As large herds struggle, some Maasai try a swap to dairy cattle

In a culture and economy built on cattle, having fewer isn't easy - but it is bringing in a more reliable income, some herders say.

Dairy cattle in Olomayian
Joel Ngengi tends his dairy cattle in Olomayian, Kenya. Photo: Thomson Reuters Foundation/Caroline Wambui

In this Maasai village, where 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, the tradition in this region, is becoming more difficult, in part as climate change brings harsher droughts and other extreme weather.

In 2017, Joel Ngengi lost most of his cattle herd as prolonged drought dried up access to grass, he said.

He is now trying a new – and contentious – approach advocated by government officials and some non-governmental organisations: Keeping 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 liter selling for about 40 Kenyan shillings (40 U.S. cents).

He says life has gotten easier as a result of the change, particularly as his land now provides enough fodder for his smaller herd.

Before, “I was ever on the run,” looking for food or water for his herd, he said. “Now I am a relaxed man. I have all I need in this small package”.

A growing number of herders in Oloimayian have now made a similar switch to smaller herds, said Maclean Egesa, who, as part of his work for child sponsorship charity Childfund, coordinates efforts to help farmers in Kajiado and Makueni counties make the transition.

Michael Santeto, national coordinator for the Pastoral Development Network of Kenya, a non-governmental advocacy group, said pastoralists have long kept large herds not only out of pride and as the basis of their economy but also to act as insurance against diseases and pests.

With large herds, even large losses usually leave at least some animals behind to rebuild a new herd, he said.

But ever-shrinking areas for pastoralists to graze their animals, as farms encroach traditional grazing areas, combined with harsher drought and growing populations, mean a large herd is now more difficult to maintain.

“Reducing herds is a reality pastoralist 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 said.

The reality, he said, is that “modern pastoralism is minimising extensive movements. This has helped herders rethink pastoralism.”

Large herds mean rangelands have less time to recuperate from grazing and drought, he said, noting that replanting traditional drought-hardy grasses in some areas may be a way to cope with the growing stresses.

More Milk, More Work?

Santeto’s organisation believes switching to fewer, higher-value livestock is one way of coping with changing conditions.

Persuading herders of that, though, can be difficult, 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 – often high-producing foreign breeds or crosses between them and hardier local varieties – can be fussy eaters and more vulnerable to problems the former range cattle would have shrugged off.

“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,” Ngengi said.

“They are selective on what they take, which makes running of the farm a bit expensive.”

But “the benefits outweigh their disadvantages”, he said.

To buy the more expensive animals, herders in the community have taken loans or in some cases sourced money from community savings groups, said Duncan Sinkeet, who has worked as an animal health worker for Childfund.

Milk produced from the new cattle is for now sold in local towns, though farmers are hoping to begin selling to a larger milk cooperative in the area, Sinkeet said.

Calves produced from the hybrid animals and sold as adults also can fetch prices up to three times higher than traditional cattle if sold at market, Santeto said.

Egesa, of Childfund, thinks dairy farming is an idea whose time has come as conditions grow more unpredictable.

“In this community a person’s entire life revolves around cattle,” he said. But the principles in both the old system and new are the same, he said: Care for cattle, earn a reliable income from them and use that cash to pay for what’s needed.


This article was written by Caroline Wambui and edited by Laurie Goering for the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women’s rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience.

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