented,” says Ndung’u whose animals are registered with the Kenya Stud Book.
Ndung’u has drilled a borehole at a cost of Sh4 million that supplies 10,000 litres of water in two hours for the animals.
His success in dairy farming has put Kenya on the global dairy map as he won the prestigious Golden Award for Commercial Prestige in Madrid, Spain in 2014.
He received overwhelming support from 112 countries and 7,000 companies in the dairy industry across the globe.
Ndung’u has also received awards as a top breeder in all local trade fairs he has attended, and currently, he is preparing for the stock breeders’ show slated for July 21 at Jamhuri Park in Nairobi.
One of his biggest challenges is poor commercial feeds and substandard minerals, which affects milk production. The turnover of workers is another challenge as he is forced to invest in training of staff who seek greener pastures elsewhere.
Diseases such as foot and mouth, mastitis and lump skin too are a menace, though he has managed to keep them at bay for now.
One piece of advice he always gives farmers is that they should treat their animals like newly-born babies and make sure they are vaccinated against diseases, just like children. They must also make sure they have the best feeds in their formative years.
He plans to retire and pass the baton to his son John Karanja who lives in the US and has shown a keen interest in dairy farming.
Karanja plans to return home and take over the business.
what experts say
On milking machine and pedigree cows:
- Dr Tobias Onyango, a livestock expert at the Kenya Agricultural Research and Livestock Organisation, advises that if a farmer has at least five lactating pedigree animals, he should invest in milking machines.
- A human being is bound to become tired milking 10 cows, says Dr Onyango, noting to avoid mastitis, the udder must be completely drained.
- To end up with pedigree animals, farmer James Ndung’u advises that one must get quality semen from selected bulls that are famous in functional traits like good health and high yielding milk production.
- Heifers should be inseminated from 18 to 20 months as they are mature enough. The calf should be separated from the mother after five days and fed separately for three months before it’s taken to the main shed.
The feeding regime of the animals should be maintained throughout its life span. One must ensure the animal develops a straight top line by reducing the early concentrates in the first three months. Feed the animal with salt, hay and water. This will make sure it has a strong top line and veins to spread the blood and improve food efficiency in their bodies. Deworming is also critical and guard against mastitis by observing high hygiene standards.