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Simple practices that help the Maasai keep animals happy

Friday February 20 2015

Jackson Lekutit grazes his goats and sheep in Ongata Nado, Narok East. PHOTO | VERAH OKEYO

Jackson Lekutit grazes his goats and sheep in Ongata Nado, Narok East. PHOTO | VERAH OKEYO | NATION MEDIA GROUP

VERAH OKEYO
By VERAH OKEYO
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In a region that received less than 110mm of rainfall last year as recorded by the Meteorological Department, the fat looking goats and sheep of Narok East are a sense of wonder.

The farmers, unable to access knowledge on modern farming practices, rely on innovative and time-tested traditional methods that ensure their animals flourish in the harshest conditions.

Simon Meingati, 25, a resident of Ongata Nado village, Narok East, has a herd of 40 goats and sheep, having started with only two goats in 2013.

“I make sure I feed them properly,” he says. The statement, however, is unusual as the region is sunbaked with thorny shrubs.

“I feed them the tiny maize seeds that we will not eat. I grind the maize and mix with salt lick that I buy from an agrovet. The maize is nutritious as it helps in milk production,” he says, adding that he takes his goats to the nearby River Siapei thrice a week.

Had Meingati read the 1988 Ministry of Livestock Development’s report titled Keeping Goats in Kenya, he would have known how practical the practice is.

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The report acknowledges that goats in the arid areas depend on natural forages, maize hovers and salt licks.

A study by Decentralised Animal Health Support Unit of the Intermediate Technology Development Group Eastern Africa, an international development organisation, also reports that minerals for goats are acquired locally through natural salt licks that are found along the watering points and almost every farmer in arid areas has access to.

KEPT FROM BREEDING

Jackson Lekutit, another farmer, has 60 goats. He is careful to keep the bucks called Meregish in Maasai language from mounting the does during this dry season.

He uses a handmade ‘apron’ made from hard-dried animal skin to do the job. The gadget is tied around the buck’s lower body part.

“If we do not control breeding, we will not have enough food for the kids because goats calve down to at least two kids per birth and twice a year. We only allow them to mate when we have sold some animals,” he says, adding that any farmer can make the gadget and use.

Prof Bockline Omedo Bebe, an expert in Livestock Production Systems at Egerton University, explains the phenomenon of controlled mating among pastoralists.

“In arid areas, mating is done to coincide with periods of good feed supply to increase conception rates and the twinning ability of the goats.”

This, therefore, ensures faster growth of the kids, which is important for attainment of sexual maturity.

Lekutit lets his animals graze freely in the expansive fields to feed on thorny plants that fatten the ruminants.

The arid Ongata Nado has acacia and other shrubs such as the dreaded mathenge, scientifically known as Prosopis juliflora, which was rated by The Invasive Species Specialist Group of the International Union for Conservation of Nature as one of the world’s top 100 least-wanted plant species.

Prof Bebe says acacia pods contain proteinous elements and minerals like zinc and iron that help keep diseases at bay.

“Mathenge is a rich source of proteins, vitamins, energy and minerals at a time when the preferred grasses and forbs are unavailable to provide these nutrients,” says Prof Bebe.

With no supplementation, he says, plants such as Mathenge minimise feed scarcity during the dry seasons protecting the ruminants from weight losses and poor performance.

The special attention that the ruminants receive from their owners is underpinned on the economic and cultural importance that they hold in the Maasai community.

In courtship, the man must take goats as gifts to the potential parents’ in-law as a gesture of a bond between the two families.

When sold in the nearest markets namely Enengare, Ewaso Ngiro, Suswa and Ntulele, a kid goes for as high as Sh5,000 while the bucks and does go for up to Sh50,000.

“I prefer the white goats. They do not get sick often and they give birth fast,” says Meingati.

He is referring to a hardy cross-breed of the Galla and the East African breed.

The crossbreed combines the disease-tolerance of the East African and the water-retention qualities of the Galla to produce a superior and a more preferred ruminant that attain much higher market weights in a shorter period.

The farmers in Narok also use an impenetrable shed called Emwatata made from thorns and poles to protect their animals from leopards and other beasts.

Narok being a stop-over town of many buses on long distance travel, the crossbreeds are preferred by butchers and traders because of their big size, with farmers having ready market.