As Kenyan households come to terms that the once ubiquitous ugali flour is now an expensive and often unavailable exotic commodity, it is a double blow for the livestock farmers because since mid-2016 they have been in an acute shortage of livestock feed.
As pointed out in the article of BD on June 19th titled “Farmers urge manufactures to reduce cost of animal feeds”prices of animal feed have risen to levels that are out of reach to many farmers and even to those who can afford the feeds, they can hardly break even in the dairy business.
How did we get to the crisis in the livestock feed supply: Is it due to drought or is it a flawed policy in the livestock sector?
The easy to blame the drought, a fair point as we have now had two nearly failed rainy seasons. But since prior to this we have had other droughts, it would only mean that we do not learn from history and our livestock policy is not in tune with times, therefore leaving livestock producers exposed it any hic ups livestock the feeds markets.
To understand where we are, we need to roll back to 2013, when we ushered in the new devolved government. There was a big hype about how the dairy sector was going to be the big game changer in rural economies and we witnessed a competition of newly elected county officials and farmers, taking bench marking trips abroad so as to learn how to quickly put Kenya in that coveted list of top dairy nations e.g. Israel and Netherlands.
Without being seen to undervalue the learning experience that can come from bench marking trips and indeed any learning from peers – what these trips gave was a utopian quick fix in buying exotic dairy breeds which are feed guzzles and they need ICU type of management if they are to produce and maintain the record breaking milk yields they are known for. An example of such a breed is the much beloved Friesian, which is kept by many small scale farmers.
It is a human trait that we display only the positive things to our visitors and with this, delegations that mainly went abroad failed to factor in or were conveniently not informed that in most developed countries dairy farmers are highly subsidized by the state, they have on-the-call extension and veterinary services and availability of quality of animal feeds is guaranteed.
For the bus loads of small scale farmers who visited and continue to visit leading dairy farmers locally, what they fail to consider is that most of these farmers do value addition on their milk and they retail direct to consumers. So their earnings per litre of milk are much higher than for the card carrying dairy cooperative member.
As a result of the above euphoria coupled with easy access to credit from financial institutions that were giving “cow-loans”, the 2016/2017 drought found dairy farmers who were over stocked with breeds they could hardly feed and whose milk production had plummeted to levels way below the touted yields that they were expecting when they bought the cows. No wonder there is a surplus of high yielding breeds in the livestock market and few farmers wanting to buy.
Seeing how we got here, it is safe to opine that our decisions in dairy have more or less been ad hoc and not based on livestock policy that is workable for the small scale zero-grazing or semi zero-grazing farmer.
Any intervention that the government can offer to alleviate the current feed crisis is welcome, but long term it will require policy change in the following areas:
- The laissez faire attitude in livestock production needs to stop via a government directive. If farmers expect the government to bail them out when they have problems they must accept that the government can and should put its foot down on; type of cattle breeds they keep, zones they are kept and number of animals a farmer can keep depending on the resources in the farm. This should not be a haki yetu debate and I doubt that this idea would have found its way into the manifestos of political parties because it would be a guaranteed vote looser. But after August can we reform the dairy sector, the same way that Sacco’s were streamlined and how the matatu industry was brought to order. There will be resistance but it can be done. It is is policy, period.
- Devolve research: Most of the things that farmers and county officials were going to learn abroad e.g animal feeding and housing, are available with Kenyan research and learning institutions such as KARLO, Ministry of Agriculture Centres, ADC Farms and public universities, with the added advantage that they have been tailored to suit the Kenyan small scale farmer. However, as long they are not brought to mashinani in form of demonstration farms in every division, local research will remain academic and we will always seek to go abroad for learning trips.
- Fund Extension services: At this age of “consultants”, livestock farmers need the old school livestock hands-on extension workers. Not that we don’t need new ideas but we can’t Google our way to a successful livestock sector. Funded extension services go hand in hand with devolved research and these two are lacking in the rural set ups. Through extension services farmers should be taught about feed consumption vs milk production. This will hopefully wean them off from the desire to keep high feed consuming breeds e.g Fresian in preference of efficient feed convertors such as Fleckvieh.
- Use of ASALs ( Arid and Semi Arid Lands) as the main producing areas for conserved fodder ( hay) . At 83% of Kenya’s total area, we can’t continue to look at ASALs as a desert. With population pressure on the high potential areas, conserved fodders can best be grown in areas which are not in competition with human food. Admittedly most land in ASALs are denuded from overgrazing but with good will and respect to private property, North Eastern, Laikipia, Kajiado and Machakos counties, are regions that can supply hay and alleviate the livestock feed crisis in Kenya.
What is now needed is short term solutions to see the farmers through the feed crisis but at the same time we need to revise our livestock policy and implement it with the aim of getting long term solutions and growth in the livestock sector. The spill effect of a collapsed dairy sector is too grave to contemplate and we are so near edge that only good policy can pull us back.
Written by Anne Munene,- Manager Lukuai Hay Farm, Nanyuki.
Contact: 0725 520627