First Student Blog of the Summer for the Kenya Cow Project

We have all arrived safe and sound in the town of Mukurweini, where the Veterinarians Without Borders-Canada Smallholders Dairy Project partners with the Prince Edward Island NGO – Farmers Helping Farmers (FHF). Mukurweini is located in the Kenyan highlands, about three hours northwest from Nairobi. The land here is beautiful with its’ rolling hillsides, red earth, and abundant vegetation (picture included as words cannot do it justice). This year, three student interns are working with veterinarian and PhD student, Dr. Shauna Richards, on research projects on dairy cow welfare and nutrition. The student interns include Maggie from the University of Calgary, and Sarifa, also from the University of Calgary and myself (Mira) from the University of Saskatchewan. Our first week has been a great success; we settled into our home for the summer, had a tour of the milk processing facility, and began to visit farms enrolled in the research projects.

On our first day in Mukurweini, we got a tour of the milk processing facility.  The Wakulima Dairy was incredibly impressive, not only due to its excellent organization, but also with the realization that it came from such modest beginnings. The Wakulima Self-Help Group Dairy is a cooperative of many smallholder dairy farmers (farmers having one or two dairy cows) that work together to process and sell milk. The Wakulima Dairy has grown over the years through their partnership with FHF and now VWB-Canada. Started in 1990 with 35 farmers selling 100 litres of milk a day, the Wakulima Dairy now has over 6500 farmers selling 38,000 litres of milk a day. Twice everyday, milk is collected by trucks at collection points throughout Mukurweini where farmers bring small pails filled with a couple of litres of milk. Milk (maziwa in Swahili – this is an important word for us here!) is brought to the Wakulima Dairy processing facility where it is tested for quality, pasteurized, homogenized, packaged and then shipped to Nairobi. There are approximately 200 employees working at the dairy facility, and it is a major employer in this area.

The next day, we began to visit farms that are enrolled in the research study. Our goal is to visit five farms (shambas in Swahili), per day. Each farm is located on a hillside; the combination of the steep hills and abundant rainfall in the area can make it can be quite a challenge to get to the farms without slipping! But luckily, there have been no big falls yet! Each farm keeps their dairy cow (or two cows) in a small pen with a roof-covered stall for laying down. Both men and women take care of cows here, but women are the predominant caretakers. Farmers here practice zero-grazing, meaning they bring food to their cows instead of grazing them. This is due to the lack of available grazing land and to reduce the incidence of diseases spread by ticks. VWB-Canada and FHF has been promoting Napier grass as a good feed source for cows as it is high in protein. This grass can be found along most of the roadsides here, where it is planted specifically in certain plots by farmers, who then cut and carry it to their cows. Napier grass can grow to heights of over 2 metres, but as it increases past 1.5 meters, it loses a lot of its nutritional value. This is an important concept that we are working hard to educate farmers on in order to help them improve the nutrition of their animals.

At each farm, we do a thorough physical exam of the cow, and collect important information about the cow’s environment (e.g. can the cow lie down comfortably? Does the cow have access to water?). Shauna also conducts an interview with the help of our fabulous translator, Priscilla, to ask farmers about the health and diet of their cow. We also attach accelerometers to a leg of each cow. Accelerometers are small devices that record the position of whatever they are attached to in space; we can use them to see how much time the cow spends lying down or standing. When cows are comfortable, they spend more time laying down, which results in increased milk production. The data we are collecting on the behavior of individual cows helps us gain insight into how we can improve their environments to help improve their welfare and productivity.

The longevity of FHF’s working relationship with the Wakulima and partnership with VWB-Canada has led to improvements in stall designs, cow welfare, and nutrition. However, there is still much work to be done. Many of the cows we have seen do not have body weights that are adequate to support good milk production or pregnancies. Working with farmers to introduce better feeds, improve stall designs, and encourage better health management of their dairy cows is vital to improving livelihoods in this area, where the average household income is less than $1000/year. Even slight increases in milk production can provide a pathway out of poverty by allowing families to afford their children’s education, improve their sanitation facilities, and afford a more nutritional diet for themselves. Of course, all of this is easier said than done, which is why working with people is key. While it is easy to tell someone what the right thing to feed is, it is far more effective to work with them to understand their individual needs and challenges and find realistic solutions that are sustainable in the long term.

We are looking forward to this upcoming week! We will be pulling out the hammers, nails, and shovels to help farmers improve their cows’ stalls as well as continuing on with interviews and physical exams.

On a geeky veterinary student note, we have seen some really interesting diseases that are not common or unheard of in Canada. We went to a farm where a cow had ulcerative lesions on its mouth, suggestive of Foot and Mouth Disease, which is very common in this area. The cow was okay, but it was great for us to be able to see what this disease looks like in real life after having read so much about it in our studies.  And of course we have been practicing lots of California Mastitis Tests, a cheap and effective test to determine if cows have subclinical mastitis (an infection of the udder).

Picture captions:

“Napier grass”: Shauna teaching a farmer about the importance of cutting Napier grass short.Blog 1

“Group photo”: Mary is an extremely motivated and dedicated farmer, and it shows! From left to right: Maggie, Mira, Mary, Sarifa, and Priscilla.Blog 2

“Processing machine” This machine is where milk is pasteurized, homogenized, and then pasteurized again at the Wakulima Dairy.Blog 3

“Happy cows produce more milk!”Blog 4

“Transporting Napier grass to farm.”Blog 5