The Milk story!
Dairy farmers are milking losses. This is mostly true for smallholder farms, with land holdings estimated at an average 2 acres, and herd size of 5 animals or less. Most of these farmers do not run their enterprises profitably, and dairying has somewhat become a way of life, something that they do. Still, farmers will state enthusiastically how dairying has impacted their lives, allowed them to take their children to school. However, behind this veil of success lies the true nature of the business; a loss making enterprise for many farmers. Milk prices are low, input costs high, and markets erratic, especially in periods of glut, where milk yields are higher than the processors can collect and process. Many smallholder dairy farmers are really milking loses.
The illusion of profitability is mostly because farmers do not account for hidden costs such as family labor, milk marketing costs, opportunity costs due to long calving intervals, among others. The gravity of this problem is highly magnified for farmers in marginal dairying areas, where environmental conditions are harsh and access to milk markets is inhibited. The debilitating reality of long dry spells and associated feed scarcity that drain the life out of the cows; the ravages of cocktails of diseases that are as destructive as a wayward tsunami, represent a three legged ‘seat of death’ when seen in the prism of inappropriate breeds and indiscriminate crossbreeding.
Dairy systems in a majority of tropical regions are dependent on crossbreeding between exotic taurine cattle and indigenous Zebuine cattle. However, because there are no well established crossbreeding systems, nor well run genetic gain programs, there is often use of breeds at grade levels that are not appropriate for the target environments.
The current conditions in most smallholder farms really require a resilient hardy animal that is highly adapted to such environments and can efficiently produce with minimal inputs. Alternatively, a great shift needs to happen to drastically improve the production environments. At present, the crossbred cows being reared by smallholder farmers are ill equipped to handle such tough requirements. The result is low productivity, with milk yields averaging about 5 liters per cow per day and long calving intervals, often extending beyond 500 days. The utilization of breeds that beckon with promise only to shatter the dreams of aspiring dairy farmers with a fleeting sight of milk soon lost again, is continuing to impoverish dairy farmers across East Africa.
The Tanzania Dairy Genetics project is attempting to address this problem by understanding the most important constraints to dairy cattle productivity. In this way, the most efficient pathways to increasing productivity can then be charted.
The project intends to evaluate the survival and productivity of cattle in two regions of Tanzania, and in effect assess the fitness of extant genotypes in relation to farm conditions and management practices. This is important in order for the most appropriate dairy cattle for specific smallholder farmer environments to be identified. Given that farmers in these systems are very diverse and conditions vary from farm to farm, classification of farmers into quasi-homogenous groups with similar production environments will be critical. The performance of various breed combinations will then be assessed In-situ within these groups, and breed types best suited for these clusters identified. It is hoped that matching of cattle genotypes to their most suited environment would translate into higher yields. This, by virtue of appropriate management and lower stress burdens to the cows, allowing animals to perform at or closer to genetic potential. Additional gains would then be accrued through other mechanisms such as provision of extension services, increasing access to better breeding technologies and genetic improvement through artificial selection.