Three kilometres drive along the Eastern bypass road-off Thika superhighway-sits Ruiru, a busy peri-urban centre in Kiambu County, and some 35 minutes away from Nairobi.
Sparsely spread homesteads are the hallmark of Ruiru, enabling active livestock keeping and crop cultivation.
From the Eastern bypass, we take a left turn to an earth road that leads to Tassels Dairy Farm, our destination. Muturi Njoroge, the proprietor, emerges from his office in a black pair of trousers and a cream shirt, both the shirt sleeves’ rolled up.
Nicknamed Israel because of its alluring farm structures and ultra-modern zero grazing units, Tassels Dairy Farm prides itself in raising pedigree Friesian cows, 140 of them under one roof.
Proper housing and fodder are important to animals just as they are to humans, the farmer explains, pointing out that the two are vital in maximizing a cow’s productivity.
“A cow’s shelter should ensure easy movement, should also be sizeable and stress free,” Muturi says, adding the shelter should also be covered from external weather conditions such as rains, wind and direct sunlight.
The farmer has also partitioned the upper chamber of the structure hosting the dairy cows leaving a spacious store for stocking bales of hay. The fodder reserve ensures enough feeds for the animals throughout the year, the farmer says.
The animal structure seated on an acre piece of land has been constructed with blocks all round, and its stone walls are one meter above the ground.
However, the upper part of the wall and the roof is made of corrugated iron-sheets and iron rods.
The whole parlour has a rough cemented floor fitted with drainage pipes to drain the animals’ wastes.
“Insufficient supply of fodder is the cause of reduced milk production in most farms especially during droughts,” Muturi notes. He has stocked more than 10,000 bales of hay.
He says the animals also require a constant supply of clean water.
Muturi, 34, and his wife Susan, ventured into dairy farming about 12 years ago with 18 dairy cows.
Before starting his own venture, Muturi worked as a farm hand at a dairy farm in Githunguri for two years, and that gave him a head start as a dairy farmer.
“I later ditched the job and began collecting milk from farmers in the village before delivering the products to restaurants in Nairobi,” the dairy farmer recounted.
The young farmer took Sh50, 000 savings plus a Sh100, 000 loan from Equity bank and started off the dairy farming venture in 2001.
“I bought two dairy cows, and relocated to Kiserian where someone leased me a small piece of land at Sh10, 000,” Muturi says.
By the time he got married two years later, his stock was seven after the animals reproduced and he bought a few more.
“Fortunately, my wife was also a dairy farmer. She already had 11 cows she had been rearing with the assistance of her grandfather,” the farmer narrated, adding they merged their stock to make up an 18-strong dairy farm.
The couple relocated to Ruiru and bought one acre piece of land two years ago at Sh13 million, which they partly funded with their earning from dairy farming and loans. With 18 cows, the headache of feeding then all arose.
“We leased some plots where we cultivated hay. We also harvested grasses growing by the roadside.”
An entry into dairy farming for Muturi and his wife was a tough one, as the sector was by then dominated by the old folk. “The older farmers were more experienced than us so we would consult with them most of the time.”
Yet with all their effort, the productivity of the cows was not satisfactory.
“We visited a veterinary officer from the Ministry of Agriculture and Livestock who, upon assessing our animals, noted that they were not pedigree,” he said.
“We were advised to mate the cows with a pedigree bull to rectify the dairy’s poor qualities,” adds Muturi who is accompanied by his wife.
When a farmer buys a dairy cow with no genetic history it is known as foundation stock. Therefore to get the desirable qualities of a productive cow, the foundation is inseminated with hybrid semen, and the result is an intermediary stock.
The intermediary stock is also inseminated with hybrid semen to produce an appendix stock which when inseminated with hybrid semen produces a pedigree cow.
The pedigree cow, according to animal experts, is a heavy feeder, but a good producer with high adaptive capabilities.
It takes about seven years to have a pedigree cow from a foundation stock. So to achieve the present number he had to sell some of his non-pedigree dairies and bought the high breed cows even as he improved others.
“I buy breeds from farms with good record keeping,” says Muturi.
The farm now has 70 lactating dairy cows which give him 1200 litres a day which he supplies to restaurants in Nairobi. It also has eight bulls although the farmer prefers Artificial Insemination (AI).
“Buying an animal to breed is not just a matter of going to the market and picking one. A farmer should look for the animal’s records. The records also helps a farmer to know the character and productivity of the animal he’s buying,” notes the farmer who now employees 15 farm workers.
Apart from feeding his cows on dry matter, the animals are also fed on concentrates which are richer in nutrients.
He has now invested millions of shillings in an ultra-modern structure that has a mechanised milking parlour, a milk processing zone, a laboratory and display unit for processed products.
Muturi is currently putting final touches to the unit that will enable 20 cows to be milked all at once using a machine.
The farm sells three tonnes of manure every week at Sh20, 000. Muturi is now in the process of establishing a biogas plant which will use the wastes to produce energy for farm use.
Ronald Kimitei, an expert at Egerton University, says a farmer should look out for the genetic make-up and adaptability of the animal to the environment when scouting for an ideal dairy cow.
“The animal’s performance is as a result of combination of its genetic makeup, the environment it is reared in, and the interaction of the two,” notes Kimitei.