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Small farming paradise built on cow manure

Friday June 19 2015



Kenneth Kimathi in his dairy unit. PHOEBE OKALL

Kenneth Kimathi in his dairy unit. PHOEBE OKALL 

KENNEDY KIMANTHI
By KENNEDY KIMANTHI
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As one makes his way into Kenneth Kimathi’s home in Ntharene, South Imenti, Meru County, an unusual blooming of green foliage greets you.

The immaculate green trees and vegetation is a sight to behold and is the envy of visitors in his locality.

Clad in a brown overcoat, the humble Kimathi and a worker welcomes and takes the Seeds of Gold team through quarter-acre of his farm where he has built a small and tidy dairy empire which has become a study on how a small farm can produce enough slurry to generate biogas for domestic and agricultural use.

“It all started with a withered guava tree at the edge of this homestead. I poured slurry, a by-product from biogas production, and within no time, it began to flower. It has never dried up again since then,” Kimathi, a teacher at Kagaru Primary School, says.

Kimathi’s 12 cows are housed in a shed whose slanted floor is concrete and the roof is covered by iron sheets. He also owns five calves that are housed separately.

The slanted floor allows for free and smooth flow of dung, urine and water into a gutter which drains into an underground reservoir where the biogas is produced.

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The Sh100,000 unit was partly funded and installed by the Kenya National Agriculture Farmers Federation, previously known as the Kenya National Farmers’ Federation (KENAFF).

“The gas is accumulated in a chamber which once full is emptied to release the air trapped inside through pipes,” the father of three explains.

From the 14 cubic metre reservoir, the gas is transported via PVC pipes to the house for cooking. In the house, a gauge is fixed to the gas’s entry point, indicating the level of gas that is being fed to the system.

CLEANING UNIT

The gas is also passed through a “cleaning unit” that clears it of the cow dung stench.

“Biogas is a clean source of energy that puts to use natural waste that would otherwise pollute the environment. My family is able to get enough energy to last us for two months, before it is replenished again, meaning we have power all-year round. When the children are away in school, there is so much of it that we have to store some. The benefits of biogas are enormous.”

To ensure a constant supply of gas, the digester is fed twice a week.

Kimathi says to ensure cows produce adequate dung, he observes a strict feeding and health programme.

To further cushion himself from high cost of animal feeds, he processes his own fodder with an electric-powered mill and a mixing machine that are installed in one corner of his homestead.

Through making his own dairy meal, he saves Sh1,500 per 70kg of the high-yielding and expensive commercial dairy meal, which goes for Sh3,000.
Each cow feeds on an average of about 5kg of the locally processed fodder.

Out of the 12 cows, seven are milked and produce about 70 litres of milk in a day. Another three are currently in-calf. The milk is sold to a local dairy processor and retail shops.

Every cow occupies its own partition in the shed where it receives the care and devotion needed.

“I use the Total Mix Ratio meaning I mix, maize stalks and Rhodes, napier and nerd (grasses) and lucerne, hay and sunflower stalks.”

He adds: “These components that have different portions of nutrients important for cows are then chopped separately before being mixed and crushed in a mixing machine. My dream is to eventually mechanise all the operations.” The fodder is also stored to ensure he has enough feeds during the dry season.

TIDY SOME OF MONEY

Local farmers also seek the machine’s services, earning Kimathi a tidy sum of money every month, especially during the harvesting period.
Once the gas is extracted from the digester unit, what remains is slurry (a rich organic fertiliser).

“Unlike cow dung, slurry has a very high composition of phosphorous, potassium and nitrogen which are vital soil nutrients. In my farm, I don’t use fertiliser. The bio-slurry has taught me that farmers can use what they have sustainably to produce more with less from the same land and labour,” Kimathi says.

From the plant located near the guava tree, the slurry is first dried and mixed with dried plant matter. It then finds its way into his five-acre crops farm where there is a banana plantation.

This is another source of income from the highly organised farm. Once mature, the banana’s fetch him between Sh40,000 and Sh60,000 every month.

“I grow the Giant Cavendish banana type. Previously, the farm was under a coffee plantation from which I roughly made about Sh10,000 in one year,” he says.

On the same farm, there are thorn melons, pumpkins, maize, passion fruits and pawpaw. On its edge, lush napier grass has sprouted after it was recently cut.

“This farm had once lost its glamour, thanks to loss of soil fertility. But through the biogas project, and the manure from the plant, I have been able to sustain cultivation of food crops,” Kimathi says.

Besides the sales from the food crops and milk, the astute Kimathi makes a tidy sum selling pedigree heifers from his herd of cows. Each cow can fetch up to Sh200,000.

It is not all boom, though. “I have lost calves to foot and mouth disease. I also have a cow that lost one of its tits to mastitis. However, I have surmounted most of these challenges through trainings conducted by local farming groups of which I am a member,” he says.
His next project is to package and sell excess biogas as cooking fuel.

“Imagine I used to buy a pick-up full of firewood at about Sh4,000 which lasted for a month. This translates to Sh48,000 annually. I am in consultations with a team of experts from Egerton University on how to go about this particular venture.”

According to Prof Paul Kimurto, a crop and soil science expert, organic farming is fast gaining popularity in Kenya because of its health benefits.

“Kenyans have realised the importance of growing crops through the organic method because it has no chemical residue as is in the case of using fertiliser, pesticides and insecticides. The use of kitchen and animal manure also promotes environmental sustainability and conservation,” Prof Kimurto says.