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Vet on call: Yes, sell off some animals to survive the virus crisis

Friday April 24 2020
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Dairy farmer Timothy Mwirigi with one of his dairy cattle in his farm in Meru County. Despite the coronavirus crisis, he is one of the farmers working to ensure they maintain and sustain their herds and production. PHOTO | CAROLINE WAMBUI | NATION MEDIA GROUP

By DR JOSEPH MUGACHIA

Last week, I wrote about the dilemma livestock farmers have found themselves in due to the socio-economic impacts of the Covid-19 emergency.

The initial impacts were loss of markets for raw or semi-processed products such as milk, meat, eggs and fish.

This was quickly followed by disruptions in the supply of feed raw materials as cross-border transport became very difficult.

Farmers who used to make their own feeds on the farm resorted to buying factory-made ones and over time, the feeds have become too expensive to sustain production, especially for large-scale farms.

And as farmers struggle to produce, they have to deal with challenges of accessing consumers because of the Covid-19 containment measures that have dispersed people from the business centres to their residential or rural areas.

Many farmers continue to call me searching for advice on how to sustain their activities. Readers who are consumers of livestock products have also reached out me, seeking to know whether they will continue accessing animal proteins because they hear farmers and animal protein food processors are shutting down.

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Let us agree from the onset that the measures the government is taking to contain Covid-19 are critical for limiting the spread of the disease.

Most peoples’ concerns are not about the measures taken to contain the disease but how the continuity of livestock-based food products, their distribution and consumer access can be ensured.

These foods are highly nutritious and comprise a big component of our daily intake in rural and urban areas. Urban areas are mostly affected because the food is mostly produced in rural areas and reaches towns through distribution in the raw or processed form. Some of the food requires cold storage at the distribution points.

Last week, I visited a dairy farm that had great plans of growing into a major milk producer and processor. My brief was to do a herd evaluation and recommend animals to keep and those to sell off.

Two weeks earlier, I had discussed with Peter — the farm owner — the difficulties the Covid-19 emergency had already visited on his enterprise. He lamented his milk market had just withered overnight.

KEEP INVESTMENT AFLOAT

He had to immediately devise ways of surviving or simply close shop. By December last year, Peter was producing 1,500 litres of milk daily and sold all of it pasteurised mainly to residents of the nearby town, which is surrounded by large crop agriculture farms with thousands of workers. Eateries and hotels in the town also bought a large portion of his production.

By the time I went to the farm last week, the eateries and hotel supplies had dried out. Many of the households had also stopped buying milk because they had moved to rural areas far away from the town.

Peter had been stuck with his milk, animals that consumed feed oblivious of the emergency, a workforce that needed to be paid and structures that required maintenance.

He detailed to me the measures he had taken to try and keep his investment afloat. “What I do not know is whether my decisions will actually make economic sense,” he concluded.

He added that if the situation worsened after implementing his business survival measures, he would simply have to close the farm.

Peter’s situation motivated me to write this article because many other farmers of different types of livestock are going through the same challenges. He observed that he is, at present, able to sell about 50 per cent of his initial milk. He, therefore, decided to cut production to about 700 litres per day.

He achieved it by reducing the feeding of the cattle. As I’ve always told farmers, modern dairy farming is both a science and an art.

One must understand the milk production process and treat the cow as a factory which you can regulate regarding input and output while maintaining the health and welfare of the animal.

Peter reduced the milk production ingredients of the cattle diet in both quantity and quality. I observed the cows were in a fair body condition but their individual production had just about halved.

TEMPORARY MEASURE

Unfortunately for Peter, the intervention is a temporary measure because keeping many zero-grazed cows at 50 per cent production is counterproductive even in the medium-term.

The farm will soon go into serious losses because the other production costs of labour and maintenance remain constant despite reduction in feeding costs.

To sustain the farm operation, Peter decided to reduce the number of animals on the farm and only retain the highest producers that, at optimum feeding, would give him the 700 litres of milk he was able to sell. That was the essence of my brief.

As I went about assessing his dairy cattle, I recalled the pig farmers who have recently told me they are closing their farms.

“What pains me most is to know that my sows are going for slaughter not production,” one farmer had told me. She wondered what would happen to all those consumers who used to depend on her pork.

I concluded there is real and present danger of the country running into shortages of livestock products during and after this Covid-19 emergency.

We do not know how long the emergency will last. However, we are certain that people will need livestock products regardless of the duration of the crisis.

My advice to the government and other industry actors is to catalogue all the large and medium-scale livestock producers and ensure that their produce is available for distribution to specific markets so that they can sustain production and conserve the good livestock genetics on their farms.

In addition to food, the superior genetics have been built over a long time. We will still need them after the emergency to rebuild the national stocks.

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