Maximizing Milk in Meru

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Farmers in Meru, Kenya are eager to improve the milk production of their cows. For the past three weeks, our group of volunteers with Vets without Borders (VWB), in partnership with the Meru Central Dairy Union, have been working to meet this goal, through education.

A common sight in Meru – a milk delivery truck.

There are three of us here: Dr. Aleta Schmah, a veterinarian with nine years of experience; Cydney Smith, with a background in dairy farming, testing milk, and advising farmers on how to improve production; and Fiona Emdin, a third-year student of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Sydney. Here in Meru, The Meru Central Dairy Union acts as the central organization for over 40 smaller co-operatives. The union regulates milk collection and milk distribution centers and provides resources to smaller cooperatives. One such resource is the co-operative and Meru Central Dairy Union extension officers, trained individuals with a deeper knowledge of dairy farming who answer questions and provide direction to farmers about crop management, silage production, mastitis prevention, and animal welfare topics.

We were lucky enough to see a demonstration of silage production. The forage (maize) is cut by a chaff cutter and packed by foot in layers. Molasses is coated between layers, and acts as a starter for the fermentation process.

One of VWB’s main directives while we are in Meru is to provide additional training to extension officers. This ensures sustainability of the VWB programs in this area. After discussions with extension officers and other Meru Dairy employees, a number of topics have been identified as important for further education. We held a training session with extension officers on Feburary 1st, under the direction of Dr. Schmah, covering identification of mastitis using the California Mastitis Test (CMT), mastitis management and treatment, and how to effectively educate farmers on the reproductive cycling of their cows.

Another of VWB’s mandates while in Meru is to continue to educate farmers directly. Currently, there are only 22 extension officers for over 40 co-operatives in the Meru Central Dairy Union. Despite the hard work of these extension officers, it has been difficult for them to provide education and direction to all farms because of the rapidly increasing number of dairy farmers in the region. We will be conducting sixteen seminars over the course of our three weeks here, in partnership with four smaller co-operatives. A number of seminar topics have been identified as important by previous VWB groups in Kenya. These include: cow nutrition, cow housing, mastitis management and prevention, cow reproduction, and calf care.

Dr. Aleta and Cydney educate farmers on the best stall design to improve production and comfort for their cows.

We try to tailor our seminars for each area, visiting two or three typical farms to determine what issues are most important to farmers in the area. This also allows us to speak to farmers about some of the more common diseases and issues they face and what common forages they use. With each seminar, we also aim to have at least half of the attendees be women, to help educate and strengthen the position of women who participate in household dairy management. Our seminars, thus far, have been very well received.

A finely chopped feed of Napier and Maize. The most common forage used for dairy cows in Meru is Napier grass. A less common forage is sunflower.

Mastitis is one of the issues faced by dairy farmers both in Canada and here in Kenya. To help address this issue, after each seminar we demonstrate how to use the California Mastitis Test (CMT) to identify subclinical mastitis.  The CMT is a simple locally available test done on farm with a small sample of milk to look for inflammatory cells. If farmers are interested in testing their cows, we advise them they can contact their extension officers for this service. When demonstrating the CMT, we often identify low-grade subclinical mastitis in tested cows. Farmers are frequently extremely surprised to learn that their cow has subclinical mastitis. Subclinical mastitis presents with no visual changes to the milk and the cow appears healthy, however these low grade infections will reduce milk quality and decrease milk production in the long run. This knowledge motivates them, and the other farmers observing, to take the recommended preventative steps against mastitis outlined in the seminars.

Fiona demonstrating the CMT to participating farmers at a VWB seminar

Through our work educating farmers and extension officers we hope to sustainably improve both the livelihoods of smallholder dairy farmers through increased milk production, and the welfare and health of their animals through simple changes in management.

Our work is part of a multi-year partnership with the Meru Central Dairy Union, and funding for this work has been provided by Global Affairs Canada.