Growing up, hobbies were never touted as potential sources of cash, possibly attesting to the more laid back times we might have lived in.
Encountering former chief registrar of the judiciary Gladys Shollei and having the opportunity to walk around her bustling farm on the lush hills of Uasin Gishu, you experience a challenge to the question of what exactly you are doing with your own hobbies and 24 hours.
“My parents were junior civil servants but still managed to send us to Hill School in Eldoret, one of the best schools here. They could never have afforded to do that off their salaries, it was the part-time farming that did it.”
The privileges that farming provided this environmental law specialist as a child, appear to have become etched so deep in her unconscious mind.
Originally from Elgeyo Marakwet, Glady’s family did bee-keeping, dairy farming and kept chicken. “My mother insisted that we all had to be involved in harvesting maize and milking the cows. I remember we’d do this till our fingers got blistered and I swore I would have nothing to do with a farm. She looks at me farming today and laughs.”
Gladys and her husband Sam purchased the land the farm now sits on in 1996, paying for it over the years. They went in on a commercial scale in 2003.
The commercial component is currently centred on dairy farming, but the 230 acre farm also breeds dogs, chicken, pigs, goats, sheep and horses.
The couple also plant vegetables, trees, and grass (napier grass, Kikuyu grass). A separate 100 acre farm holds beef cows.
MONITORING SOFTWARE APPLICATION
The dairy shed, which is not too far from the main house, has numerous cows. Gladys prefers not to mention the number laughingly saying that Kalenjins don’t count children and cows, but at a quick count, they number more than 200.
The breeds range from Holsteins, Jerseys, Brown Swiss, to Guernseys, most tall as houses and wider than ships. Gladys tells of how the couple had to import some from South Africa to boost breeds.
A farming software application allows the farm manager and staff to closely monitor each cows feeding, fertilisation, milking, health and productivity patterns.
Through it, Gladys can also monitor the goings on at the farm while in Nairobi. Each cow consumes 14kg of silage in addition to greens – a mixture of napier and Kikuyu grass, dairy meal and maize germ.
“If we were buying the feed, it would be Sh1,350 per 50kg. In fact my mother runs an agrovet but I can’t give her business because if I was buying feeds I’d go broke.”
The cows are divided into different areas in the shed, depending on production and period of lactation. There’s a maternity wing, a section for cows put aside for steaming (preparing for insemination), an area for cows drying off, one for high producers, and a sick bay.
For efficiency, the farm has its own nitrogen tank which stores semen and picks gender in advance so that they are sure that expectant cows will produce females.
In terms of production, the best performing cow gets 40 to 45 litres per day, with the worst at 25. On a good day, they are able to milk and sell up to 1,500 litres a day, selling the milk to KCC, Brookside and ATM machines. “We sell to whoever gives us the highest price. They fluctuate a lot.”
In addition to high-tech electronic milkers, the farm has two coolers of a capacity of 500 litres each which the mother of four avers has been helpful in storing the milk, otherwise they might have ended up losing a lot of milk.
At present, the farm employs 21 full-time staff with other workers brought in on occasion to work on a daily wage.
“We also want to get into selling heifers. Because they are pedigree (registered with the Kenya Livestock Breeders Association) the price is between Sh270,000 to Sh300,000.”
Some of the challenges dairy farmers face is disease management. “Mastitis risk is huge, you have to be vigilant. We have to do a check every time before we begin milking.”
As part of self-sufficiency, the farm has a manure pit and pumps water from a small river that runs through it. “Ideally we can make biogas. But right now we’re using it to enrich the soil. To cut fuel costs we also use donkeys to get the silage from the farm to the cow shed.”
But even though the money they are getting from the farm is quite healthy, the lawyer is most proud of what it has done for the family.
“Just coming here has become a good thing for our lifestyle. It’s given us a great centre as a family. I like it that here the kids interact with everyone and get their hands dirty.”
Her first born son who is in his late teens has also been caught by the farming bug. “My son is fascinated with the bulls, he wants to rear them for beef. He is also rearing dogs and horses.”
Living in Nairobi, Gladys goes to the farm on weekends, about twice a month.
With the myriad of activities and projects on the farm, how does Gladys and her husband manage it all?
“There’ll be certain things my husband takes the lead on, there’s others I’ll take the lead on. I’m good at managing and implementation while he’s good at planning.”
REQUIRES ORGANISATION SKILLS
One thing is certain. Farming on this kind of scale and variety via telephone, needs advanced organisational skills.
What would a farmer need to set aside for capital to make returns such as those she is making?
“The most important thing is to get the land to start with. And it’s better to begin little by little with what you have, rather than over-investing and hoping for get quick returns. We’ve been doing this for more than 20 years and still haven’t ‘arrived’.”
While getting impressive returns, it is also costly. Over half a million is expended monthly on expenses including employees salaries, housing and food; minerals for the cows; insemination; managing pests and diseases; and electricity bills. “To reduce costs, we want to go into biogas and solar energy.”
Her 20-year experience in farming has also seen her host farmers learning with a Dutch NGO.
She says this has given her more insight into the plight of farmers. “When we were young, farmers were some of the richest people here. DT Dobie had an outlet in Eldoret, farmers had the money to buy the cars they wanted.”
She traces the ebb and flow of farmers’ fortunes using her own family trajectory. “My parents sold maize and were able to send me to South Africa for university in 1993. Ten years later, they weren’t able to afford to pay for my sister at the University of Nairobi.”
Before focusing on milk, maize had been their crop of choice. They dropped it after prices plummeted. “This is the one thing I feel must be solved in
Tips for telephone farmers:
- Invest in the knowledge. We learnt by visiting other farms to see what they did.
- Begin small and grow slowly
- Get workers who are dedicated and love farming
- Divide labour and specialise. This ensures accountability.
- Cost saving. The easiest way for a telephone farmer is to buy feeds. But as the herds increase, it becomes very expensive. Look at where you can cut costs.
- Employ technology to maintain presence even while away.