As the only active women’s dairy cluster in Tailevu North, the Tailevu Northland Women have successfully endured challenges that would have otherwise broken them.
But the passion and drive to better provide for their families and in the process became experts in their chosen field were the two main factors that have proved the success of the group established four years ago.
Cluster Leader, Salote Madraitabua explained they had initially started with 20 members and over time, many dropped out along the way until they became the current number today, six.
“We have encountered challenges resulting in the constant decline in our numbers till six of us were left. But we are happy that our bond and support has become stronger,” she said.
The other five members are Maria Dimotu, Kelera Cawai, Shareen Prasad, Suman Lata and Maneta Lakhan. They meet weekly every Wednesday with each member expected to pay a levy towards the ultimate goal of diversifying into vanilla farming.
“The objective of venturing into vanilla farming is to substitute the downfall periods in dairy farming when our milking cows become dry, which affects production and income. So the vanilla will generate income until normalcy returns,” she explained.
The women’s knowledge in dairy was enhanced thanks to trainings by Prime International on best practices in dairy farms especially calf rearing, which a majority of them do as part of the milk production chain on their respective farms.
Prime Consulting International Ltd implemented a five-year (2016-2020) programme of the Fiji Dairy Industry Development Initiative (FDIDI) intervention programme under the New Zealand Government.
The programme is part of a bilateral aid project supported by the Fiji and New Zealand Governments to improve the competitiveness and sustainability of Fiji’s dairy industry, with a particular focus on its smallholder farmers.
The Group learnt calf rearing practices that included how to conduct routine hygiene practices and regular health checks.
“We are fortunate that we are able to practice what we have learnt on our own farms and become better at it. Another exciting thing about dairy farming is birthing a cow, which is a very critical stage that needs close attention,” she said.
The Ministry of Agriculture conducted a training on vanilla farming with the women following receiving a request from the Group.
At Navunidrala settlement in Tonia, Kelera Cawai, 52, milks 20 cows producing 70 liters per day with her 82-year-old father, Taito Moroca.
She grew up with the smell of milk, helping out on their dairy farm where they produced ghee. This was sold at the Korovou market. From ghee they progressed to milking in the mornings and supplying to the chilling center.
Maria Dimotu with her husband Navin Prasad, a.k.a Taito Ramana have been helping with the milking of her father-in-law, Sarwan Prasad’s dairy farm in Naikasakasa, Tailevu.
As the family’s main source of income, the farm milks 20 cows. Maria’s job is specific. She rears calves, focusing on their welfare.
“It has always been stuck in my mind during milking, that milk is the end product. Therefore, we usually make sure the milking shed is always clean and despite rain, hail or shine – milking will go ahead,” she said.
In terms of caring for the young calves, Maria explains, she nurtures them the same way she tends and cares for her children; always making sure their milk is warm and they have their water at midday. This schedule is strictly followed with extra care taken when it rains, always ensuring the calves are warm.
In 2016, with the assistance of three milking cows from the Tailevu Men in Dairy, Shareen Prasad and her husband, Ajay Lesh Lakhan revived their dairy farm left idle by her father-in-law, following his passing.
“From the three cows that were producing about five liters daily, we decided to move ahead and with good practice we managed to increase our stock to ten where we increased our daily milk production to 70 liters,” Shareen said.
Before her husband quit his job as a minibus and truck driver to focus on milking, their six-year-old son would help out in the milking shed.
“With the introduction of vanilla to the Group, I feel this can improve our dairy farm and be another source of income to support my family including our two young children,” Shareen said.
Suman Lata finds rearing calves most enjoyable.
“I was born into this field and I know about dairy. It is a good adventure because I like milking and looking after the calves. It is a challenging field and a good experience too when all family members take part. It is also a good way to introduce children into business,” Suman said.
Nestled on a hill overlooking the plains of Naikasakasa is the dairy farm which for the past eight years has been operated by 56-year-old Maneta Lakhan and her 21-year-old daughter, Kajal Lakhan.
With a total stock of 60 cows of which 26 are for milking, the mother-and-daughter combination only milk in the mornings, producing 120 liters daily.
“It was a huge challenge for us when my husband passed away. There was no electricity, the road condition was poor and my daughters were still very young. But I had to do something to support us, so I took up dairy farming and picked up from where my husband left off. I had not done this before my husband but it was our only source of income and it was there so I took it up.”
Now, a seasoned dairy farmer Maneta has increased her stock from 18 milking cows, improved her paddock for feeding, and attended various trainings including calf rearing. The latter has made a difference to the mortality rate of her cows in the past years.
Through her dairy business, she was able to send her daughters to school and paid for the continued maintenance of her fences and shed materials damaged by cyclones, thus reinvesting back into her dairy farm.