Save for the sound from the feed-making machines, the hum from the milking parlour and an occasional moo from the cows, the massive farm is generally quiet.
Quite unusual for a dairy farm that hosts more than 50 cows. James Mburu, the owner of the farm located in Matuu, off the Thika-Garissa highway, says the cows are quiet because they have nothing to complain about.
“We do everything to make them happy. We feed them well, milk them on time, treat them and they live comfortably. If you hear them mooing, it is because they have to,” says Mburu, 42.
Matuu is generally dry but this does not worry Mburu because in his farm he has large food stores.
“The food in the stores can last my cows one year. I have five bunkers measuring 12 by 20 feet where I preserve the feeds. They are 10 feet into the ground,” he says.
Mburu plants lucerne and napier grass and supplements the feeds with maize stalks. He also buys the stalks and makes fodder just in case there is drought.
To make the feeds, he harvests the maize stalk, napier grass and the lucerne and cuts them into small pieces using a chaff-cutter. He then mixes them and stores them in the bunkers.
After every six inches of the feeds, he compresses them then adds maize jam and molasses which act as preservatives. Storing the food in the bunker helps to preserve nutrients.
“The food ferments. The animals love the taste so much. Even though they are stored in the bunker, they do not lose the green colour.”
Lucerne is more nutritious than napier grass or maize stalks, according to him. “It has a lifespan of seven years and therefore is more economical than grass,” says Mburu, who keeps Friesian cows, 30 of which are lactating.
They produce at least 600 litres of milk every day. On average, every cow produces 23 litres and he sells a litre at Sh60 at the local market. At least 10 of his 50 cows are currently in-calf.
Mburu has connected water from the Yatta canal and has also sunk a borehole just in case the furrow dries. This is in addition to a water reservoir he has dug in the 17-acre farm.
He has cemented all the cow sheds and classified them. Some are for resting while others for feeding. Every cow occupies its own compartment where it receives the care and attention needed.
“This enables them to stay clean and healthy and ease drainage at the sheds.”
The animals feed from a modern trough where their necks are controlled, a technology Mburu says he acquired from a trip to Israel last year.
When their necks are secured in the cubicles, they don’t wander. This helps them to maximise the feeding time.
After feeding, the cows are left to walk around and exercise at a set site and, thereafter, directed to the resting room where they sleep on mats waiting to be milked using two machines he bought at Sh300,000 each.
“The machines induce the animals to produce more milk. Cows like the humming sound of the machines, which encourages them to produce more. We have tried manual milking and it does not produce the same results. The machines too are cost-effective.”
The two machines are electric and are run by two of his five workers. Using the machines, it takes an hour to milk all the 30 cows compared to if they were milked by hand, which would require more workers and more time, he explains. He uses Artificial Insemination (AI) to serve all his animals although he has a Friesian bull, which he uses once in a while.
“I use the bull when sometimes AI fails, but I prefer the former,” says Mburu, who keeps Friesian cows because they produce more milk. He has over 30 calves which he has separated from their mothers for weaning depending on ages.
He sells heifers from Sh100,000.Mburu learnt the secret of raising healthy animals and reaping big rewards from his father’s farm in Murang’a.
He has also attended training on dairy farming in Naivasha and Israel. “We spray the cows every week and de-worm them after every three months. We also give adequate calcium to cows that are about to calve. We stop milking them 75 days before they calve down, instead of 60 days as many farmers do.
This helps to boost the calcium levels in the bodies as well as give the animal an opportunity to create more milk wells.”
Mburu, who is an electrical engineer-turned-businessman, says he went into farming by accident.
“I started farming in 2008. When I first came to Matuu, I began by growing French beans on a rented piece of land. After sometime, I observed that there was a gap in milk production but I was not that keen in filling it.”
The push came when one day he went to buy milk and found it had plenty of water.
“I felt bad because I had bought the milk for my baby. It’s this that pushed me into dairy farming in 2010. I began with a single cow which my father gave me, but also bought more when I realised it was a profitable business.” He created food stores in 2012 after his herd increased.
The stores have ensured he has enough feeds during the dry and rainy season.
The farmer also grows bananas and sukuma wiki in greenhouses, which he sells at his Brilliant Supermarket in Matuu town.
He harvests 50kg of sukuma wiki and spinach every day, with each kilo going for Sh15. He uses manure from the dairy farm to grow his crops. He has established a biogas plant from the animal waste and uses the gas for cooking and lighting his home.
“I established the supermarket in 2009 from part of the money I got from my farm. I have over 75 workers who help me run the supermarket, a bookshop and the dairy farm.”
Prof Antony Kibe, an agronomist at Egerton University, says fodder can be preserved in a silo or a bunker for up to 10 years as long as air and water are kept off.
“The materials to be preserved should be compressed tightly (ensiling) to get rid of air,” he says.
The process involves partial fermentation, which includes the aerobic bacteria which utilises all oxygen available. “The acidic pH levels should be at 4.2 to 4.4, which no other micro-organism, including fungi or even insects can survive. The high acidic levels preserve the fodder.”