Some 200 metres from Naivasha town along the busy Nakuru-Naivasha highway, there is a farm where bulls are living like kings.
The 3,000 animals kept under zero-grazing system feed on quality fodder and get checked by a vet each day as they while away their time, waiting to end up on dining tables of top Nairobi hotels, foreign countries and various corporate clients, all who buy on order.
One thing that catches one’s eye when they enter the farm, where also grapes are grown, is the high level of cleanliness.
All visitors entering on foot must dip their shoes in a disinfectant. Similarly, tyres of vehicles are disinfected.
One may wonder why the farm has installed the bio-security measures yet bulls are supposed to be hardy.
“We’re concerned with the health and safety of our animals. Well, the perception is bulls are tough, thus they need little care but that is not the case. They too are prone to numerous diseases,” says Ephantus Mwangi, the assistant livestock manager at the farm.
Beef farming, according to him, is as labour intensive as dairy farming, therefore, for good results, the animals must be handled with utmost care because any slight lapse would result in death and diseases.
The calves need a strict feeding programme, disease surveillance, constant weight check, clean pens and a 24-hour supply of water.
The calves feed on their mother’s milk until they are five months when they are weaned. However, they are not taken direct to the feedlot but are put on concentrates that include proteins, cotton seeds, sunflower and grains like oats for 18 months until they attain 250kg. Then they are transferred to the main feeding lot.
But before joining the herd at the feeding lot, the bull calves are castrated.
“Castrating a young bull at the right age is important as it enables it to heal faster, gain weight evenly and develop strong muscle,” says the 46-year-old.
On the other hand, when an animal is castrated at an advanced age, it takes a long time to heal, which delays the time it is sold.
Normally, the animals are sold after attaining between 400kg and 600kg.
Castration here takes place between day one to four months. Besides fattening the bullocks, castration also helps to reduce ferocity of the animals, thus, preventing fighting in pens.
“An animal should be at the feeding lot before sale for a maximum of 120 days. Any period longer than that means it is eating into your profit margin,” says Mwangi.
The animals’ feeding programme after weaning starts with concentrates consisting mainly of proteins like lucerne, and carbohydrates such as maize, oats, barley and wheat. Each steer ( castrated bull) eats between 2.7 and 3 per cent of its body weight twice a day.
The second feeding stage is referred to as backgrounding where the animals are fed with an equal ration of 50:50 quantity of roughages, minerals, vitamins and water.
In the final feeding stage, the animals are fed on 90 per cent grains and 10 per cent roughage to enable them gain weight and fat as they are just about to be released to the market.
The feeding practices have seen the steers from Morendat produce quality beef, with each carcass going for Sh200,000.
The meat is also sold in kilos with prices ranging from Sh500 to Sh900.
“This venture is expensive and requires a lot of capital and a 24-hour surveillance, but it has good returns. In a good year, we slaughter up to 900 animals,” says Mwangi, noting that they keep mainly the Angus breed, whose meat is tasty and tender.
In beef farming, he advises, one must closely monitor the weight of their animals as it is very crucial for a farmer who wants to reap maximum profits.
“Weight monitoring is everything in beef farming and should be done after every two weeks because without knowing what the animal weighs, you will not be able to know whether they are losing or gaining and what rations you need to offer them.”
He cautions against feeding the animals with excess wheat and barley as they have a higher ratio of starch compared to maize and this might interfere with the digestive system.
“One must balance the ratio between concentrates and roughages to avoid fatalities due to a poor feeding regime.”
Just like a newborn whose mother is given a clinic card, each animal in the farm gets a file as soon as it is born. It documents history, parent breed, hardiness, weight at birth, disease history and expected maturity date for the market.
To make sure the animals are disease-free, the farm has employed a veterinary officer who monitors the bulls day and night.
Every week, the animals are sprayed with acaricides to avoid tick attacks and after every five months, they are vaccinated against Modified Live Virus (MLV), Mono-clonal Antibody, Killed Vaccines (KV), Chemically Altered Vaccines (CAV) and toxoids.
The farm, which employs about 90 workers, formulates its own feeds grown on 65 hectares.
“We make our own silage for quality feeds because what is in the market might not meet our standards,” adds Mwangi.
The farm imports sexed semen, which ensures they end up mainly with bulls, from Britain for crossbreeding with local Boran cattle for breeds that are hardy.
However, if they get heifers, the animals are used for breeding and are also sold at an average price of Sh150,000.
They further crossbreed with Simmental for high milk yield and Angus for quality beef. Other breeds they keep include Friesian and Charolais.
The pens where the animals are kept are cleaned daily and the feeding lot must be spacious enough to accommodate at least four to five bulls.
“The animals must not scramble when they are feeding from the trough. This helps to reduce stress.”
Mary Muchunguh, a livestock expert, notes beef farming requires massive financial investment and good management practices. She says disease-monitoring is vital. The farmer should choose a good breed that should be able to adapt in the farmer’s environment.
“If you buy a Boran from Kitui, you must consult whether it will easily adapt to a new environment in Laikipia or Naivasha, otherwise you might end up losing your money as the animal may not survive,” she says.
Animals kept for beef also need to be monitored for stress and tropical diseases such as trypanosomiasis, which can be fatal. “To control such diseases, deworming is necessary and it is advisable to consult a veterinarian with regard to the type of de-wormers as well as the right time for medication and vaccination programmes,” she adds.