Smallholder livestock farmer eyes AI for increased productivity

AI

Henry Mulenga wants to build a multi-million kwacha dairy and beef cattle business. But in his own words, “there is a huge challenge for small-scale livestock farmers like myself to rapidly increase our animal population with high productive breeds because of a lack of access to artificial insemination (AI) services”.

Not someone to give in to a challenge, he plans to stock his 200-hectare farm, 56 kilometres outside of Kasama in Northern Province, with more than 1 000 cattle for a duel-purpose diary and beef enterprise.

It is a bold and ambitious goal, given that he only has 70 heads of cattle.

But he has previously pushed against convention and is now banking on *Artificial Insemination (AI) to see what is possible.

Henry Mulenga wants to build a multi-million dairy and beef farm. The challenge he faces is increasing productivity, and he has found a neat fit between that desire and the use of artificial insemination (AI).

THE START

The most poignant moments came as Mulenga, a builder with a cultural background not inclined to pastoral farming, narrated how in the early 2000’s he bought two Boran breeding bulls from a reputable Lusaka stable and 40 heifers to get started. He fenced off part of the 200-hectare farm and demarcated it into paddocks.

Sticking to the advice he got from a colleague from a pastoralist culture, Mulenga says he hired two experienced herd boys to work full-time on the farm.

“This strategy worked very well and in five years, I had between 100 and 120 heads of cattle. Mulenga says the first five years taught him there is potential in the farm, as long as you maintained a low-input, high-production model.

The area is relatively free of disease like foot and mouth, and that was a huge factor in the initial growth. “With regular spray gun dips, we were able to control diseases at relatively low cost,” he says.

For pasture, he adopted natural grazing during the rainy season and supplemented it with salt and DCP (Dicalcium phosphate) in other periods.

However, over the years, the fortunes of the farm fluctuated due to a lack of capital. It mainly survived on the income from the business of slaughtering for meat. That too, is now struggling because of low productivity.

Mulenga retired the first breeding bulls last year, replacing them with a Boran bull from a reputable Mkushi stud and another similar breed from a Lusaka stable. But he knows he has to do more than just replace breeding bulls to transition into commercial livestock farming.

MAJOR CONSTRAINTS

Rather than taking off, his livestock farming fortunes have stagnated.

“Every livestock farmers would like to see an increase in cattle population and the ability to move from subsistence to commercial. That has not been necessarily true in my case,” Mulenga says.

The challenge he faces is the difficulty of maintaining a low-cost, high-production model in the face of rising feed costs. The lack of access to quality and affordable fodder has been a major limiting factor in increasing production.

Compounding his situation, is the lack of access to livestock services, including AI.

“Both public and private livestock service providers fall short in meeting the demand of rural producers. I’m about 1 000 km from Lusaka where such services are concentrated,” he says.

Until the multi-million kwacha laboratory government is building in Kasama is completed, Mulenga has to bear the high transport costs to access critical livestock services.

This puts him and thousands of other smallholder farmers in rural areas at a disadvantage with their global counterparts in applying low-input and sustainable production systems. In some cases, producers maximize production regardless of sustainability and the environment.

Therefore, the holy grail for these producers is a production system where they can reap profits, even under tight budgetary constraints.

HUGE MARKET POTENTIAL

According to IAPRI projections for Zambia’s total meat/milk demand from 2012 to 2027 would increase from 120 thousand to 600 thousand tons of meat and 260 million to 1, 2 billion litres of milk. Meeting this rapidly increasing demand for animal-source foods presents a huge opportunity for smallholder farmers like Mulenga to make more money.

In addition, there are 354 million people in the Southern African Development Community (SADC), providing an opportunity to produce and export beef and milk.

While there is huge market potential, production is yawning. For example, Zambia produces a mere 65 million litres of milk per annum, despite having an installed capacity of 182 million litres.

According to the Dairy Association of Zambia (DAZ), the high cost of feed is the biggest constraint to growth in the sector. Feed accounts for about 65% of inputs.

According to industry players, high production costs slowed the growth of the dairy sector. Only 4 000 new producers entered since 2011, when there were only 1 500. The sector employs 27 000 people directly and indirectly and contributes more than K61 million in taxes to the central government.

It is not inconceivable that with the right approach, the sector could have as many as 10 000 producers.

For beef production, Zamia has a very small beef herd of about 4 million heads of cattle, despite the country having the capacity to sustain more than 15 million. A huge opportunity exists to tap into this potential.

Experts say to increase the numbers will require an improvement in the productivity of traditional beef herds through better husbandry methods and nutrition.

It is in identifying this exciting and huge opportunity, that Mulenga wants to embrace AI as part of continued low-cost livestock farming. “The key focus is to increase productivity and sustain it,” he says.

EFFECTIVE BREEDING

A recent training workshop Mulenga attended at Lusaka’s Czech Centre of Excellence proved to be a neat fit with his desire to vastly improve productivity.

A brain-child of the Czech-based Mendel University, Agriserve Agro, Breeding Impuls Zambia and University of Africa, the centre tutors farmers like Mulenga in innovative, low-cost beef and dairy farming methods to help them increase and sustain productivity.

specialist
René Summers, animal scientist with Agriserve Agro, demonstrates artificial insemination to farmers who attended an information workshop at Lusaka’s Czech Centre of Excellence in September.

“Underpinning the programme is the recognition that livestock farming generally requires high capital outlay, and that the lack of it hinders smallholder livestock farmers to improve their productivity,” says Renier Janse van Vuuren, Agriserve Agro managing director. He also facilitates training at the farm.

Training includes getting smallholder farmers to see that investment in AI will pay off in the short and long term.

According to Janse Van Vuuren, AI pilots done in parts of Southern Province increased conception rates by as much as 55% from low double digits.
“It has been evident that AI in these parts has been successful, with some farmers increasing the conception rates of their animals.

“One of the major advantages is that AI is the most effective low-input, high-output livestock management practices that local small-scale farmers could easily adopt,” he says.

AI also allows farmers to mix imported breeds with local cattle breeds to create superior breeds at minimal cost. It also reduces disease transmission.

In addition, AI increases the efficiency of bull usage, eliminating the physical stress during natural breeding and extends the animals’ reproductive lives.

“This was exciting news for me. I was immediately convinced that was the way to go to expand my farming operation,” Mulenga says. To get financing for AI services, Mulenga will mortgage a part of his farm.

He says his reasoning is entirely rational, backed by evidence from the more than 12 years he has farmed with livestock. He believes without innovation, he will have to resign to the life a subsistent livestock farmer.

Perhaps the half-starved cattle, seen around Zambia’s major road networks, constantly grazing on thin pastures that eventually end up in smoke during the dry season, underlines the important step Mulenga is taking.

*Note

Here is some background information on the process of Artificial Insemination. Remember, training is needed to perform this procedure, so don’t try this at home.

 

Artificial insemination of a dairy cow. Photo: Sander van der Wel (Wikimedia Commons)

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