Kenya has a thriving dairy industry, producing over 5 billion litres of milk annually. With the rising demand for dairy products in both domestic and export markets, dairy farming presents lucrative opportunities for Kenyan farmers.
Choosing the right dairy cattle breed is key to successful dairy farming in Kenya. The breed you select determines factors like milk production potential, fertility, feed requirements and disease resistance. With many breeds to pick from, making the right choice can be overwhelming for new farmers.
This article provides a guide on the most suitable dairy cattle breeds for smallholder farmers in Kenya and factors to consider when selecting breeds. This is a continuation of our introductory article on dairy farming in Kenya.
Overview of Dairy Farming in Kenya
Dairy farming is a major agricultural activity in Kenya, providing income for over 1 million smallholder farmers. Kenya currently has over 4 million dairy cows producing milk.
The highlands and medium-potential areas of Central, Rift Valley and Eastern provinces dominate dairy farming. However, production is also significant in Coast and Nyanza provinces.
Demand for milk and other dairy products is strong domestically and also regionally in Africa. Kenya exports substantial amounts of milk powder, cheese, butter and ghee to neighbouring countries.
Both large-scale and smallholder production models exist. Smallholders dominate, accounting for over 75% of milk production. Farm sizes vary from less than 5 to over 100 cattle.
Crossbred cattle are popular, taking advantage of higher productivity from exotic breeds combined with adaptability from indigenous Zebu cattle. Pure breeds are also farmed, mainly on large dairy farms.
Key Factors to Consider When Choosing a Dairy Breed
- Milk Production – Select breeds with high yield potential under your management system. Consider lactation length as well.
- Adaptability – Choose breeds fit for your area’s climate, environment, feed resources and disease conditions. Heat and disease tolerance are essential.
- Fertility and Calving – Fertile breeds, easy calving and good calf survival are essential.
- Feed Requirements – Lower input breeds with the ability to utilize roughages efficiently are ideal for smallholders.
- Disease Resistance – Robust disease resistance reduces veterinary costs. Important for tickborne diseases in Kenya.
- Market Preferences – Some processors prefer certain breeds. Also, consider consumer preferences.
- Costs – Balancing higher outputs from improved breeds versus higher feed and health costs.
- Farmer Preferences – Farmer experience, management style and personal preferences matter too.
With those key considerations in mind, let’s look at suitable dairy cattle breeds for smallholder systems in Kenya.
Top Dairy Cattle Breeds for Smallholders in Kenya
The Sahiwal is an indigenous zebu breed from the arid regions of India and Pakistan. It was introduced to Kenya in the early 20th century during British colonial rule.
- Well adapted to hot, dry climates and can utilize poor quality roughages.
- Resistant to ticks and tropical diseases like trypanosomiasis.
- Docile temperament.
- Average milk yields up to 2,000 kg lactation under good management.
- Good fertility, heat tolerance and calf survival.
Recommended areas: Low and medium rainfall rangelands like Eastern, Coast and Rift Valley provinces.
Limitations: Susceptible to mastitis and requires good udder care. Lower milk potential than exotic breeds.
Price in Kenya: KSh.100,000 to Ksh.140,000 (+/-)
Ayrshire cattle originated from Scotland and are a popular dairy breed globally. They were first imported to Kenya in the 1920s.
- Adapts well to cooler highland conditions but also performs reasonably in warm areas.
- High fertility, easy calvings and good calf survival.
- Average milk yields up to 3,500 kg of lactation.
- Utilizes roughages efficiently and converts feed well. Lower input demands than Holsteins.
Recommended areas: Highlands and cooler mid-level areas like Central, Nandi and Nyandarua.
Limitations: Susceptible to tickborne diseases. Heat tolerance is lower than Zebus.
Price in Kenya: KSh.80,000 to Ksh.100,000 (+/-)
Guernsey cattle come from the British island of Guernsey. They have been raised in Kenya since the colonial period.
- Excellent grazing ability and efficient converters of roughage.
- Adapted to cooler highland conditions.
- High protein and fat content milk. Golden yellow milk colour.
- Gentle disposition.
- Average milk yields up to 4,000 kg of lactation.
Recommended areas: Higher elevation regions of Central, Rift Valley and Eastern provinces.
Limitations: Susceptible to parasites and tick-borne diseases. Intolerant of hot climates.
Price in Kenya: KSh.100,000 to Ksh.250,000 (+/-)
The Jersey breed comes from Jersey Island in Britain. It is popular globally for its high-quality milk.
- Thrives in cooler highland conditions.
- Very high milk fat and protein content. Good for premium niche markets.
