by Dr. Laura-Anne Kutryk…
Upon my arrival in Uganda, I was quickly reminded of the fond memories I have from the first time I experienced this country 8 years go. The beautiful landscape of green rolling hills spotted with herds of cattle and goats, and endless banana plantations makes Uganda every bit deserving of its nickname “The Pearl of Africa”. The beautiful landscape is matched only by the friendly people that call this country home. I was welcomed with warm greetings, vibrant smiling school children, and my favourite local comfort food: the Ugandan Rolex (fried egg with some tomatoes, onions and cabbage rolled up in delicious chapatti bread).
Twesigye, he is a farm worker on Mutanoga Farm
For this placement, Veterinarians without Borders is partnering with the Dutch organization, SNV, and their ‘TIDE’ project. TIDE stands for ‘The Inclusive Dairy Enterprise’. The goal of TIDE is to enhance the private dairy sector in southwestern Uganda and help improve the livelihood of individual farm families. We work directly with farmers to help them commercialize their farms, increase profits, and improve the quality and quantity of milk produced. Through TIDE, SNV connects farmers with the resources they need to grow their businesses. These resources include practical training sessions, different dairy service providers, and on-farm investments.
The project has dedicated 3 farms in the region to be Practical Dairy Training Farms. These farms serve as examples to other farmers in good dairy management practices. The PDTFs also function as training facilities to formally train farmers in different aspects of dairy production. Each PDTF focuses on a specific topic: breeding and reproduction; nutrition and feeding; or animal health and diseases.
I spend most of my time working with one PDTF called Mutanoga Farm. Mutanoga Farm is located in an especially scenic district called Kiruhura. It is nestled amongst green rolling hills of native pasture land being grazed by both local breeds and exotic breeds of cattle. Traditionally, the people of Kiruhura are known for being cattle farmers. Historically, they were pastoralists, living nomadic lives moving their herds of long-horned Ankole cattle to different grazing areas. Today, cows are still a valued symbol in many areas of modern society. More recently, farmers have been moving away from the pastoral way of raising cattle, and more toward intensification by paddocking their pastures and focusing more on milk production.
Once a month Mutanoga Farm holds a 4 day training session to educate farmers in the skills and knowledge needed to improve the health of their dairy herds, as well as improve the quality of milk they produce, consume and market. These sessions teach about health and disease using relevant hands-on learning activities. A large emphasis of these trainings is placed on encouraging women and youth to get involved in farming as much as possible, not just to empower the most vulnerable members of society, but to also ensure the succession of the family farm as a sustainable business.
Besides helping to train farmers, my other duties on the farm involve working with the farm owner and his workers to identify areas that can be improved and helping to implement these changes. As well, I help to diagnose and treat any individual animals that require care. This has proven to be a bit of a learning curve for me, as the diseases and health issues here tend to be quite different than the pressing dairy issues I am used to facing in Canada.
Infectious tick-borne diseases are the major production-limiting issue facing dairy farmers in Uganda, particularly a fatal illness called East Coast Fever. Ticks are so prevalent that farms have to spray their cows on a weekly basis with ascaracide to control tick infestations. Obviously, this has environmental and health implications, but with cows frequently dying from East Coast Fever, Anaplasmosis, Heartwater Disease and Babesiosis – all of which are transmitted by ticks – many farmers have limited options. Compounding this problem is the limited extension services available to farmers, and poor access to sound veterinary advice. As a result, there tends to be an overuse and misuse of veterinary drugs. This is very concerning given the looming reality of worldwide anti-microbial resistance. Growing resistance and decreased effectiveness of the available ascaracide products has led to efforts to develop local natural herbal remedies to combat the tick problem.
Animals being inspected for tick number
The tropical climate is a major contributing obstacle to milk production. The introduction of exotic breeds to increase milk yields – particularly the familiar Holstein-Friesian – that are not well equipped to living in tropical environments has posed more challenges. Although these exotic breeds have the genetic potential to produce large quantities of milk, they lack important traits that the local indigenous breeds possess. This is especially obvious in their lack of resistance to ticks and their associated diseases, as well as their susceptibility to heat stress which is a constant challenge when you live on the equator. TIDE aims to train farmers in breeding practices that promote cross-breeding of exotic and indigenous breeds to optimize milk production and resistance to local challenges.
Through nutritional education, farmers are taught about making silage and other methods of feed preservation to counteract the fluctuations in milk production seen by the changing seasons. With the current low-input systems that most farms use, the only form of nutrition is through grazing. When the rainy season comes, there is usually enough grass to sustain milk production. However, during the dry season grass can be very limited, and as a result milk production and overall animal health drastically declines. By teaching methods of feed preservation, farmers can continue to be productive year-round.
Typically, cows are milked by hand into pails. The milk is then transferred into milk cans which are then transported by boda (motorbike) or bicycle to the nearest collection centre. Quality control is a major issue as there is little regulation over the marketing of milk, with most milk being consumed in the raw form, and very little testing of milk quality parameters or drug residues.
My time on the farm has opened my eyes to the day-to-day life of a dairy farmer in Uganda, including some of the daily struggles they face. Through the TIDE program, we are working to give farmers the resources needed to allow them to address many of these issues. Training sessions teach them basic skills about nutrition, breeding and animal health; and promotes the establishment of improved feeding practices, methods of water collection and distribution, and intensified grazing management. Although the goal is to commercialize the dairy sector, we realize it must be done in a way that is environmentally sustainable. With this focus in mind, the project helps farms implement biogas digesters so they can use manure as a renewable energy source to fuel their homes and provide nutrient-rich fertilizer for crops, reducing the reliance on firewood and charcoal. As well, farmers are encouraged to establish solar energy systems to pump water throughout their farms.
Since arriving in Uganda, I have been constantly learning, and it has made this placement very interesting. Besides learning about the many challenges facing farmers here, I have also been getting accustomed to cultural differences and trying to pick up words and basic conversational phrases in the local Riankole language.
I am optimistic that by training farmers we can impart the knowledge and skills necessary to improve livelihoods and develop sustainable and profitable dairy farms in Uganda. I look forward to continuing this work over the next few months!