Smallholder Dairy Rotation in Kenya 2015 by Rianne Dykstra
When trying to think about what I should write in this blog, I was given the suggestion of contrasting dairy farming at home to dairy farming here. My instant response was, “you can’t, they’re not even the same thing”. Which seems like an average response having seen both ends of the spectrum. But when I think a little more I realize, how can it be so different when the end product is the same? We have had milk here bought in a carton at the Nakumat, we’ve seen ice cream there as well, and we’ve eaten their yogurt almost every morning at breakfast. Does it really matter that much the means by which it got there?
A particular situation that sticks out to me was before one of our seminars where we met with the Chairman of the Naari Dairy Cooperative at their facility, and he showed us around with so much pride. He went into some details about the volume of milk they collect each day, and how often they need to bring it to the processor in Meru. They began collecting only a small number, the exact amount instantly lost from my Canadian brain, which they would cool in their “cooling tank” and bring to the processor every day, or every other day. With the help the received from Farmer’s Helping Farmer’s they have been able to increase the amount collected, which sounds great, and it is, but it did cause a new problem. Their “cooling tank”, which to me is just a simple milk tank like you see on any dairy farm in Canada, could only hold 2000 liters. With their increased collected volume, the tank could no longer hold a whole day’s worth of milk. So they now would have to drive the significant distance to deliver the cooled milk often more than once a day. Which brought up another improvement they’ve made. The collected milk was typically just measured and not cooled at their facility, as they did not have the cooling tank yet. It would then have to be transported to the city by donkey and cart, which could take around 3 hours. We then had to ask if they ever had any spoilage from the heat and the time. The chairman told us it was close to 20% a month. Wow. Again, my Canadian dairy farming brain was in shock. I couldn’t imagine that 20% of milk collected could go bad, just from not having a truck. And that doesn’t even begin to describe what it must feel like for the farmers who only ship 5-10 liters a day. Above that, I didn’t even ask but I’m assuming like other dairy coops we had seen, any milk the farmers would get at night milking was practically waste. There would be nobody to collect it for processing, and no means of cooling it on the farm. So the night milk would have to be used immediately, or would spoil before the morning collection. This then led to the problem of the cows getting milked at odd hours like 6am, 2pm, and 4pm, in order to minimize the volume of the night milk. Unfortunately this also causes leaking and subsequent mastitis problems in the cows. At about this point, the chairman asked us if we had cooling tanks in Canada. Our obvious response was, well yes, and every farm has one. This moment, and his expression of utter disbelief will stick in my brain forever. He was amazed. And I was amazed at his amazement. We then launched into an explanation of how milk systems work on Canadian dairy farms and the collection process, all being by pipeline or suction hose into a refrigerated milk truck. Another moment of shock. I’m still unsure if the shock was over the technology used to do that, or if he was purely shocked at the idea of holding your own milk for 2 days.
At the time of this encounter, I had already experienced Kenyan dairy farms for almost a week. I had already seen the “large” dairy farms of 6 cows, and the manual chopping of Napier grass at the more advanced farms. I had fought with farmers to feed more dairy meal if they were even feeding any at all, and seen the tiny, skinny cows hardly ever over 400kgs, all with imported genetics that surely should have resulted in 600kg animals. I saw this and thought I understood the level of resources available here.
But it was at that moment I realized I didn’t understand much at all. I realized that things we consider non optional, or standard in Canada, a milk tank to keep 2 days worth of milk in, and a cooled milk truck to collect the milk, were not only optional but a luxury. I know people have always said that North Americans don’t know how lucky they are. But now I am truly aware of how much we take for granted, and how much more I have yet to learn about. The end product is the same, pure wholesome milk; it’s just that us Canadians really have it easy. So next time I’m home and complain about having to milk, I’ll have to remind myself, I could be sitting on a wooden stool without a roof over me. I could be milking a 300kg cow fresh 2 years. She could be giving 3 liters per milking. She might have had mastitis for the past 6 months that I didn’t know how to fix but milked anyways. And I could be thinking about the hour walk I still have to bring the milk to be collected, at which point I could lose 20% of it just because of the heat. I don’t even know how hard it could be.