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1409 PD: A Colorado dairyman manages African dairy

Alisa Anderson Published on 21 September 2009

Editor’s note: This is one of two articles that will describe the struggles and experiences of an American dairyman managing a dairy in Kenya.

“The other night we took our little Lab out after we had eaten dinner, and lo and behold, there was the Big Dipper, the same one that you see in Colorado. We are right on the equator, so we see both sides of it,” dairyman Tom Dobler says.

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“Right now, if you were here, you could look out the front door and see we have a hippo grazing again. They graze all around our house every night. Last night we had three, and one wanted to step in the flowers. We weren’t real happy about that, so I thumped on the window, and they took off.”

Dobler and his wife, Rose, manage a dairy near Nairobi, Kenya. This may sound like an unlikely place for a dairy. Originally a dairyman in Colorado, Dobler started traveling around the world as a farm consultant and volunteer teacher in the late 1980s.

Dobler has visited many countries, such as Macedonia, Russia, Uzebekistan and Tanzania, just to name a few, for the ACDI/VOCA, a nonprofit organization based in Washington, D.C.

Since 2001 Dobler has been brokering used farm equipment in Kenya. In 2008 he became a partner of a dairy in Kenya, where he has moved with his wife, leaving their son to take over the dairy in Colorado.

Dobler and his wife now live on the shores of Naivasha Lake, the most elevated lake in the Rift Valley. Dobler’s goal is to help the dairy to become successful over the next five years, after which he plans to retire.

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“I have done volunteer and consulting work in Kenya for many years, so what I find myself engulfed in came as no surprise. We have a perfect climate, a huge market demand and cheap labor. Yet the challenges sometimes make me wonder why I am here,” Dobler says.

The 170-head dairy herd is mostly Holstein, although there are some part-Boran cows in the herd, a breed that is native to Kenya. They also milk a 60-cow herd that is part beef.

The herd is producing about four-and-a-half gallons per cow per day on average. The low production is largely because of the limited amount of quality feed that is available.

“We are down to feeding a considerable amount of oat straw, along with a limited amount of corn silage and alfalfa,” Dobler says.

A six-year drought has made animal feed scarce. Dobler tells of watching many cows simply drop in their tracks because of weakness from lack of feed. Dobler has had to take the swather out at times to cut the grass along the roads for feed. Hay is selling for around $600 a ton.

“There’s nothing available to buy. The farmers here never attempt to put up good hay simply because the market is so great. They cut it one day, they rake it the next afternoon and then they bale it at 30 percent moisture and with very few leaves on it. Trucks are lined up on the highway – they never meet the demand,” Dobler says.

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The climate in Kenya makes it possible for hay to be cut up to 12 times a year, so with the proper irrigation equipment, Dobler could have his own reliable supply of quality alfalfa. In mid-June, Dobler took some of their bales of alfalfa to the National Livestock Show as an exhibit of what quality hay should be.

“I could have sold thousands of tons, and they didn’t ask what the price was. I had an Indian dairyman from the coast of Mumbasa who came in and said, ‘How many semis can you fill? I’ll take all you can give me,’” Dobler says.

The show was sponsored by another large farm and was held in a soccer stadium. Dairy and beef cattle, sheep and horses were exhibited the whole time. Livestock equipment and feed dealers set up their booths around the outside of the stadium.

“It was a joy. Imagine the World Dairy Expo on a smaller scale. It was all a miniature of what you would expect in the U.S. They had little one-row corn planters, and in fact they’ll still sell you a chopper that you turn with a fly wheel. They said that one day by noon, 10,000 people had paid to get in,” Dobler says.

Grains are also nearly impossible to find, especially corn, which is mostly used for human consumption when it is available. Because he can plant crops any time of the year, Dobler says he plans on growing all of his own feed as soon as he can get the equipment he needs from the U.S.

But until then, he sometimes feeds the cows byproducts from other industries, such as wheat bran and brewers waste. He tells of sitting in line with his truck at the beer company for 14 days and receiving only 1.2 tons.

Dobler has had to import all of his equipment from the U.S. in containers brought by ship. Once the containers arrive, Dobler and his hired men go to the dock and unload everything as quickly as possible and entirely by hand.

“We unloaded three containers in one day. We took a whole center pivot and a turbine pump out of one container. Imagine how many pieces you have to take apart to get a pivot in a container. The turbine pump was very heavy – 20-foot sections of 10-inch turbine with the line shaft and the drive shaft in it – it took 10 people to grab one of those and pick it up,” Dobler says.

Dobler has also imported two tractors. Getting them into Kenya is the first step. After that, he has to deal with the government to get them licensed and registered so he can drive them. Tractors need licensing, insurance and the whole bit, just as a car does.

There are no set fees, so the government will try to charge whatever amount they can get, sometimes more than is affordable. Dobler is negotiating with them to get the second tractor registered and licensed.

Dobler has also had to work with the government to get electricity to his wells, or boreholes as they are called there, so that he can irrigate. So far it has been a long process.

“The Kenya Power and Light has to engineer the lines into you, and then they require all kinds of protection in fusing. And then we have to build a house to house all this in. They sell all the equipment, and they charge us for everything that they do. I didn’t need any of their boxes, I brought all the boxes that I need, but they insist that I put in about another $1,000 worth of boxes that they recommend,” Dobler says.

Dobler plans on setting up four pivots, increasing the dairy herd to 700 cows and building a 500-head feedlot by the end of five years. Right now he is working 18 hours a day and struggling against the many obstacles in his way, a few of which have already been mentioned.

“Yesterday I had a white fellow comment to me that Africa always wins. Maybe, until now. But I am determined to make it work somehow,” Dobler says. PD

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