- Smaller size than other dairy breeds, requiring less feed inputs.
- Docile temperament.
- Average milk yields up to 4,000 kg of lactation.
Recommended areas: Higher elevation cooler areas like Central and Rift Valley highlands.
Limitations: Heat and disease susceptibility. Higher inputs than indigenous breeds.
Price in Kenya: KSh.85,000 to Ksh.90,000 (+/-)
Also known as Simmental, Fleckvieh originated in Europe (Germany, Austria, France). It is a dual-purpose breed for both milk and meat.
- Good heat tolerance and does reasonably well in drier areas.
- High fertility, calving ease and calf survival.
- The average milk yield is up to 3,000 kg per lactation.
- Thrives on roughages and lower-quality feeds.
Recommended areas: Flexible for a range of environments from cooler highlands to warmer medium-potential areas.
Limitations: Susceptible to ticks and tick-borne diseases. Exotic breed requiring higher inputs.
Price in Kenya: KSh.250,000 (+/-)
6. Brown Swiss
Brown Swiss originated in the Alps of Switzerland. It is popular globally as a hardy, long-lasting dairy breed.
- Adapts well to cooler highland conditions.
- Docile temperament.
- High fertility rates and easy calvings.
- Persistent high milk yields over long lactations. Can exceed 5,000 kg.
- Utilizes roughages well.
Recommended areas: Higher elevation cooler highlands of Central and Rift Valley provinces.
Limitations: Susceptible to heat stress, ticks and diseases. Higher inputs than indigenous breeds.
Price in Kenya: $650 to $750 (+/-) (Kenyan Prices are not documented as this breed is not very common in Kenya)
7. Freshian/ Holstein Friesian: Best for Milk Production
The Freshian is a cross between the exotic Holstein Friesian and indigenous Zebu breeds. So far, this is the BEST BREED in terms of milk production.
- Inherits high milk production potential from the Holstein.
- Gains tropical adaptability, heat tolerance and disease resistance from Zebu.
- Average milk yields up to 3,000 kg of lactation. Some can reach over 5,000 kg.
- Thrives on nutritional supplementation but utilizes roughages reasonably well.
Recommended areas: Flexible for the cooler highlands to warmer medium-potential areas. Widely used across most dairy farming regions.
Limitations: Inputs are higher than pure Zebu breeds but are usually worth it for the high milk yields.
Price in Kenya: Ksh.250,000+
Best Breed Combinations and Crossbreeds
Crossbreeding indigenous breeds with exotics captures the best traits of each breed. Here are some top crosses suitable for smallholders in Kenya:
- Sahiwal x Ayrshire – Tolerant of drier conditions with higher milk outputs.
- Sahiwal x Jersey – High milk quality with tropical robustness.
- Boran (Zebu) x Guernsey – Hardy with quality milk for niches.
- Fleckvieh x Zebu – Dual-purpose milk and beef production.
- Brown Swiss x Zebu – High milk yield with durability.
- Freshian (Friesian x Zebu) – High volume with adaptability.
3-way crosses like Boran x Jersey x Holstein also work well. Grade cattle with 50-75% exotic genes are optimal for many smallholders.
The best breed mixes will depend on your specific location and climate, feed resources, and production objectives. Work with your local livestock extension officer to determine optimal breed combinations for your situation.
Best Practices for Introducing New Breeds
When transitioning to new dairy cattle breeds, follow these best practices:
- Gradually upgrade through crossbreeding rather than abruptly switching breeds.
- Ensure proper quarantine and vet checks for imported breeds.
- Adapt housing and husbandry practices to suit the breeds.
- Improve feed resources and nutrition planning.
- Invest in training and skills building for proper breed management.
- Monitor breed performance and make adjustments as needed.
- For pure breeds, consider contract rearing with established breeders first.
Proper introduction of new genetics while minimizing disease risks is key for a successful transition.
Selecting suitable dairy cattle breeds is an important decision for Kenyan farmers looking to maximize productivity and profitability. Key factors to consider include milk yield potential, climate adaptability, disease resistance, fertility, feed requirements and market preferences.
Indigenous breeds like Sahiwal and Boran provide climate resilience and tropical robustness. Exotic breeds such as Holstein Friesian offer higher production when properly managed. Crossbreeds between the two capture the best of both worlds.
The Freshian crossbreed of Friesian x Zebu is widely used by Kenyan smallholders for its high milk yields combined with adaptability.
By matching breeds to your region, management capabilities and resources, Kenyan farmers can build successful and sustainable dairy farming enterprises. Work closely with livestock extension services to determine the optimal breeds and crosses for your situation.