Wildlife & Biodiversity

Sahiwal cattle, the pride of the Subcontinent, is going places in rural Kenya

With its high milk and meat yield, its resistance to drought and diseases, the breed has brought great changes in Kenya’s villages

By Jitendra
Published: Monday 15 July 2019
A Masai herder stands along with his herds. Photo: Jitendra
A Masai herder stands along with his herds. Photo: Jitendra A Masai herder stands along with his herds. Photo: Jitendra

In the middle of a conversation about shrinking pasture in the Masai Mara National Reserve, human-animal conflict and changes in life style, James Vetingio, 38, a pastoralist in the reserve, became perplexed after getting to know that the Sahiwal cattle breed has its origins in the Indian Subcontinent.

“Sahiwal is our lifeline. It has changed life of the whole of Masai Mara,” he beamed at me while the others smiled.

I was sitting along with pastoralists among thousands of cows, mostly hybrid Sahiwal. Smoke was billowing out from hearths where milk was being heated and bread being prepared from cornmeal.

All pastoralists were surprised with the information about the Sahiwal. Apparently, the breed has adapted so well to Kenya, they never realised it was ‘foreign’.

“Our herds have 40 per cent pure Sahiwal and 40 per cent is hybrid Sahiwal. The rest of them are native,” said Saimon Liaran, 62, another pastoralist, who has a herd of around 300 cows. He sells around 50 litres of milk every day.

The Sahiwal migrated to Kenya around 80 years ago from the Subcontinent and is now considered as the backbone of the country’s milk production.

The breed is the main source of earning for many dairy farmers and is also helping adaption in the face of climate change. (See Box)

The Sahiwal: From one colony to another

The British, who ruled both British India (today’s India, Pakistan and Bangladesh) as well as Kenya, brought the Sahiwal breed to Kenya in the 1930s for increasing milk production to help their army.

The origin of the Sahiwal is the similarly named town (known in the British Era as Montgomery) in today’s Pakistani province of Punjab.

It is commonly of a reddish dun colour, with more of a dark brownish colour around the hump and the neck. Also, during the 1930s, the British introduced the Red Sindhi breed of cow in Tanganyika, their colony to the south of Kenya (today’s Tanzania). The effort failed though.

According to the International Livestock Research Institute, the present Sahiwal cattle in Kenya are descendants of some 60 bulls and 12 cows imported between 1939 and 1963.

The high grade Sahiwals are owned by the National Sahiwal Stud at Navaisha whereas a few high grade Sahiwals and Sahiwal crossbred cattle are owned by private commercial breeders.

Eighty per cent of Kenya’s land is arid and semi-arid. Drought used to happen once in four years earlier but is now an annual feature.

The National Drought Management Authority (NDMA) reports of 2017 show the region faced droughts or received deficit rainfall in 13 of the last 16 years.

The number of drought-affected people has also been increasing.

According to a report titled Ending Drought Emergencies in Kenya, there were one million drought-affected people in 2013. This number rose to 2.5 million in 2017 and in 2019, the number reached two million till the end of June.

Drought is causing food prices to rise, in turn contributing to higher food inflation in Kenya. This year, in July, the prices of corn flour, a staple, have risen by 25 per cent.

Dairy Kings

However, food is not a cause of worry for the pastoralists of the Masai Mara.

“We started selling milk when pure Sahiwal cattle joined our herds. Our native breeds hardly give milk. It is not more than half a litre during the lactation period, which is used for our consumption. But Sahiwal cows give up to 5 litres, which we consume and also sell,” said Vetingio.

Life and times have changed in the Masai Mara plain, 300 kilometres (km) south of Nairobi, after the introduction of the Sahiwal breed.

The famous Masai ethnic group used to rear around 3,000 native cattle called Zebu and Boran per family. Now, they have reduced the number to around 200-300. They replaced these cattle with Sahiwal cows.

The subsequent milk business led to increased cash flows, which in turn changed their food habits and improved economic conditions.

They started sending their children to private English-medium schools. Polygamy, a regular feature of Masai society, meant that earlier each Masai man had 7-10 wives, to manage thousands of native breeds. Today, most Masai men have one wife.

“The Masai depended on their native breeds of cattle primarily for meat, blood and milk, in that order. But the Sahiwal changed their priorities. It gives them lots of milk which they consume and sell. It also gives lots of meat,” said Joseph Oyango, farm manager, Narok Pastoralist Training Center, a government organisation in the Narok County.

The Sahiwal requires relatively less management in an arid climate zone.

“The Sahiwal has adapted to Kenya’s climate and requires lesser management than native cattle. Like other native breeds, it grazes in the open but gives more milk,” said Oyango, whose Centre provides training to pastoralists on managing farms.

The Sahiwal has adapted to the arid climate of Kenya’s Southeast and has proven quite effective even in the time of drought. The region receives less than 500 mm of yearly rainfall.

