In Meru County, the dairy farming system serves as a major source of income for smallholder farmers. While smallholder dairy farmers transition to market-driven dairy production, they often struggle with low productivity due to a shortage of quality and nutritious feed for their livestock, especially during the dry season.
Increasing milk production in a sustainable way presents benefits and constraints that must be managed appropriately. Consistent support is a driving force that keeps smallholder farmers engaged and maximizes production. The Meru Dairy Union (MDU)-2SCALE partnership seeks to empower smallholder dairy farmers by equipping them with the resources, networks, skills and knowledge required to produce and preserve quality livestock feed, to last them throughout the year.
The 2SCALE-MDU partnership works with farmers, 53 primary cooperatives, the government, the private sector, learning institutions and other actors to enhance sustainable access and utilisation of feeds. One of the companies that the partnership is working with is Advanta Seeds, which provides different drought-tolerant and nutritious feed varieties. Advanta introduced sugargraze, a hybrid sorghum variety with high sugar content, among other varieties to Meru farmers. The crop is of high value because it is drought resistant and contains high energy levels needed by cows. In addition, this hybrid fodder crop regenerates after cutting. From a single crop, a farmer can harvest fodder up to three times.
In 2021, the partnership trained smallholder dairy farmers and silage service providers in Meru on improved fodder production and management. Producing their own fodder and silage feed leads to reduced production costs since they no longer have to rely on commercial feeds during dry seasons. The silage and hay service provision is a key service provided mostly by youths. It not only increases the chances of making quality silage but also creates employment in the dairy sector.
Bernice Githinji, 47, is one of the most progressive farmers in Gachua, Meru County. She farms maize, beans and sorghum on her five acres of land. She has been practising dairy farming for about seven years and was among the first farmers to plant sugargraze on her farm in October 2021. By January 2022, she had already harvested her first round of fodder. From this maiden harvest, she made silage and has it stored, in readiness for the dry season. She fed her cows with the second harvest directly from the farm and will soon be harvesting her third round.
In addition to sugargraze, Bernice has tried Brachiaria, Desmodium and Panicles. However, sugargraze has emerged as the best in terms of nutritive value, yielding multiple harvests and the fact that it presents the option of feeding directly or making silage. For Bernice, the change in milk production brought by switching to sugargraze as livestock feed did not go unnoticed. She narrates:
Sugargraze is the best alternative for my livestock. When I started, I only had three cows and I would rely on maize crop residue from my farm. From this, I would collect about 15 litres of milk per day. Having incorporated sugargraze into my livestock feed, I have witnessed a remarkable increase in the amount of milk my cows produce. Nowadays, I collect up to 46 litres a day from four cows. On top of being able to buy another dairy cow, I have also purchased an acre of land to expand my farm operations, through the increased income.