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9 May 2023

The shift from less milk-producing cow breeds to improved breeds in central Ethiopia

Improved cow breeds at smallholder dairy farm in Degem District of Oromia regional state. Photo by Shoa Negash

Increasing the productivity and management of smallholder dairy systems is one of the critical tools for reducing poverty, raising nutritional levels and improving the livelihoods of poor people, especially in rural areas. Eastern Africa is Africa’s leading milk-producing region, representing more than 50% of the continent’s milk output. Ethiopia has a large potential for livestock production, leading African countries with its current cattle population of about 66 million and mainly owned by smallholder farmers.

About 99% of the cattle population in Ethiopia are indigenous breeds owned mainly by smallholder farmers with indigenous knowledge of cattle production. These local cow breeds are characterised by low milk output and Ethiopia’s per capita milk consumption is lower than the average value for Africa. However, improved cow breeds with high milk production are being introduced in some areas of Ethiopia. In order to gather basic information and assess the situation of smallholder dairy farmers who own improved cow breeds, a pilot study was conducted in central Ethiopia, in Degem District, located about 160 km north of Addis Ababa city in Oromia Regional State. In this district, smallholder mixed crop and livestock farming are widely practised. During the recent two decades, smallholder farmers in the study area have been replacing their local cow breeds with improved ones. In the Degem district, about 2855 farmers are currently engaged in improved dairy farming, out of which 41 farms have been visited during the pilot study.

The number of cows varies from one to nine per household, with an average number of three cows of improved breeds. Each cow produces about 9.5 litres of milk per day on average. By adopting the improved breeds, the farmers have increased their milk productivity by about 67% on average compared to local ArsiCattle breeds in the study area. In connection to the introduction of improved cow breeds in the study area, some changes have been noticed in milk marketing and processing. Traditionally milk was consumed and processed at home less efficiently and farmers sold the milk byproducts mainly butter. However, after the milk productivity has increased, farmers supply the raw milk to milk processing plants more than 150 km from the study area’s dairy farms.

Are there challenges compromising the benefits of improved dairy farming?

Although there is an increase in milk production per household, it was learnt that some challenges hinder smallholder farmers from increasing the benefits gained from dairy farms.

(I) Limitation of feed resources – the main sources of animal feed are pasture and feed market. However, the farmers confirmed that there is a need for pasture land due to land scarcity and the existing land-use competition among different agricultural activities. Farmers have limited access to the feed market. The main challenges are the shortage and high price of animal feed on market.

(II) Inadequate animal welfare and health service – the common animal health problems in the study area include bovine mastitis, which affects cow teats and reduces milk production and quality, calcium deficiency which commonly affects high-milk-yielding cows, Foot and Mouth disease, and Anthrax. Even though there are government-supported animal health centres and a trained workforce, there is an inadequate supply of appropriate medicine at the required time.

(III) Limitation of linkage to milk market – smallholder dairy farmers in the study area can sell the raw milk either directly to the milk processing plants or to milk traders who collect milk from farmers and supply it to milk processing plants or consumers. However, there needs to be more well-organised access to appropriate milk markets. Therefore, farmers are forced to sell raw milk at low prices due to limited access to market information and limited price bargaining power.

(IV) Logistics-related problems – Raw milk is one of the perishable agricultural products with short shelf life. Pay attention to milk storage and transportation requirements to preserve its quality and freshness is important. Since no milk processing plants are in the study area, the milk must be collected and transported more than 150 km to reach the processing plant. Farmers must deliver the raw milk must to local milk collection centres. There are about six milk collection centres in the Degem district. Individual and group milk collectors transport the raw milk from the collection centres to processing plants or wholesalers. Farmers far from the main road could not bring their products to the milk collection centre due to a lack of road and transport infrastructure. The lack of a milk cold chain, the use of inappropriate vehicles for milk transportation, and the need for appropriate cleaning facilities for milk containers and equipment aggravate the problems in the milk supply chain. The milk supply limitation also forces the milk processing plants to work under capacity. These problems lead to high milk loss, affecting the competitiveness of smallholder farmers-based milk supply chains in the market and the livelihood of farmers’ households.

Milk transport from smallholder dairy farms in the Degem district to milk processing plant located at about 145 km. Photo by Shoa Negash

(V) Milk quality-related problems – due to the lack of appropriate vehicles for milk transport and the long distance to reach processing plants, there is a problem of milk spoilage on the way to the processing plants. One of the milk processing plants that cooperates with smallholder dairy farmers in the study area is Elemtu Integrated Milk Industry Share Company. However, the company has limitations in providing adequate milk transport facilities with cold chain. Another noted cause of milk quality deterioration in the supply chain is financially motivated milk adulteration, mainly with water.

Are there intervention opportunities to increase the benefits of improved breed dairy production?

Introducing improved cow breeds and other efforts to improve the smallholder dairy sector should lead to more benefits for smallholder farmers, increased food security, poverty reduction, and sustainable development of the rural areas. In this regard, there are opportunities for intervention to enable smallholder farmers to tackle the existing challenges. The first required intervention is to support farmers to increase the feed supply in both quality and quantity. The study area has long time dairy experience and good environmental conditions to produce animal feeds. However, access to pasture land and feed market with a fair price is essentialfor farmers.  The second intervention is to create better market opportunities. Even though there is high demand for milk and dairy products in urban areas, especially in the capital city, the smallholder farmers have less direct access to the market due to inadequate transport facilities and the influence of intermediaries. Therefore, appropriate interventions are required, for example, improving logistics services and feed and milk quality control, establishing effective farmers’ cooperatives, and increasing farmers’ price bargaining power. Establishing dairy processing plants near the milk production areas also helps to increase market access and reduce milk loss. Small and medium-scale milk processing plants can be introduced, especially for dairy farms far from the existing dairy processing plants.

The third intervention potential is to provide training services and technical support to smallholder dairy farmers.  For instance, short training and group discussions were conducted during this pilot study focusing on milk production, collection, and marketing issues.  As a result of the successful discussions, one of farmer’s milk cooperatives, which collapsed eight years before, was re-established to serve the dairy farmers. This cooperative helps farmers to increase access to feed and milk markets and price bargaining power.

Focus group discussion with a group of smallholder dairy farmers. Photo by Shoa Negash

Another intervention option is to support new farmers in getting access to improved cow breeds with adequate animal health services. The study area has increased demand but less supply of improved breeds. In this regard, there is a supportive government policy in multiplying and distributing improved cow breeds, however more effort is needed to effectively apply such a policy.

This research received financial support from SLU Global.


Written by:

Shoa Negash, intern at Salale University, PhD student at Department of Development Economics, Ethiopian Civil Service University, Ethiopia

Techane Bosona (PhD), Department of Energy and Technology, Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences (SLU), Sweden

Adugna Mekonnen, Department of Natural Resources Manaegment, Salale University, Ethiopia