Milking Cows in Uganda by Dr. José Denis-Robichaud

During my first two weeks in Uganda, I have been doing a lot of learning. I know, I know, I am supposed to bring expertise here…but I think before I can help in a foreign country, I need to understand what is happening. So  here I am, in the second biggest coffee producing country, drinking tea and talking about how it is to milk cows in Southwestern Uganda.

Tea time at Rubyerwa Dairy Investment ltd. No day can go without a few cups of tea (hot fresh milk and tea leaves). On a farm that employs so many people and constantly has visitors and trainees, Brenda and Alex are essential to the operation, and the happiness of everyone!

To be immersed in the culture, I am staying at Rubyewra Dairy which is one of the Practical Dairy Training Farms. In collaboration with SNV (the NGO hosting me here), these farms created 4-day courses for farmers to improve their knowledge on management, nutrition, and breeding of dairy cattle. I had the chance to attend one of the training during my first week, where I was happily surprised by the amount of information that was given to farmers over the 4 days.

Practical Dairy Training at Rubyerwa Dairy Investment ltd. Discussion about water access in the pastures with (from left to right) Generous Kagumire, Innocent Nowarmani, David N. Kalitani, and Norman Kakuru.

While everyone in the class was learning about management, nutrition and reproduction, I was learning about the challenges of milking cows in Uganda. Most of the milking cows in Uganda are local breeds (Ankole and Zebu), which seem to be more beef than dairy cows with a daily milk production of 2 to 4L. To be able to meet the milk market that has grown in the past years, producers are now using exotic breeds… And by exotic, I mean what we are used to: the good old black and white Friesian, or the pretty Jersey (which are known to produce over 30L per day in North America and Europe).

Milking cows at Rubyewra Dairy Investment ltd. Philomena’s herd has 28 cows in lactation at the moment. While most of them are crossbreeds between Ankole (local breed) and Friesian, some are crossbreeds with Jersey and Ayrshire.

The problem with exotic cows is that they are not very well adapted to Ugandan conditions… and maybe Uganda is also not really adapted to them. Here is why: I first learned about the four Ugandan seasons: the wet season (March to June), the dry season (June to September), the very wet season (September to December), and the dry season (again, December to March). And let me tell you, they don’t call it dry season for nothing…We’re in the middle of it now, and I think the humidity level is probably -15% (true story)! As Ugandan dairy cows find their feed on pastures, the nutrients available for cows during the dry seasons are so limited that ͞exotic cows have no possibility to reach their milk production potential.

Farmers now need to plan ahead and have extra silage, grains, protein sources, minerals, which they never had to do with their Ankole cows. Moreover, they need to make sure their cows have access to water (I know this sounds very basic, but it is not an easy task to make water accessible to your cows in every pasture they go grazing)!

During the training sessions, instructors emphasize the importance of building water points, and to making silage in preparation for the dry seasons. This is when I realized what ͞mechanization of agriculture meant. Personally, I grew up in a world where there was a tractor for everything. Seriously, plowing, tilling, disking, harrowing, planting, spraying, harvesting, chopping, mixing, transporting, etc. The only thing left was rock picking, but I think there is now a rock picker! Here… well, let’s just say there’s a tractor for nothing. It’s all man power that accomplishes work on farms. For example, it takes 40 people for a whole day to make a small silage bunk.

Making silage at Rubyewra Dairy Investment ltd. Man power is essential for every single task on the farm, from harvesting the feed, to milking the cows. The silage bunk took 40 people working for a whole day.

When I use man power, it is not a figure of speech as most people involved in agriculture are men. I’ve come to realize that women are not raised to be involved in agriculture or businesses. There are, obviously exceptions. For example, the almost 75-year-old woman who owns the farm where I live runs the family business on her own. I also met a few other women involved in farms, but I have to say they are rare. Organizations such as Veterinarians Without Borders and SNV have for mission to integrated women in agricultural enterprises and support their empowerment.

Philomena, who will be 75 years old in September. She is a great inspiration for other women in the community!
Clementia is a young hard-working university student who did her internship at the farm. She was excellent with the calves and had a good eye to see when a cow was starting to be sick.

Another great challenge exotic cows are facing in Uganda is diseases. Many tick-borne diseases such as East Coast Fever (Theileria parva), anaplasmosis (Anaplasma marginale), and babesiosis (Babesia bigemina) are highly prevalent in Uganda.

Unfortunately, exotic breeds are not resilient to these infections, and there are many losses associated to them. The control of these diseases is primarily done with the use of acaricides to prevent ticks to attach to cows and calves. As all animals on the farm need to be thoroughly sprayed twice a week, it is a very intensive workload or a very expensive investment to install a spray race on the premise.

Spraying acaricide on cattle at Rubyewra Dairy Investment ltd. While spraying, it is essential to get the animals covered in acaricide. It is either time (hand spraying) or money (spray race) consuming for farmers to maintain a good tick management and prevent diseases highly prevalent in the region.

The last challenge I want to present here is more for me than for the cows… While Ugandan dairy farmers are facing multiple challenges such as weather, nutrition, water, diseases, etc., my role here is to assess the breeding strategies in use, and to make recommendations for the future. As a veterinarian and an epidemiologist, I was trained to use data to make decisions. There is however, no data available in the country, whether for production, reproduction or health. It is consequently very difficult to evaluate the impact of the strategies adopted by farmers, other than with the ͞gut feeling.  Luckily, I have a few resources in my back pocket, which I’m planning to use to help supporting my recommendations.

Meanwhile, I’ll keep on giving a hand for milking (literally, there is no milking machines here), taking care of the calves, and interacting with local farmers for the two weeks I have left in this beautiful country.

On a Ugandan dairy farm. Milking cows by hand, twice a day, requires skills and dedication. Pelé, born from a Friesian cow and a Gir bull (Brazilian breed).This crossbreeding is possible through importation of semen and artificial insemination.

Webare / thank you!