Of Calves and Men

Days and weeks have come and gone. The calves we have taken for our study are growing big and strong and are harder to examine each week (playful or ready to fight, we never know what kind of rodeo awaits in the pen). We just had a goodbye party with collegues and friends, on Saturday. A bittersweet scent in which we perceive nostalgia and hope fills the air; the smell of our departure.

Nostalgia for the experiences we lived, the moments we shared – sometimes hard, but more often good – and for the people we met and who have won our heart. Hope that our participation could help Shauna and Shepelo in their research study, that what we did contributed to improve the farmers’ and their cattle’s lives in the area of Mukurwe-ini.
These hopes have been partially answered. Indeed, during those two months, we observed changes, small and big, in some of the aspects of the farms we visit.

Feeding : “You can’t make milk out of wood” said Dr. John to the farmers, when he was traveling up and down the Kenyan hills with us. Cows do need a certain amount of fibre, but their diet is not complete if all they eat is very tall Napier grass, which is then more like wood than forage. Realizing that, many farmers were ready to invest some time – and sometimes money – to modify the feeds they offer to their cattle to obtain a better production.

Also, cows need water to give milk. Lots of water : it should be available at all times for the cows, and for the calves too. We are happy to notice that now, few are the cows or their offsprings that are left without anything to drink, contrary to what we observed in the beginning of the project.

Another important fact : feed changes must occur progressively, or else the animal could get sick or refuse to eat. Understanding that, a farmer solved the mystery of her last calves’ “sudden” death, when she made them go from a 100% milk diet on one day to a 100% forage diet on the next day.

Housing : A comfortably laying cow is a happy and healthy cow. The stalls must be clean and relatively cozy. This is not only for the benefit of the cows : comfortable beddings will make them lay more, so they can use their energy for producing milk instead of standing, and also allow a better blood circulation in the mammary glands. Cleanliness avoids environmental pathogen-related problems. Therefore, comfy and clean cow = better production = better income. Once the farmers acknowledged this, we saw pens getting cleaner, stalls being built and even pillows being laid for the cows. Man and animal are satisfied, we reached our goal.

General care : Like in Canada, mastitis is a recurrent concern in milk production. On top of improving the stalls, farmers can apply some good hygiene practices – for example cleaning the udder, washing hands between animals and using a teat dip – that will help prevent mastitis. If some are doubtful as we teach or repeat these preventive measures, they are nonetheless very proud and grateful, when these measures are integrated in their daily routine, to show us a cow with a healthy udder when we come to make a CMT that turns out negative.

Apart from the countless mastitis we treated – and taught how to treat, we saw a few other medical conditions, causing concern or not. We answered to each case as good as we could, happy to see the farmers satisfied on a subsequent visit or making adjustments. We are working with living creatures, and life is never entirely predictable. Some farmers will blame us for not having any magic potions, but most of them understand this difficulty and trust us. For example, a newborn calf refused to drink from the bucket of milk that the farmer left for him. We took the time necessary to feed the calf by dipping our fingers in the wilk and we recommended that the owner do the same for the first few days. Thanks to the farmer’s trust and patience, the calf learned to drink on its own and the farmer was very happy.

All farmers that did listen to us did not just follow blindly our advice. The key to succes when you want to bring changes (especially in a different culture) resides in communication. Therefore, we propose realistic objectives according to local challenges, each recommendation comes with an explanation – since comprehension has a better impact than just listening – and we also mention the good aspects of a farm to it’s owner. What a joy it is to hear a farmer asking us questions; it demonstrates their motivation to understand and to improve themselves.

Of course, just like in any professionnal context, we met some stubborn individuals who were not willing to hear our advice. Fortunately, for every one of these people, dozens of farmers showed open-mindedness, allowing us to communicate and to obtain encouraging results.


Geneviève C. L.