The ongoing dry spell has worsened the plight of dairy farmers, a majority who are grappling with feed and water shortage as they strive to keep milk production higher.
However, for the farmer who prepared, the dry season has come with minimal challenges, but for those who did not, they have to deal with expensive feeds, among other problems.
When it comes to feeds, dry spells are usually a great danger to farmers because most of them depend on the rains to grow fodder.
And things do not look rosy in the coming months. The Meteorological Department this week warned that the country would experience depressed rains again from March-May, which means that the dairy farmer would not have it easy.
Seeds of Gold spoke with farmers in different parts of the country to find out how they are coping with the current dry spell especially on feeding their animals, and how they are planning to overcome the tough times ahead.
Dairy farmer David Mukindia, the chairman of Uruku Co-operative Society in Tharaka-Nithi County, says through the cooperative, members have been able to come up with a sustainable project on feeds, having been caught off-guard in 2016.
Mukindia, for instance, has 200 tonnes of silage made from maize, alongside napier and Boma Rhodes grasses. He has planted the latter on 38 acres, ensuring that his 14 dairy cows that produce at least 200 litres of milk a day are feed sufficient as he sells the surplus.
He feeds his animals silage once a day but supplements with hay in the afternoon starting from 3pm depending on a cow’s production.
Besides the two, he offers the animals dairy meal early in the morning after milking. According to Mukindia, who buys fodder wholesale to save costs, a 13kg bale of hay goes from Sh240-Sh280
Napier grass, on the other hand, which is sold at between Sh10,000 and Sh15,000 an acre during the wet season now goes from Sh25,000-Sh30,000 an acre.
Alice Gondi, a dairy farmer in Kisumu County, says she stored feeds for her dairy cattle in preparedness for dry spell.
Currently, she has silage and for the next season, has set aside a nursery with brachiaria grass awaiting the rainy season for transplanting.
STABILISE MILK OUTPUT
“We try to produce as much fodder for the herd as possible but water is the biggest challenge currently. The nearby stream where we used to source our water is dry,” says Gondi. Her farm has two silage pits with capacity of 12 tonnes each, enough to feed her dairy herd of over 10 cows for months.
“We are yet to exhaust the first silage pit. In addition we have been clearing the compound harvesting grass for dairy cattle.”
Despite the harsh weather conditions in the region, the farmer’s preparedness has helped stabilise the milk output. The farm milks 10 cows with daily collection of 150 litres of milk.
For Silvester Bungei, a farmer in Nakuru County, one of the biggest challenge he is facing as the dry spell persist is acute shortage of water. He says all the rivers and water points in the area have dried up.
“I have bought a water tank that can hold 5,000 litres of water, then I buy water and store for the animal. It lasts about three weeks because my cow consumes some 200 litres of water daily and I use the water also for cleaning,” he says.
Bungei, who practices zero-grazing at Kapnandi village in Mogoon, Nakuru West, says he makes home-made dairy meal to feed the animal.
“I feed it with 10kg of maize and wheat germ meal and give enough water,” says Bungei, noting that having only a single animal has lightened his burden. “The experience is not bad because the cow gives me about 20 litres of milk daily which I sell at Sh50 a litre.”
The price of hay in Nakuru is beyond his reach as a 20kg bale is now going at Sh400, with the farmer having set aside Sh10,000 to buy 400kg of feeds ahead of the dry spell.
Peris Nyawira, who has been a dairy farmer for the last 20 years in Nyeri County, says the drought has hit her harder, but she has adopted some coping mechanisms.
The farmer has five mature animals (two heifers) and three calves. She is thinking of selling the calves to reduce her load.
Her milk production has gone down to about 30 litres from over 50 produced last year before the vagaries of drought started to bite.
BUY ADEQUATE FEEDS
“I had bought bales of hay to sustain my cows for three months since November last year. They would feed on three per day but since January when the cost of hay went up to Sh400 per bale, I have failed to keep up with the price and demand,” she says.
Nyawira has been forced to cut the feeding programme, relying mainly on napier grass she has grown on her farm to sustain the animals.
“At least I have napier, which means my cows have something to feed on. It is always good to grow your own fodder,” she says, noting she would prepare silage next month.
Her plight is compounded by the fact that milk prices have dropped to Sh25 a litre.
“You can not buy adequate feeds when you are earning that kind of amount. There are a lot of expenses for dairy farmers that the amount is unsustainable,” she says.
Mary Wanjiku, a dairy farmer in Nyeri, says she has currently moved three of her cows from her Mukurwe-ini farm to Kirinyaga to her son owing to prolonged drought.
“I was no longer able to feed the four dairy cows or offer them water. I gave then to my son who is feeding them cabbages and rice straw, which has affected milk production,” she says.
She has now remained with one dairy cow and does not intend to keep more until after the dry season.
Dr Githua Kaba, a Nakuru-based livestock veterinary officer, says farmers need to apply techniques that will match up with climate change.
They include having a fodder store, where they store hay during the wet season and feed their livestock when the weather is dry. Additionally, he recommends the making of silage.
“Farmers must also maximise on water harvesting when it rains to save them the money and time of looking for water during the dry season.”
Phillip Oketch, a dairy consultant with SNV in Meru, says in terms of preparedness, there are two types of farmers, that is, those who have kept sufficient quality fodder and those who didn’t do their mathematics well in terms of fodder economics by failing to understand the consumption in their herds.
WHEN IT RAINS, GROW FODDER
The last lot is currently buying substandard fodder that is only meant to pacify hunger but nutrition wise has no value.
“With proper feeding, production will be optimal and the cow’s cycle is maintained, that is the animal will go on heat on time, calve, have their body shape well maintained, but with inadequate fodder, the little a cow gets will be used to maintain its body,” Oketch explains.
He says with shortage of fodder, a farmer cannot break even as there is inconsistency in production.
“Too much cost in production leads to too much stress to the farmer and the cow will have infertility problems as the body condition is poor hence there are high chances of it not coming on heat,” he says.
Since the weather has become erratic, Oketch says farmers need to be protected from the potentially devastating effects of continuous drought and should thus utilise fully the wet season to avoid purchasing low quality fodder at a higher price.
“If it is silage, prepare the feed early and wait for the dry season. And when it rains, grow the fodder for instance maize, cut on time and make silage. The cycle should be well thought out,” he says.
When maize is harvested at the right stage, it has the right nutritive value. A consistent feed/fodder ensures that the microbial flora in the cow’s stomach is not interfered with, but when you feed your cow on different fodder, there would be no consistency.
“If you keep on alternating, it will take time before the microbial flora gets used to that and the result will be low production. Silage has a protein percentage of 10 percent (white maize) and 14 per cent (yellow maize) and an energy of over 70 per cent. When chopped correctly, the cow gets the right fibre to regurgitate,” says Oketch.
-Caroline Wambui, Elizabeth Ojina, Irene Mugo, Rachel Kibui and Francis Mureithi.