The over 10 calves graze leisurely on the 26-acre farm in Siongiroi, Bomet County. A shepherd watches keenly from a distance and then moves close to one of the cows with a small trough filled with dairy meal. The other animals follow him. This is Yebei’s Farm.
While most dairy farmers focus on the production and selling of milk and its by-products, Yebei’s Farm produces Ayrshire heifers, which are sold to farmers.
Farmer, Samson Yebei started keeping exotic dairy cows over 20 years ago, but it was not until eight years ago that he chose to be selling served heifers.
The septuagenarian runs the farm with his son, Josiah Lelgo, 34, a biology and agriculture high school teacher.
“Initially, our focus was on milk, just like many other farmers. We would dispose of the calves as soon as they reached four months because we did not want them to interfere with the lactating cows,” Yebei tells Seeds of Gold.
It is after he convinced his father that selling heifers would bring more money that they switched to selling served heifers.
“While studying at Egerton University, I learned during a visit to one of the farms that heifers fetch more money once they are served than when they are sold early.”
He convinced his father to stop selling the young calves and instead keep them until they conceive, at 18 months. “At first it was hard changing the farm’s routine because my father was used to keeping lactating cows only. He saw the heifers as a burden.”
The challenge of maintaining an increased herd was compounded by the fact that the region experiences long dry spells, thus, pasture and water are hard to get.
So popular are their served heifers now that sometimes prospective buyers have to book a year in advance.
The farmer initially was selling the heifers for between Sh10,000 and Sh20,000, depending on the age while the young bulls would fetch a maximum of Sh12,000.
This has now changed. They sell the served heifers at between Sh80,000 and Sh100,000.
“Most of our heifers are bought by people who know the value of keeping high quality animals. We carefully select the semen to ensure we end up with quality calves.”
The demand for heifers has made the farm turn to sexed semen to ensure they end up with female animals.
“We relied on the conventional semen, but we are now using sexed semen to ensure we get only female calves,” says Lelgo, noting that when using the normal semen, timing is crucial.
“We only use semen from quality bulls because we want to have the best calves. It is supplied by a breeder.”
However, it was not easy to convince farmers to purchase the heifers at a higher price, than what they were used to before.
Besides, most residents were used to indigenous cows that produce five litres of milk a day.
Lelgo says to overcome the challenge, they opened their farm for demonstration in 2007, allowing visitors to seek advice from livestock extension officers who they brought to the farm.
The farmers would learn basic dairy management practices, and they were then convinced to buy the heifers.
The farm is paddocked to accommodate the herd and fodder. However, they also buy additional hay to supplement the pasture. Part of the farm has Rhodes grass, napier and sugarcane, which serves the purpose of molasses in making silage.”
They also have a water pan that collects water during the rainy season. It is only during prolonged dry periods that they fetch water from River Chepkulo, a tributary of the Mara.
The farm keeps records of each animal from the time it is born. The records are what persuades the farmer to buy the heifers.
“From the records, a farmer can project the amount of milk that a cow will produce. Our Ayrshire cows average 25 litres a day. The heifers attain this production or more in their second calving as long as the farmer feeds them properly,” says Lelgo, who identifies one of their challenges as high cost of feeds at Sh3,000 per bag of dairy meal, and diseases, mainly East Coast Fever.
“Proper feeding of the calves ensures that they grow fast and healthy, thus they will be served at less than 18 months,” he says. “A calf normally drinks five litres of milk a day during the first month of life. This amount drops continuously at four months when the calf is fully weaned.”
The price of milk is also low. They get 120 litres of milk a day, which they sell at Sh30 each.
Lelgo explains that they chose Ayrshire breeds because they suit the region, which receives low rainfall and has an average temperature of 25 degrees Celcius.
Joseah Kirui, a breed inspector with the Kenya Livestock Breeders Organisation in Bomet notes that the use of conventional semen guarantees high conception rate, and thus it is rare to repeat the process, but one may not get the animal they want.
On the other hand, using sexed semen allows the farmer to choose the gender of the calf, but conception might fail leading to repetition.
“A farmer should observe the cow closely each day, preferably early in the morning or late in the night to check for any signs of heat. This enables the farmer to fix the best time for serving the cow. This should be between 15 to 20 hours after the first signs are seen.”
Kirui has helped Yebei’s Farm to register their cows with Kenya Stud Book and certificates will be issued soon.
He says registering adds value to the heifers because their ancestry can be traced.