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Vet on call: To produce tender beef, we must adopt feedlots

Saturday May 12 2018

A cow at Pioneer Feedlot owned by Dr Gakuo Mwangi in Chaka, Nyeri County.

A cow at Pioneer Feedlot owned by Dr Gakuo Mwangi in Chaka, Nyeri County. The feedlot farmer feeds the animals with specially formulated fattening and finishing diet for 30 to 120 days and over that period, the animals attain the commonly desired slaughter weight of 400kg and are delivered to the market. FILE PHOTO | NMG 

DR JOSEPH MUGACHIA
By DR JOSEPH MUGACHIA
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Many Kenyans have never tasted juicy, mouth-watering tender beef that does not need one to struggle chewing it.

We are used to the hard, difficult to slice and chew beef. But have you ever wondered why most of our beef is so hard that we have to tenderise it by excessive cooking?

The answer lies in the way most of it is produced and the animals that produce the meat.

The bulk of our meat comes from the pastoral areas that we also call rangelands or arid and semi-arid lands (Asals).

Here, the cattle are predominantly reared on grass traversing the rangelands in search of water and pasture.

By the time the animals are presented for slaughter, they have clocked very high mileage, they are about five to six years old and their meat is well-conditioned to their harsh environment and the corresponding trekking they have done all their lives.

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The pastoral communities like the Maasai, Turkana, Pokot and Borana have farmed cattle from time immemorial as the core of their livelihood and culture. It was the currency of most community transactions.

The cash economy has, however, still not succeeded to convince the pastoral communities to view livestock as more of an economic activity rather than a tradition.

I recall in 2015 when I was working in Turkana at a place called Katilu. I asked a man who had 250 head of cattle why he could not sell half and use the money to take his children to school and develop himself and his family.

The man took a long look at me, shook his head and told me. “You are a doctor, but you do not understand the community respect that emanates from my large head of cattle. Nobody will see the money hidden in the bank.”

From that answer, I concluded that we still have a lot of work to do to establish a thriving livestock economy in the pastoral areas.

The man may not have been representing the whole community but then, the large number of animals we see dying during every dry season is a good indicator that the pastoralists have not yet agreed to monetise their cattle by regularly and systematically rearing them for the market.

Last week, I explained the lessons that Kenya can learn from Botswana, a country that has excelled in international livestock products’ trade.

The country developed the meat trade using expertise trained in Kenya and adopted technology and disease-control programmes designed and partially implemented in Kenya.

In the last three months, I have increasingly been requested by potential livestock farmers to advise them on establishment and operations of beef cattle feedlots.

In real sense, these are actually not farmers but livestock production entrepreneurs because their aim is to acquire animals specifically to prepare them for the desired market grade within the shortest time possible.

GOOD CONDITION BUT BELOW SLAUGHTER WEIGHT

Cattle feedlot farming is the kind of beef cattle production where the farmer gets cattle that have attained slaughter size but are not in good body condition for slaughter.

Animals may also be admitted to a feedlot if they are in good body condition but below the slaughter weight.

The feedlot farmer feeds the animals with specially formulated fattening and finishing diet for 30 to 120 days. Over that period, the animals attain the commonly desired slaughter weight of 400kg and are delivered to the market.

Such cattle are in high demand. They fetch good prices and business profit of about 20 per cent for the farmer. The problem is that they are not readily available on the Kenyan market.

Dr Gakuo Mwangi runs one such a business in Chaka, Nyeri County and he has christened it Pioneer Feedlot.

Gakuo trained at the University of Nairobi Veterinary School and worked in Botswana as a doctor for six years before coming back home with lessons learned on beef farming, which he implemented.

He also runs a feed mill in Chaka Town where he formulates feeds for feedlot animals. I visited Gakuo in Nyeri last week with two potential feedlot entrepreneurs.

They had told me they needed to see an operating feedlot and meet an active farmer before we could progress further with the planning for their business.

Gakuo is very passionate about beef cattle and their potential to transform the livelihoods of their owners. “I can assure you that feedlot farming for beef cattle can greatly increase the livestock earnings to pastoralists, reduce grazing pressure on the rangelands, reduce the effects of climate change and reduce cattle rustling,” he said.

His concept is that cattle feedlots should not necessarily be situated in the rangelands. They should be situated in areas close to the beef market, where there is high security and where infrastructure and water are readily available.

That is why he started his feedlot at Chaka. Further, feedlots should be in areas where animals are readily available.

The pastoralists and other cattle owners should produce the animals, rear them to about 18 months and then sell them off to feedlots for finishing. That way, the cattle producers will rear and sell more animals at much better prices.

Gakuo’s feedlot is on two acres and handles about 450 cattle every three months. He plans to expand it to handle about 1,200 cattle at once. He buys animals mainly from Northern Kenya and fattens them for 90 days on average.

The cattle enter when they are at least 175kg and exit when they are around 400kg.

It is important to select feedlot cattle very keenly to ensure the successful candidates are free of debilitating diseases and have a big body frame on which to lay the muscle and fat to make the meat juicy, tender, tasty and pricey.