Crossbreeding and an app boost Tanzanian dairy

Reeling from the worst drought in years, the Mruazi Heifer Breeding Unit in Tanzania continues to crossbreed local Zebu cows with Dutch Friesians. Meanwhile, a new app gives local smallholders a farm management system in their pockets.

The most severe drought in recent history coupled with an unfortunately-timed business decision marked a particularly tough year for the Mruazi Heifer Breeding Unit in the Tanga region of Tanzania last year. The unit produces crossbred dairy cattle and facilitates training for local smallholders to help increase their incomes.

The Mruazi unit crossbreeds the hardy local Zebu cows with Holstein Friesians, known as the world's highest-producing dairy cattle. The Mruazi unit sells the resulting crossbreed heifers and bulls (known as ‘Holstein x Zebu’ in the trade) to local farmers to enable them to dramatically increase their milk production and incomes.

Best of both worlds

Eva Teekens, Program Manager Brazil and Africa at Rabobank Foundation, explains: “The crossbreeding of Zebu and Friesian cows is an established method of increasing milk production in areas with challenging conditions for dairy animals. A Zebu cow is very strong and will eat low-quality grass, but yields just 4 liters of milk a day, while a Friesian Holsteiner can yield nine times that. The crossbreeds produce roughly 10 liters of milk a day.”

The Mruazi Breeding Unit has been supported by the Rabobank Foundation since 2010 through a long-term loan facility and advice. Its farm currently has 1,081 crossbred cattle and 623 Zebu animals. Thanks to its milking herd of 200 cows, it also sells some 500,000 liters of milk a year.

Guaranteed price

Most of the region’s 5,000 dairy farmers sell their milk to processing plant Tanga Fresh, through the local dairy cooperative. Under this agreement, farmers are guaranteed to receive a price for their milk which is no lower than 45% of the price which Tanga Fresh itself receives on the open market.

“Demand from Tanga Fresh already outstrips supply,” says Mruazi co-owner Lut Zijlstra. “And the plant hopes to receive more milk from the co-op in order to expand into long life milk (UHT) production, which would make its business more resilient. Most farmers in the region still milk by hand, but we expect that higher incomes will eventually encourage mechanized milking to become more widespread. However, drought can really put a spanner in the works, as we found out last year.”

Long, dry season

There was no rain in the Tanga region from the beginning of September 2017 until mid-March 2018. At the same time, the Mruazi Breeding Unit had held on to its stock of animals as it had recently made a deal to secure a further 1,000 hectares of land (roughly doubling its land area). In a normal year, the unit would have reduced its stock by selling animals. Now, it was caught out, and did not have enough fodder for its animals.

“It was a tough lesson,” admits Zijlstra. “But it won’t happen again. We took a risk and we paid for it. We are now managing our fodder stock carefully and installing an irrigation system.”

“Thanks to the app we can see how the animals are being managed”

- Lut Zijlstra, Mruazi

High-tech dairy

A very recent innovation, in the process of being launched through the Mruazi Breeding Unit, is a smartphone app for dairy farmers. “We want to introduce up-to-date technology to farmers. That way they can quickly improve their livelihoods,” says Eva Teekens. “Knowledge-sharing among the farmers who are often located far away from one another could prove to be an excellent way of supporting the farmers after they buy the X-breed cows.”

“We wanted to reach out to farmers, as we sometimes receive complaints about our animals,” says Zijlstra. “We were looking for a way to support our clients. The first issue is usually fertility. The cow does not get pregnant and therefore produces no milk. If we can see how the animal is being managed, we can give appropriate advice, using messaging, video-learning tools and so on.”

Distance learning

That’s where the app will come in. The farmer can record what happens with the cow, in terms of reproduction, calf growth and feeding. The breeding unit can follow this and offer very specific advice. “The app should also prove a useful communication tool between the farmers themselves,” Zijlstra adds.

The development of the app is co-financed by the Rabobank Foundation, along with commercial partners. “We’ll be launching it among 500 farmers who already own smartphones,” says Teekens. “And we plan to roll it out to many more if it proves as effective as expected.”

Zijlstra agrees: “We hope this will lead to a whole new generation of farmers in Tanga taking their dairy smallholdings to the next level.”