“When the going gets tough, the tough get going”, that is John Chege’s mantra.
A dairy farmer for more than 20 years, Chege has seen the good, the bad and ugly in dairy business and is still going strong.
At his home in Gatanga, Murang’a County, Mwangi has turned what was supposed to be a small gesture of support to his mother into a neat dairy business.
In 1999, his mother asked him to buy for her a heifer for Sh15,000 so that she can make some money from selling milk.
At the time, Mwangi was a long distance truck driver, and he gave his mother the money and forgot about it.
“I bought the heifer when it was only six months old, after two years it was serviced and it calved and then started producing milk. Mum started making some money from selling milk to neighbours,” Chege says.
Over the years, the one cow which Chege started with multiplied to nine heifers and four bulls, and at this point, production started to dip.
“After it gave birth to the 12th calf, I noticed the milk production taking a serious dip which pushed me to sell the original heifer for Sh115,000. I made a profit.”
With the nine heifers, he continued to grow his herd to 25 cows and later on sold the bulls and focused on the heifers. In 2007, however as with most dairy farmers, the low milk prices and frustrations from milk processers almost pushed him out of business.
“I would take my milk to the processor and they would refuse to buy all my milk often only buying only half of what I was producing,” he says. Hit hard, he sold off half his herd to keep the production costs low and stay in business.
“I took a hit financially and it was a low point in my business, but I did not give up,” he explains.
In 2012, to overcome the tough financial times, Chege decided to pasteurise the milk before selling it to the processor.
“I got a milk movement permit which allowed me to transport my milk from Gatanga to Thika town, where I pasteurised it and sold it at a better price than I had been doing at the farm gate. I started having a higher bargaining power,” Chege says.
His efforts paid off as he was able to determine which processors he would deal with based on the prices they were offering.
“It was a good time to be a dairy farmer as I was able to sell my milk for as much as Sh40 per litre and sometimes more depending on who would pay me more money,” Chege says.
This has worked but still Chege is facing the harsh reality most farmers are grappling with, low prices, as they are now selling their milk for as little as Sh24 per litre which is not enough to cover cost of production.
“On average it cost at least Sh21 to produce a litre of milk. But when you are paid Sh24, you must also include the cost of labour and transport all of which means as a farmer I am making a big loss,” he laments.
To beat the high cost of production, Chege has planted one acre of baby corn, and prepared silage which he uses to supplement the processed dairy feeds.
“You cannot feed your cows purely on dairy meal. Since it is too expensive, I have had to reduce each cow’s daily intake from Sh8kg a day and offer them the sillage, babycorn and grass,” he says.
Another coping mechanisms is he does not over feed his animals as this affects production leading to stagnation in the amount of milk produced by each cow.
Having worked on his dairy farm for two decades, he has learnt that cows are intelligent and sensitive animals who prefer calm and consistent environments to maintain high milk production.
“My farm produces at least 200 litres of milk daily, however this can fluctuate depending on the emotional state of the animals,” he explains.
He cites a recent incident that explains the behaviour of cows: “The herd was recently agitated by a bull that was in the pen to mate one of the heifers and most of the cows reduced their milk production.”
Despite the low milk prices affecting farmers, Chege remains optimistic that the dairy sector will bounce back.
“I will not give up. I intend to renovate my stables to accommodate at least 50 cows in this 100 by 100 metres farm. There will always be demand for milk,” Chege says.