Mary Wambui still laughs at the thought of the antics that characterised her family’s trips to their rural home in Lari, Kiambu County a decade ago. Her second-born daughter, then a toddler, would always force them to make stopovers so that she could tease sheep that were grazing by the roadside. The family did not own a single domestic animal.
“It was these awkward moments that to an extent, prompted us to buy three bulls in 2006,” explains Wambui. “However, it is after we brought in some five heifers that I realised my passion for animal rearing; I have not looked back since”. Today, Wambui is no ordinary farmer. She is one of the leading dairy farmers practicing zero grazing in her county. Her Mung’ere Farm in Lari’s Gatamaiyu Division is home to 103 cows, 53 of which are lactating. In a day, the cows produce between 1,100 and 1,500 litres of milk, with a current herd rate of 22 litres.
The most prolific cow produces 45 litres daily. With every litre fetching Sh35, Wambui earns Sh1.2 million in gross income from milk sale in a month. She puts the net income at around Sh300,000. The income is supplemented by the sale of kienyeji chicken, sheep, goats and ducks also reared on the farm. “This is the last thing I would have imagined I would ventured into in 2006,” she states.
Paradoxically, her farm sits in the middle of a tea zone where dairy farming is rarely practiced. The high perimeter wall and tall trees around it gives little hint of the beauty within. But get past two green gates and a spectacle unfolds. Metres away from the farmhouse stands a spacious shed housing more than 30 calves, with an expansive paddock. An adjacent shed encloses 16 heifers that are ready for servicing. Fourteen expectant cows occupy another shed, with a spacious maternity paddock on standby for those about to calve. The milking cows occupy more than ten other immaculately-designed sheds.
“I acquired these four acres of land when I decided to go large-scale, moving out from my father-in-law’s land where I had started,” Wambui states. “Animals occupy two acres, while we grow nappier grass on the other two”. The mother of three had a flying start to dairy farming, buying several heifers every week despite the fact that it was a trial and error venture. Most matured with no major setbacks, inspiring her to invest in more heifers.
To maximise on her business, the farmer has for the past five years, improved her breeds using semen imported from Spain. “This has given the cows a better dairy conformation and boosted milk production,” she says.
The milking cows consume an average of 40 kilos of foliage (hay and nappier grass) as well as ten kilos of concentrates consisting of dairy, meal, maize jam and mchicha every day. Seven workers milk the cows three times daily, with each specifically assigned to seven animals. “I prefer hand-milking as it creates employment,” the farmers says. In total, the farm has 22 employees, among them a farm manager, a vet and a breeding officer.
While she takes delight in her achievement, her journey in farming has not been without hurdles. Common among them is the seasonal scarcity of water and foliage. “I initially relied on a seasonal river and had to buy water every time it dried up. I had no option but to drill a borehole,” she notes. Hay for the cattle is still sourced from as far as Nakuru, Mwea and Ruiru. Wambui, who visits her farm daily, reveals that disloyal workers also used to give her sleepless nights. “At some point, I had reckless workers who would milk the cows partially and leave the sheds dingy. In 2010, we lost eight calves in a month as a result of diaorrhea due to poor hygiene and substandard vets,” she says.
“It was so hard to manage diseases but the situation stabilised after I brought specialised staff on board.” The farmer sells her milk at the Uplands Premium Dairies where she is the main supplier. The opening of the plant in her neighbourhood, four months ago, offered massive respite. “The three plants I dealt with previously bought the milk at low and varying prices. When milk supply was generally high, they would keep off this area altogether, resulting in enormous wastage of milk,” she explains.
Wambui urges prospective dairy farmers to utilise expert knowledge, constantly improve on breeds and more importantly, be patient. The farmer is happy that dairy farming has impacted positively on her daughters. “They love the cows so much that they spend every weekend on the farm. Majority of the cows here are actually named after their classmates,” she quips.