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Organic dairy farming: Is it profitable or too risky deal?

By Agnes Aineah
Nominated MP Wilson Sossion tends to his goats at his Koibeyon farm in Bomet. (Gilbert Kimutai, Standard)

As the war against misuse of antibiotics intensifies, researchers say livestock account for the highest amount of abuse. The best tool to fight the abuse is organic farming which is, unfortunately, hindered by lack of access to farm inputs and markets as well as poor policy structures.

At a four-acre farm in Bomet County, Wilson Sossion formulates feeds for his 70 dairy cows. It is a venture that Mr Sossion started in April 2017 to unwind, away from his official duties at the Kenya National Union of Teachers (Knut). He started with five dairy cows.

In an attempt to produce organic milk, Mr Sossion invested in feed processing equipment, planted lucerne and napier grass and employed qualified farmhands to help in mixing the raw materials.

He also limits amount of chemicals used at the farm.

New in Kenya?

“I don’t use any inorganic fertilisers and chemicals in growing the grass that are fed to my cattle. Instead of buying sunflower cake in shops to formulate the feeds, I grow my own lucerne to provide the protein component in the feeds,” says Mr Sossion.

He also minimises use of antibiotics in management of diseases at the farm.

“I prefer preventive measures when handling the cattle as opposed to having to treat them. My cows are confined in a clean and well ventilated area to reduce stress and I ensure proper milking procedures are employed. I have a vet ready on call to discern any little abnormality in the cows. This way, I limit the amount of exposure of the cows to pesticides,” he says.

He adds: “I believe what I am doing is some form of organic dairying.”

But what is organic dairying and how common is it in Kenya?

Dr Robert Mbeche a researcher who specialises in organic farming at Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology (JKUAT) says organic dairy farming is not new in Kenya.

Organic dairy farming means raising animals on organic feed including pastures cultivated without the use of fertilisers or pesticides, having access to pasture or outside as well as restricted usage of antibiotics and hormones.

Dr Mbeche says farmers unconsciously engage in some form of organic dairy farming practices even in the absence of a proper framework.

“Farmers especially in places where there are large tracts of land where there are sufficient pastures have always practised organic farming to some extent. And even those who purchase organic feeds for their cattle attempt to produce organic dairy products,” says Dr Mbeche.

And to eliminate the use of pesticides, Dr Mbeche has seen farmers in Kakamega and Busia mix concoctions which they spray their animals with to kill ticks and other pests.

It isn’t easy

“In poultry, organic farming is more elaborate where farmers mix pepper, aloe vera and other organic products to treat their birds as opposed to use of antibiotics. In cattle, I have also seen farmers pound some medicinal plants and administered the same to their livestock,” says Dr Mbeche.

It isn’t easy, however, for a farmer to do pure organic dairying, according to the JKUAT researcher. Farmers, especially in peri-urban areas such as Kiambu are constrained by the shrinking pieces of land that have reduced pastures.

If done right, organic dairy farming presents a lot of benefits to farmers and consumers. It provides a cheaper option in dairy farming and eliminates contamination of milk products with antibiotics and other farm chemicals.

A 2018 study that a team of researchers published on the International Journal of Agricultural Extension revealed that 7 per cent of the milk on the markets around Nairobi contains high levels of antibiotic residues.

Premium product

According to the Kenya Bureau of Standards, the amount of antibiotic residues in milk should be zero. Once consumed, the antibiotic residues make microbes that are resistant to treatment with antibiotics, both in livestock and in humans. In fact, it is estimated that the misuse of antibiotics will have caused deaths of 10 million people worldwide by 2050 as a result of Antimicrobial Resistance (AMR).

The study found that peri-urban farms used more purchased feeds while rural farms used more pasture grazing among a variety of other organic practices. Dr Josiah Ateka, a lecturer in the department of Agricultural Resource Economics at Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology (JKUAT) says fear of contaminated milk is forcing Kenyans to look into other options.

The health benefits

“There have been narratives about milk products being contaminated with chemicals and this has forced consumers to ditch dairy products in favour of soy milk and other alternatives. It is high time we started looking into possibilities of producing organic dairy products at the farm,” says Dr Ateka.

Additionally, the nutritional value of organic milk is superior because of nutrients garnered from the pasture. The beneficial omega-3 fatty acids and conjugated linoleic acids are at higher levels than in conventional milk.

Organic dairy farming has also been touted for its economic benefits to the farmer.

“Any organic agricultural product is a premium product. Based on what we have seen in markets of organic crops, consumers are always willing to pay a higher amount of money for organic produce as they become increasingly aware of the relationship between their eating habits and their health,” says Dr Ateka.

The JKUAT don lists Runda, Garden Estate and Karen as some of the biggest markets of organic products in Nairobi.

Because administration of antibiotics, hormones, growth-promoters and most synthetic medications are prohibited in organic dairy farming, productivity in this type of farming may be lower compared to conventional farming. But studies indicate that the cost of production in organic dairying is lower.

A study in Canada that compared organic dairy farming systems to conventional ones revealed a superior performance on conventional farms. But in contrast, economic performance was found superior on organic farms because farmers incurred lower costs of production for almost all material inputs, including livestock feeds and pesticides.

Besides, contemporary dairy farming involves high-technology and high-intensity dairy farming systems. All the good things notwithstanding, organic dairy farming has not been given maximum attention in Kenya, says Dr Ateka.

“Broadly, organic agriculture remains underexploited in Kenya. Many farmers practicing it are those who grow crops,” he says.

Unlike in developed countries where there are formal policies to regulate dairy farming practices, there are no existing guidelines for organic dairying in Kenya. In the US, the National Organic Program has designed standards for organic production to promote good health and limit stress for farmed animals.

According to the US regulations, dairy animals must be fed organic feed. Growth promoters, hormones, antibiotics and plastic pellets for roughage are prohibited. Additionally, dairy animals must be managed organically for at least 12 months for milk or dairy products to be sold, labeled, or represented as organic.

The market

The regulations also insist on preventive management practices to keep animals healthy so as to limit treatment. In the US, an organic dairy farmer must also allow his cattle out in pastures for a given period of time.

“Dairy cows must be out on pasture for the entire grazing season but not fewer than 120 days. They also must receive at least 30 per cent of their feed from pasture,” reads one of the regulations.

In Kenya, efforts to regulate organic dairy farming are still at the formative stages, says the JKUAT researcher.

“Our organic farming policy framework is still weak. I remember there have been attempts to do a policy on organic agriculture but the policy is still at draft stages. We expect to see a boost in organic dairying when the policy is completed, says Dr Ateka.

An organic dairy farmer is also bound to face the same challenges that farmers specialising in organic produce, according to Dr Mbeche.

The JKUAT organic farming researcher says organic farmers in Kenya lack access to organic inputs such as organic fertilisers and feeds for their livestock.

“Organic inputs are very costly and the few reliable manufacturers that sell them are very expensive. There is livestock manure in places like Kajiado but accessing it from urban areas is an expensive process,” says Dr Mbeche, adding that livestock manure is bulky.

Additionally, the Kenyan market hasn’t transformed to appreciate high value organic produce, says the JKUAT researcher.

“I have seen organic farmers in Nyandarua, who, after a lot of toiling on their farms, go to the market expecting premium prices. But when they price their produce highly they end up making losses,” says Dr Mbeche.

Again, certification for organic farmers in Kenya which the JKUAT don says is aimed at opening up opportunities for them in food stores, is unfortunately a slow, complex and demanding process.

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