“We have been facing a continuous three-year-long drought-like situation in the Southeast but the Sahiwal has proved so resistant to it that it didn’t stop giving milk, although the quantity has reduced a bit,” said Ventengio, who is also member-secretary of Grazing Land committee, a community body to protect pasture land. 

There are a number of examples of people in Narok County, whose lives have transformed after adopting the Sahiwal.

Two families namely, Koryata and Naibor, in Ololonga village, 50 km south of Narok city, became millionaires after doing a business in the breeding and trading of 200 Sahiwal.

“Here, possessing the pure Sahiwal breed is a sign of prosperity,” said Oyango.

Cattle herds in the Masai Mara. Photo: JitendraSpiralling number

According to the Kenya Agriculture and Livestock Research organisation, the country has 18 million cattle. These include the Sahiwal, indigenous breeds like Zebu and Boran, exotic western breeds like Holstein, Frisian, Jersey, Guernsey as well as crosses of various breeds.

Sahiwal constitutes around five per cent of the total recognised breeds.

“According to our research, 80 per cent of Sahiwal are native to the South-Eastern Range Land, which is considered arid,” said Evans Ilatsia, a scientist at the Kenya Agriculture and Livestock Research Organisation (Kalro), Naivasha, who works on improving the Sahiwal breed.

According to the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI), the number of Sahiwal cattle in Kenya was 2,500 in 1986. Its number has increased to several thousand over the next thirty years.

“There are around 400,000 Sahiwal cows among the Masai. It constitutes around 50 per cent of the total herds in the Masai Mara and South-Eastern Range Land,” added Evans.

In the absence of any programme to conserve native breeds of cattle, people around the world are opting for high yielding, temperate zone cattle breeds for milch purposes. However, such exotic breeds are not suitable for arid climates.

“So far, there is no government programme to conserve local breeds. There have been proposals to have a gene bank but this has never materialised,” said Maurice Rongoma, deputy director of livestock, Siaya County.

Moreover, high-yielding exotic milch varieties like Holstein, Frisian, Jersey, Guernsey and others are more prone to diseases, intolerant to drought and also produce lesser meat.

“Exotic breeds are more vulnerable to ticks and parasites and East Coast fever diseases which are common in the region,” said Newton Okec, deputy centre director at Kalro’s Kisumu unit.

This unit of the Centre has been pushing for the Sahiwal because it is more resistant to diseases and its milk potential.

The Sahiwal was bred for both milk and beef. It is known for its easy calving, rapid weight gain, heat and drought tolerance, capacity to cope with bloating, hybrid vigour and longevity. It can reproduce for up to 18 years.

In the early 1980s, Kenyan pastoralists were unwilling to accept the Sahiwal. The Masai were known for their love of indigenous cattle.

Gradually, they became aware of the Sahiwal’s disease-resistance and capacity to produce more milk and meat. A mature Sahiwal bull weighs about 600 kg, twice the average weight of local breeds.

“The breed also matures faster, produces a minimum of up to five times the amount of milk indigenous cows produce daily,” said Liaran, whose generation was one of the first in the region chosen by the government to rear it in the early 1980s.

Kenya produces four billion litres of milk. Out of it, the Sahiwal’s contribution is around 10 per cent.

“The percentage of milk produced will go up in the next decade as there is huge demand for the Sahiwal from different parts of country, especially from arid areas,” said Evans.

James Vetingio, a pastoralist from the Masai Mara. Photo: JitendraThe Sahiwal has not been able to spread to Kenya’s other counties due to the lack of infrastructure support in counties like Turkana, Marsabit, Baringo, Wajir, Garissa, Tana River and Isiolo.

People here have started adopting camels in order to fight drought. Camels requires lesser water, eat a wider variety of vegetation and also give more milk than indigenous cattle.

The Sahiwal not spreading to other regions has created existential challenges for it. Kenya has only one Sahiwal research station in Naivasa, which faces a lower chance of superior germplasm (frozen semen) availability.

The repository of germplasm has been reducing year-on-year. In 1989, the number of Sahiwal was 1,000, which has now reduced to 400. The current availability of germplasm is quite narrow to make superior germplasm.

“I would suggest that the breeding centre now be located in the Masai Mara instead of Naivasa because of fewer choices,” said Adan Abdi, field coordinator, ILRI, Nairobi.

Evans had visited both, India and Pakistan, for getting help to improve the Kenyan Sahiwal’s germplasm, as both countries have a rich repository of germplasm.

Due to stringent laws in Pakistan, Evans couldn’t get any help. India has the best repository of superior germplasm. It had around around 37,000 doses of superior germplasm in 2015-16.

“We are hopeful that we will receive help from India,” said Evans.

“We are helping other countries like Nepal, Bhutan, Sri Lanka, the Philippines and Vietnam by supplying superior germplasm for genetic improvement. We would like to help Kenya too,” said SS Lathwal, in-charge of the Livestock Research Centre at the National Dairy Research Institute in Karnal.

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