By Dr. Aliyu U. Tilde
The Triumph of Tradition
It was in 1994. My 84 years old father (May God grant him mercy) was lying on his bed one afternoon when I intimated him about my interest in keeping cattle. Nothing could be more delighting to the old man than the interest of his son to continue with their ancestral tradition. But before he could answer, my mother, who has suffered all her youth in tending cattle, objected, saying in our native Fulfulde, “Aan! Torra sai,” meaning it is mere suffering. My father mildly answered her by asking, “Do you know whether he could be successful with the cattle?”
My father died two years later. The cattle he left were sold when I was away living in Kaduna and the proceeds distributed among his children. When I returned home in 1997 I set out to fulfil my promise. I bought some cows from various markets in Nasarawa, Plateau and Bauchi States and placed them in the custody of one Laamu who maintained them along with his own in the traditional free ranch grazing. After some four years, the number of cattle dwindled from thirty to eleven. I decided to retrieve the remainder. They were fattened and sold out.
I thus lost hope in the traditional way of cattle rearing through free ranch grazing as Fulani herdsmen do. With a third degree in Agriculture and visiting Sebore Farm of Murtala Nyako, I thought I can attempt the modern method of intensive husbandry using foreign breeds. In 2002, I got some eight 3 – 6 months old Frisian x Bunaji (the “white Fulani”) crossbred bulls from National Animal Production Research Institute (NAPRI) in Zaria. Curious villagers flocked my house to see the humpless calves.
I fattened them on cotton seed cake (CSC) and some traditional supplements.The CSC in 2002 was selling just at N13,000/tonne. Within a year they all became fully matured bulls, weighing about 350 kg, ready to mount cows or be slaughtered at the abattoir. It was very encouraging. I did my calculations and arrived at the conclusion that it will be profitable to raise the crossbreeds myself.
Apart from the meat, I also leant that the Frisian crosses could yield high amounts of milk. So I incorporated yoghurt making into the dream. I built a small yoghurt factory in the house and got the product registered with NAFDAC under the trade name La Vache after due inspection of the factory and the relevant laboratory analysis. It has been selling in some supermarkets in Bauchi since then. I was told that the crossbreeds would each give something between 10 to 20 litres of milk daily. If converted into naira, that will be N2,500 to 5,000 worth of yoghurt daily. My dream went wild.
So in 2003 I started to gather a full herd of Bunaji and some few Sokoto Gudale (Bokolo) cows largely from Bukuru, Mararrabar Liman Katagum and Falgore weekly markets. I got a full Frisian bull from Maizube Farm of Abdulsalami Abubakar in Minna at the cost of N137,000. It was called "Bull" in the house. Within a year, the cows started to produce crossbreeds like those I bought in NAPRI. I was very happy. By then, my spacious house at Tilde has turned into a full farm house with the necessary infrastructure for cattle husbandry. I built pens, stores, water and feeding troughs, a crush for their treatment and hectares of pastures of Cloris and Bracharia grasses, the seeds of which I also obtained from NAPRI.
The cows continued to multiply and my yoghurt continued to sell in the market. The crossbreeds produced on the farm were promising. Fed from CSC and local supplements, they grew fast. The newly born bulls were ready for slaughter and the cows were mounted in just 12 months. In 2005, the first set of bulls had accumulated meat worth N60,000 to N80,000 within a year. One of them produced a meat of N145,000 in just 18 months. CSC also doubled the quantity of milk that the parent stock gave daily. The farm became self-sustaining. From the proceeds of milk alone, it could pay for the herdsmen, veterinary drugs and other little things and still keep some change for me. I invested my hope in that within a short time we will be able to send our yoghurt to distant cities like Kano and Abuja.
I maintained the cows diligently with appropriate drugs that are administered quarterly to take care of major cattle diseases known in the savannah and contacted veterinary doctors whenever a problem arise. The cattle were equally grateful. Each of them ‘delivered’ a calf every year. The words of my old man became true. The cows have 'welcomed' me. The herd grew fast and I thought of what to do with the number. If I were to allow them go at that pace, the farm house would not be enough. I would have to relocate away from the village into the bush which I did not like, recalling my experience as a child. I chose to keep a moderate figure by curling any cow that did not produce up to 2 litres of milk daily, or which produce poor calves, or delays mounting by more than six months after its last delivery.
However, here ends the good news.
“Bull” lasted just a year and a half, having been weakened by liver flukes or hard water disease as vets call it. Frisians, I was later told at National Veterinary Research Institute (NVRI), Vom, are easily killed by the notorious disease. We replaced it with a 75% Frisian cross that was reserved from the stock of the we obtained from NAPRI in 2002. It performed well for two years by delivering about seventy calves. However, I noticed that the calves it produced were not fast growing as I desired and it was beginning to get wild, as many matured bulls do. So it was slaughtered and part of the proceeds was used to purchase another 100% Frisian bull from NVRI, Vom, in 2007.
That bull also lasted just 6 months before giving up to hard water disease. No more Frisians, I concluded. Then in 2008 I went for a Sokoto Gudale bull which I acquired from the Tuesday market of Anchau in Kaduna State. By then the philosophy of the farm had shifted to beef due to reasons I will explain shortly. Beef requires both frame and ability to accumulate meat and the Gudale is perfect on both accounts. In addition, it averagely yields more milk than any local breed. It performed very well for two years though it was very slow in mounting cows. When it became sick early this year, most likely as a result of the cold weather and heavy rains, I thought I can go for a large frame pure ‘white Fulani’, my ancestral breed and the one acknowledged to be the most resilient in this part of Guinea Savannah.
