Dressed in white overcoats and black gumboots, the two herders led the bull into a shed at the Nairobi showground.
They could not hide their joy as the red and white steer of the Boran breed settled in the shed.
Minutes earlier, the animal had been crowned a champion bull.
“We are happy,” exclaimed David Khatete, a livestock officer at Kenya Seed Company. “Our bulls have won this title for 10 consecutive years, and we hope to win again next year.”
Located in Kitale, the company’s farm specialises in raising quality steers, which they sell to abattoirs and farmers, who buy young animals to rear for meat.
Ordinarily, most dairy farms do not keep male calves for longer periods because they compete with heifers for care and management.
The animals are normally disposed, sometimes at a throw away price.
Besides the competition with heifers, another reason farmers dispose male calves is that they fear they can turn wild or aggressive years later, therefore, becoming a threat. But this trait can be addressed through castration.
So what is the secret to raising an award-winning steer?
“Feeding the male calf when few days or weeks old should not be a problem. Offer it porridge made from maize flour instead of milk alone. Make the porridge as light as possible and add a little milk to it. This is very healthy for the calf and is cheap as compared to buying milk,” Khatete explained, adding the animal should be dewormed as soon as it begins to feed on grass.
Once it hits three weeks, they normally castrate the calf using an elastic band.
“The elastic band works by obstructing blood flow to the testicles and the scrotum. The testicles eventually fall from the body after a few weeks. The band is less painful and stress-free as compared to using the burdizzo,” Khatete said, adding that castration is done to fatten the calf and make them docile.
The animal becomes a steer once castrated. Later, the steer is dehorned when it is four months old.
According to him, feeding steers is considerably cheaper as most of the time they graze in the field from 9am to 5pm.
“We have 700 animals. After grazing, we feed them on maize cobs and some hay to supplement. The maize cobs are crushed to enable the animals gain up to 2kg a day. The crushed cobs are mixed with roughages such as milled hay to prevent the animals from suffering from diarrhoea when they feed on maize cobs or maize bran. The cobs have necessary nutrients which fatten the animals,” he said, adding they have constructed feeding troughs on the grazing fields where water is pumped to the animals for drinking.
Kenya Seed normally has lots of maize stovers (maize stalks, leaves and cobs) by the virtue that it also deals with maize production.
The stovers, therefore, come in handy as fodder for the animals to supplement grazing. Maize stovers have very low digestibility especially when fed to the animals without chopping or milling leading to high wastage.
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Therefore, it is always advisable to mill.
However, those farmers growing crops such as wheat and rice can also feed the animals on milled wheat or rice straw.
The company uses artificial insemination to service the cows, and when they deliver, male calves they are separated and raised as steers.
Foot and mouth disease is one of the biggest problems to the animals.
“We use magadi soda (soda ash) to control the disease. Sprinkle the ash on marshy areas, especially at the entrance of their sheds and around their drinking points, but not in their drinking water. The ash kills parasites that cause the diseases,” said Khatete, adding the animals should be sprayed against diseases.
But why would a farmer rear bulls at a time when dairy is the venture of choice?
“Raising steers is less demanding compared to heifers, especially for those who have some grazing space because the business requires minimum inputs and fetches good returns compared to dairy farming.”
“Our steers are ready for market at between 18 months to two years under proper management, which is the same period needed by a heifer to mature for first insemination. But we use less than Sh23,000 to raise each for the 18 months making beef farming more profitable,” added Khatete.
Some of the breeds bred specifically for beef include Boran, Sahiwal (and their crosses) and Fleckvieh (a dual purpose animal).
These animals can also do well in arid and semi-arid areas since they are tolerant to the harsh conditions, including tick-borne diseases.
In 2015, the company’s two-year-old bull was bought by President Uhuru Kenyatta at Sh1.1 million.
They repeated the same feat this year when a bull from the same farm was crowned champion and bought by the President at Sh750,000.
But a farmer does not necessarily have to take their steers to an auction at the show to make good money. Steers are sold to butchers and hotels for at least Sh150 per kilo. live weight, he said.