Kenya: As large herds struggle, some Maasai switch to dairy cattle (Trust)

May 12, 2019
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In the Maasai village of Oloimayian, cattle have long been a symbol of wealth and pride. “I hope your cattle are well” is the most common greeting among friends and neighbours. But raising large herds is becoming more difficult, in part because climate change brings harsher droughts and other extreme weather.

In 2017, Joel Ngengi lost most of his cattle herd when prolonged drought dried up grass. He is now trying a new—and contentious—approach advocated by government officials and some non-governmental organizations: Keep far fewer, but more productive, dairy cattle.

Last year, using his savings and cash provided by his children, he bought four part Holstein-Friesian dairy cattle. His animals now produce more than 40 litres of milk a day, each litre selling for about 40 Kenyan shillings ($0.40 US).

He says life has gotten easier as a result of the change, in particular because his land now provides enough fodder for his smaller herd. He says he used to be forever searching for food and water for his herd. But now, he says, “I am a relaxed man. I have all I need in this small package.”

A growing number of herders in Oloimayian have made a similar switch to smaller herds.

Michael Santeto is the national coordinator for the Pastoral Development Network of Kenya, an advocacy NGO. He says pastoralists have long kept large herds not only out of pride and as the basis of their economy, but also as insurance against diseases and pests. With large herds, even large losses usually leave at least some animals behind to rebuild a herd.

But farmland is beginning to encroach on grazing lands traditionally used by pastoralists. Combined with harsher droughts and a growing population, pastoralists are facing many challenges trying to maintain large herds.

Mr. Santeto says: “Reducing herds is a reality pastoralists have to grapple with. Because of the bulging population, space is shrinking, and so adaptive strategies have to be sought and herds have to be reduced to manageable sizes.”

He suggests that pastoralists rethink their lifestyle and consider one that is less reliant on extensive movement. Large herds need large rangelands, and the land has less time to recuperate from grazing and drought. Mr. Santeto suggests that replanting traditional drought-hardy grasses in some areas may be another way to cope with the growing stresses of harsher droughts and the smaller amount of available grazing land.

But he is also encouraging pastoralists to consider keeping higher-value livestock such as dairy cattle. The herders are reluctant, both because of traditional views about the status of large herds and the harder work involved in maintaining dairy cattle.

The new high-value dairy cattle are often high-producing foreign breeds or crosses between foreign breeds and hardier local breeds. They can be fussy eaters and more vulnerable to problems that local cattle would shrug off.

Mr. Ngengi says: “Though the hybrid animals have countless benefits, they also come with an equal measure of challenges. For one, they require lots of care, plenty of clean water, lots of green fodder, silage, and concentrates.”

He says that dairy cattle are more expensive to keep than range cattle, but feels that the benefits outweigh the challenges.

The herders sell milk from these dairy cattle in nearby towns, though they are hoping to begin selling to a larger milk co-operative in the area. They can sell calves produced from the dairy cattle as adults, fetching prices up to three times higher than traditional cattle.

While keeping dairy cattle seems to be a major lifestyle change for the Maasai in this area, their lives will continue to revolve around cattle. And their principles will remain the same: care for your animals and they will earn you a reliable income that you can use to pay for whatever is needed.

This story is adapted from an article titled “As large herds struggle, some Maasai try a swap to dairy cattle,” written by Caroline Wambui and published by Thomson Reuters Trust. To read the original article, go to: http://news.trust.org/item/20190313070420-gj32g/