However, nothing affected the husbandry of the herd like the high cost of CSC, the main ingredient of fattening and milk production. From the cost of N13,000 per tonne when we first bought it in 2002, it rose to N50,000 in 2008. A kilo of meat that sold at N400 in 2004 increased only by N300 since. We did not raise our price of yoghurt to date. So by 2007, it was not economically wise to CSC anymore. What was responsible for its high cost is interesting: lack of electricity in the country.
Without ‘NEPA’, textile factories closed en masse, the need for cottonplummeted and, consequently, its production dropped drastically. Without cotton production, cotton seed oil and cotton seed cake cannot be produced sufficiently. The little that is available in the market therefore became too costly for ordinary Nigerian farmers. Most of it goes to farmers from Niger Republic who can change their currency at a high rate in Nigeria and are more desperate than us as a result of perennial draught. Those Nigerians that are keeping cattle just as a hobby or as cover to the loot they acquired from public office mop the rest. For people like me, we raised our hands in surrender before the mighty CSC.
Shortage of electricity also smashed the hope of producing yoghurt in high quantities. Being 100% natural, it requires cooling at selling points. Supermarkets in Jos, Kano and Bauchi, we came to realise, have long stopped keeping such fresh products. After a month of trial in Kano in 2006, we abandoned the idea of selling any yoghurt there. Kano could spend weeks without 4 hours of continuous electricity. The market therefore became restricted to few supermarkets in Bauchi, mostly filling stations that can afford diesel.
Poverty was another culprit. We are so poor that extremely few of us can afford to buy a 35cl of natural yoghurt at N100. We did not raise the price of our yoghurt since 2005.
The pastures which we laboriously raised were never harvested due to human reasons. I bought a new MF 375 tractor and the implements for bailing the hay but on two occasions the pastures were burnt to ashes before they could be harvested. Miscreants smoking Indian hemp were the principal suspects. In succeeding years, I allowed the cattle to graze on the fresh grass.
Other problems related to urban grazing came in full force: shortage of grazing land and the menaces of human faeces, hay ropes, 'pure water' bags and other polythene materials that carry salty residues of packaged food. The crosses graze on these non-biodegradable wastes which clog their digestive tract and accumulate there, giving the cows a false sense of satisfaction from food. They animals grow lean and die eventually. I lost many crosses to these non-biodegradable materials. Local breeds, surprisingly, hardly feed on such bags, as I also noticed on the waste mounds along Airport Road in Kano.
The worst experience was with artificial insemination (AI). A vet from Bauchi who trained at Sebore inseminated eight cows but none conceived. I instantly abandoned the idea and continued with my natural breeding. Above all, AI is expensive: you need to buy the stimulating hormone, buy or hire the AI kit, buy the semen, pay the vet and maintain the ammonium cold cylinder. It's percentage success is at best 75%. It will amount to nothing less than N8,000 per cow. A natural bull can do the job with near 100% success at the cost of N1,000 or less because you can recoup its initial cost when you slaughter it.
Without cotton seed cake and other food supplements, the Frisian crosses became worse than our ordinary cows when made to rely solely on natural grazing. They become skinny, stunted in growth. Early this year, many of them, despite the periodic medication, started to develop hard water and died. Surprisingly, not a single local breed was affected. With lack of cake, electricity and market for yoghurt combined with their high susceptibility to death from hard water and polythenes, the crosses were on their way out. So we curled all of them in the herd early this year and reserved only the local breeds.
The natural thing to do about the remainder of the herd which is now 100% local breeds that are resilient to disease is to send them on free grazing. There was therefore no need to keep them at home. So on May 22 this year, i led them on a 15 km trek to where they will camp for the rainy season, reverting to the natural form of cattle husbandry which has been the practice for centuries in this part of the country.
I thus relieved myself, at least for now, of the demands of intensive cattle husbandry – a ‘NEPA’ that is never forthcoming, a cake that is too expensive, pastures that are vulnerable to arson, daily pen cleaning that required labour, hay collection that required a tractor and its driver, etc. But gone with it is the joy of living in the company of the animals which accorded me many interpretations of human behaviour, especially aggression, friendship and acquaintance, territoriality, nutrition, growth, politics and reproductive behaviour. In all these and many more, the cattle told me that they behave just like humans and humans behave just like them. Since then, I had no qualms appreciating the animal in us. One area where the cattle excelled humans, however, is that they are grateful animals.
Now the cows are milked in the bush, kilometres away from home and the milk is brought here for processing. The market continues to sustain the cows while my profit largely comes from the increasing number of the herd, which still gives sufficient bulls to slaughter and an almost equal number of young cows that will in turn join their mothers in producing more heads. The only difference is time. While the Frisian crosses with intensive care would mature for slaughter or mounting in just a year, the local breeds, which graze freely in the bush, will require at least three years to start mounting and four years to mature for the slaughter house. If I am patient, I will still make the same money after the initial waiting period of three years with little effort and minimum risk.
Is this experience a triumph of tradition over modernity? I think yes, it is. Until our power supply improves and the poverty in our midst becomes substantially alleviated, the traditional form of cattle grazing is the most economically viable in the country. It has met the beef requirements of the nation for centuries. Someone may argue that some ex-this and ex-that have done it successfully. Well, I am not privy to the account books of their farms. However, if you are not another ex, you better assume that in those farms there is something more than meets the eye. My experience is almost similar to that of Magaji Danbatta, whose farm I visited in 2003 when he was almost about to give up the business of animal husbandry entirely. I am not giving up mine, though.
The conclusion here is simple: In Nigeria, it will take some time before modernity takes over tradition especially in animal husbandry. If my father were alive, he would have attempted to prevent my experimentation with modern methods because he has had many such failures before. He once told me in a pessimistic tone that they have tried various things before. All the same, I have no regrets. Experience is a good lesson. Take my advice. Play it safe. Practice it natural.
13 December 2010