Clad in grey khaki trousers, a blue windbreaker and matching cap, the hefty man edged closer to Olivia and scratched the back of her ears. Olivia sniffed his jacket briefly before ambling heavily across the concrete floor to the furthest corner of her shed to lie down, not interested in the big man or his visitors.
“Madam, we are not in a good mood today, are we?” the big man called out after her. Olivia did not respond. She can’t talk.
Olivia is a resident of Amboni Farm in Mweiga, just outside Nyeri town. She is a prized cow, the product of years of meticulous breeding. The big man is former powerful minister Chris Murungaru whose other love outside politics is cattle breeding and dairy farming. Dr Murungaru the cattleman is hardly known outside local and international research stations.
By making use of modern technology, Amboni Farm currently boasts among the best stock one can find anywhere in the world. Olivia, for instance, produces between 40 and 50 litres of milk a day. For most dairy farmers, getting 15 litres a day from a cow is considered quite an achievement. Buying Olivia would require one to part with something in the region of Sh250,000.
From the superior stock, Amboni Farm supplies semen to local research stations such as Kabete and to farms in countries like Zambia, Malawi, USA, Canada and New Zealand, among others.
“Animal breeding has been my passion through most of my working life. This is something I started long before I went into politics. It is something I can’t let even politics interfere with. This is my other life,” says Dr Murungaru, a former MP for Kieni where the farm is situated.
And on his 22-acre spread lies a nugget that can catapult thousands of small-scale farmers into middle income earners in a short span of time given the right knowledge and tenacity.
“I have always been fascinated by the idea of making maximum use of small pieces of land to get maximum returns for the farmer. The secret is breeding, breeding and more breeding,” says Dr Murungaru.
When he established the farm in 1986, he soon realised that through utilising innovations in technology, it was possible to get a cow to give more milk than people thought was possible.
Although it has taken 23 years of research, the farm today has cows that would make any dairy farmer’s dreams come true.
However, Dr Murungaru acknowledges that the cost of breeding is on the higher side. An embryo off Amboni Farm for implantation in other cows is quoted at $350 (Sh27,000).
“What we are hoping for is that in the near future we will be able to establish a breeding centre where we can concentrate all technologies to produce high yielding animals that are also accessible to farmers in terms of cost,” he says.
“That we are able to keep 140 animals on 22 acres means that a farmer with an acre can keep four cows. If they produce an average of 40 litres each, the farmer can sell 160 litres a day. If you deduct the cost of production, the farmer would have an income of over Sh80,000 a month.”
With this kind of income, Dr Murungaru continues, the country will be able to move millions of people from below the poverty line to the middle-income brackets.
He suggests that the government consider giving credit to small scale farmers to enable them upgrade their animals for maximum returns. He says that once milk production is optimised, a farmer will be able to comfortably service a bank loan or any credit advanced to him and at the same time improve his living standards.
In the proposed breeding centre, four technologies will be combined to produce the ideal dairy cow. The breeding techniques will include basic artificial insemination, embryo transfer (where fertilisation is done outside the womb and implanted in the animal) and gender selection, all of which have been successfully carried out at the farm.
Embryo transfer is important because, under natural breeding, only a fraction of the reproductive potential of one animal is achieved. While the average bull will sire 15 to 50 calves a year, a cow will produce an average 10 calves in a lifetime. In embryo transfer, a cow is treated to achieve super-ovulation.
Once this happens, artificial insemination using certified sperms of genetically superior bulls is applied. The resulting embryos are harvested and transferred to surrogate mothers for gestation. This is already happening on the farm.
“When we eventually get the centre off the ground, we will be able to embrace cutting-edge technology called Genomics. Using this technology, you are able to do DNA analysis of a bull strands to determine how much milk its heifer will produce and how they will look like,” says Dr Murungaru.
Processed and analysed
Gender selection is even more exciting. Here, sperms are processed and analysed to the extent that a farmer is 100 per cent sure he is going to get a heifer instead of having to wait for generations to get it.
“If we can have such centres replicated around the country, we would make efficient means of production available and expose farmers and just as many households to the global opportunities made available by technological transfer,” says Dr Murungaru.
Though a pharmacist by profession, Dr Murungaru is well versed in animal genetics through personal research and linkages with breeders from around the world.
The farm has produced bulls that have been sold to local research stations where they have continued to set records. The most popular bull at Kabete, called Kaburu, came from the farm. To date, it has sired 10,000 animals.
In addition to breeding, the farm produces 1,200 litres of milk a day from 60 cows. The milk is collected by Brookside Dairy.
The rest of the herd includes calves and cows that are waiting to calf down. The cattle pens are designed to accommodate animals in various stages of development.
The first stage
In the first stage – the nursery – the age of the calves ranges from one day to 12 weeks. Among the new calves are Jelimo and Doris, both sired by a bull from the US. “We only breed heifers unless we have a definite order for a bull. We can’t afford to feed bulls,” says Dr Murungaru.
Orders for bulls come from local and international research stations. The bulls are bred up to an age where they can produce semen for harvesting.
From an early age, calves are introduced to fodder such as wheat straw so they can develop capacity for digestion. At six weeks, they are moved to weaning. Here, their weight gain is closely monitored and balanced feed rations are formulated.
“De-stocking at various stages, and depending on orders, is continuously necessary because we are essentially a breeding farm. Selling specially bred cows to other farmers is our core business. We also have to be holding the exact number of animals we can manage to feed comfortably,” says Dr Murungaru.
Heifers that have been inseminated are held in special pens until pregnancies are confirmed before they are moved again to the steaming unit where they wait to calf-down. Cows being milked are dried up two months before they calf-down.
“A few days before they calf-down, we move them to another special holding area and eventually to the maternity for delivery. After maternity we have a ward for recovery,” he said.
A cow’s full potential for milk production after calfing down is 60 days. During this time, they feed from a common trough in a special section to encourage competition, which helps the individual cow realise optimal production.
The cows are also trained to be calm. “For a cow to produce milk to its full capacity, it has to be very calm. Every cow has it own ‘personality’ which you need to understand to help it reach its potential,” he said.
With a river running through it, Amboni Farm uses irrigation to supplement natural rain for growing foliage. Manure from the cows is used on the farm. Foliage grown on the farm is used to make silage, which can be stored for years on end.
Running the farm has its challenges, though. “Because we are on a slope, we are unable to make extensive use of machinery so the cost of labour is high,” he said.
Currently, the electricity rationing programme has slowed down the farm’s operations as chores like milking are done using electric machines. Fodder is also prepared using electricity. Without a standby generator, operations are interrupted every three days in a week.
And the last 23 years have not been without challenges. For instance, when the then Kenya Creameries Co-operative started tottering towards the end of the 1980s, the farm found itself producing milk without a market, something Dr Murungaru describes as particularly demoralising.
“With proper management, market for milk should never be a problem. Countries such as New Zealand depend almost exclusively on milk produced in the country. There is no reason the same should not happen in Kenya,” says Dr Murungaru.
Dr Murungaru’s love affair with cows started as a boy herding his grandfather’s cows around Mt Kenya. He belongs to a generation when the main chore for young boys was looking after cows.
“As a boy, I would graze our cows in Hombe and Gathirathiru forests that are part of Mt Kenya before I joined school. We learnt everything there was to learn about taking care of cows. It was a man’s job and this is how I came to love cattle. Throughout my schooling, all the way to university, I was always around our cows during holidays,” he recalls. However, those were the traditional breeds