Wednesday, February 28, 2024

Three dairy farming systems that will make your small farm profitable

Small-scale farmers practicing open grazing system dominate milk production in counties where dairy farming is practiced, accounting for about 88 per cent of total milk output.

They are followed by smallholder zero-grazers at 10 per cent and large-scale open grazing at 2 per cent.

Depending on the level of feed supplementation, average milk yield per cow per year for most farmers stands at about 2,555 litres for the predominant smallholder open grazing system, 3,329 litres for smallholder zero-grazing and 4,269 litres for large-scale open

Well, a dairy cow has the potential to produce 9,000 litres of milk per annum. Thus, the big question is, how can farmers enhance productivity and profitability when the market is constrained and inputs are costly?

Productivity is all about efficiency, that is, improving production on the same piece of land in a given period from the same number of animals, while profitability can be enhanced by value addition, utilisation of various products and by-products such as manure, sale of animals that are not being milked such as calves, heifers, bulls and under-performing cows either due to mastitis or chronic ailments.

Enhancing productivity and profitability, therefore, capitalises on addressing production shortcomings in areas such as breeding, feeding, general management, disease and pest control, value addition, labour and marketing strategies, among others.
Breeds and breeding

Zero-grazing systems require higher start-up capital due to construction of housing structures and provision of feeds, which are either produced elsewhere or are commercially sourced, thus requiring transportation.

To get high returns on  investment, therefore, one is required to keep high quality dairy breeds that produce a lot of milk, such as Friesians and Ayrshires.

Artificial insemination (AI) is also important as the space does not allow keeping of bulls or natural mating.

Larger land sizes allow for higher milk production by keeping more animals and, therefore, they don’t have to be very high producers.

These include crosses of the high producers with indigenous animals such as the Zebu and Boran, dual purpose animals such as Sahiwals and Fleckvieh as well as dairy animals with lower milk production such as Guernseys and Jerseys.

Productivity in the same system is also achieved through culling of low producers and minimising the number of calves, heifers and bulls.

AI is important for purposes of controlling venereal diseases and inbreeding but natural breeding can also be carried out, in which case the reproductive health of the bull and female animals has to be monitored.

The communal grazers have a high risk of disease and pest spread since the animals move from place to place in search of feeds and are exposed to the harsh climate throughout the day.

Crossbreeds are thus recommended for this group of farmers as the crosses can withstand fluctuating temperature, long walking distances and smaller amounts of feeds and also have a higher degree of disease resistance.


Feeds constitute about 60 per cent of the production costs. It is recommended that in zero-grazing systems, you should use high-quality feeds to minimise bulkiness, which  adds to the transportation costs. Such feeds include the total mixed ration (TMR).

This is a mixture of all diet ingredients formulated to a specific nutrient requirement, mixed thoroughly and fed freely without limiting the quantity. Other feeds include hay briquettes that are also highly nutritious and require minimal storage area.

Communal grazers might not have the capacity to produce the TMR, nor the high quality fodder, pasture and other feeds, but they can supplement the feeds with farm and market waste such as potato peels and rejects that can neither be used as food or seeds either due to their small sizes or presence of cuts and bruises, vegetable leaves and remains and edible weeds and grass harvested from open grounds and forests.

Fodder trees such as calliandra, leucaena and tree lucerne require minimal spaces, thus communal grazers should strive to plant them.


 In zero-grazing units, mastitis control is necessary as it has a direct effect on productivity. The animals tend to be dirtier and regular house cleaning and waste disposal is an important mastitis control strategy.

Thorough cleaning of the udder before milking and its disinfection thereafter is also recommended. Hoof trimming is important as hooves tend to overgrow due to the mostly cemented pen floors and dehorning minimises injuries as animals are in close contact.

Utilisation of cow dung for biogas production in the zero-grazing units lowers energy costs for the farm, thus enhancing profits.

Disease and pest control

Tick-borne diseases and worms are a major threat among the communally grazed animals. Regular and timely tick control measures and deworming are thus a must in this system despite the animals’ higher disease resistance either through breeding or frequent exposure.

Inside Eldoret dairy farm that makes Sh. 2.5 million monthly

Fly menace is a big challenge in the zero-grazing and semi-zero-grazing systems due to the minimal acaricide application against ticks. Flies are a nuisance and affect feed intake and milk production, thus the need to control them.

Value addition and marketing

Value addition is possible for semi zero-grazing and communal grazing farmers who sell their milk through associations or cooperatives that have the capacity to process milk into various by-products such as butter, cheese, yoghurt and fermented/cultured milk.

However, for zero-grazing farmers, it is more profitable to sell raw milk, especially if you are closer to the market.


Drivers of Dairy farming systems

  • Land availability significantly contributes to the choice of dairy cattle farming model, with a majority of those practising zero-grazing systems doing it on small parcels of land, especially in the urban and peri-urban zones.
  • Weather too is key to the farming system, with those in hotter areas opting for the zero-grazing system, where animals are housed to cushion them against high temperatures since dairy cattle prefer cool environments and are likely to suffer from heat stress when exposed to above-normal temperatures.
  • Labour is another consideration as the model is labour-intensive in terms of feeding, pest control and waste management.

This feature by Jecinta Mwirigi was first published in the Seeds of Gold Magazine. Seeds of Gold is a publication of the Nation Media Group.

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