Kenya Dairy Project – Young Volunteers Update

After many months of fundraising and preparation, the Veterinarians Without Borders young volunteers have finally arrived in beautiful Mukurwe-ini, Nyeri County, Kenya. What exactly are three cow loving vet students from the Ontario Veterinary College doing in Kenya? Over the next three months, we will be training smallholder dairy farmers on zoonotic disease prevention and health management practices that will improve cow health and welfare, with the goal of increasing milk production. In addition to improving animal health and welfare, we are also working to improve human health. This is achieved through (1) preventing zoonotic diseases (diseases which are shared between animals and humans), (2) increasing milk production, food stability, and income for local farmers. In Mukurwe-ini, Veterinarians Without Borders works with the Wakulima Dairy Cooperative Ltd, which collects and processes the milk from local farmers. While the Mukurwe-ini area is an agricultural hotspot in central Kenya, the dairy sector dominates in this region, thanks to the support of the Wakulima Dairy.

Wakulima Dairy in Mukurwe-ini

The Wakulima Dairy began with a mere 5 farmers producing a total of 32L in 1990. Since then, with the addition of a milk cooling tank in the year 2000, and the capability to process their own milk in 2014, the cooperative has grown to a remarkable 7000 active members today. Our work at the Wakulima Dairy builds on this partnership in areas of veterinary science and one health (recognizing the interconnection of human, animal and environmental health). In addition to selling their fresh milk, the dairy also recently began producing vanilla and strawberry yogurt, and ultra-high temperature (UHT) pasteurized milk. UHT milk does not require refrigeration until opening, and can be shipped further and stays fresh longer. Having a central processing facility and value-added products allows the local dairy farmers to receive a better price for their milk, and is a key component of food and financial security in the community.

Farmland in Nyeri County, Kenya, near Mukurwe-ini

The majority of farmers in Mukurwe-ini rely on one or two cows to produce the milk that supports themselves and their families financially. The difference of a few kilograms of milk production has drastic impacts on their ability to procure essentials for themselves and farm inputs to further enhance their production quality and capacity. This summer, our on-farm seminars will teach farmers about the risks of serious zoonotic diseases in central Kenya. The seminars focus on practical ways to reduce zoonotic disease transmission, like biosecurity, what to do in the event that farmers suspect their animal has a zoonotic disease, and prevention through vaccination. Additionally, we will be visiting farms to provide advice on nutrition, reproduction, cow comfort, and disease management.

Since arriving in Mukurwe-ini, we have had the opportunity to consult with farmers about various aspects of cow health and welfare. At Beatrice Wambui and Daniel Mwai’s farm of two milking cows, we provided some additional advice on enhancing stall comfort so that the cows would spend more time lying down in a dry, soft place. Dairy cows require a significant amount lying time to efficiently digest their feed and produce milk. A comfortable cow is a content, and a more productive, cow. We also checked a cow for mastitis upon Daniel and Beatrice’s request using the California Mastitis Test (CMT), since subclinical mastitis cannot be detected by simply looking at the cow’s milk. Subclinical mastitis leads to lower milk production, and increased risk the milk will be found unfit for human consumption. Testing for mastitis at farms gives farmers the opportunity to contact their vet for treatment, which improves cow health and milk production. In addition, we applied a topical de-wormer to the cow.

Laura Michalovic measuring cow with farmer Daniel Mwai to determine weight for de-wormer dosage
Nicole Burcar applying de-wormer with farmer Daniel Mwai.

At Lucy Njoki’s two milking cow operation, we discussed her concerns of low body condition scores in the cows. The recent drought in Kenya has made it difficult for farmers to provide sufficient forages to their animals. Luckily, rain has started to fall and feed is becoming more available. We provided advice on optimal nutrition strategies and checked one of her cows for mastitis using the CMT upon her request. We also made enhancements to the stalls to make them more comfortable to lie in, as Lucy noted that the cows were competing for one preferred stall. While the modifications may appear small from the human perspective, moving the dividing boards from the inside of the stall to the outside provides the cow with a wider, and therefore more comfortable, resting space. In addition, moving the bottom board a few inches lower will allow the cow the option to lie straight or diagonally, also allowing for more lunge space to comfortably get up and down.

Lucy Njoki (farmer), Priscilla Muthoni (translator), Nicole Burcar (VWB volunteer), Laura Michalovic (VWB volunteer), and Lexie Reed (VWB volunteer)
Lucy’s calf pen is an example of an excellent enclosure – a good roof covering the pen and feed, quality forages in the feeder, free access water at all times, and dry leaves for bedding.
After stall modification. The boards on the left side were moved to the outside of the stall to increase the available width. The bottom board was lowered by ~25cm to allow the cow to lay or lunge diagonally to increase functional width of the stall to encourage the cow to lie down inside the stall more often. The bedding quality is excellent and will contribute greatly to cow comfort.

The Mukurwe-ini community has graciously welcomed us, and we could not be more grateful to have the opportunity to work alongside the farmers and the Wakulima Dairy. It is heartening to see how much farmers care for their individual cows, and how enthusiastic they are about improving their practices. We are looking forward to continuing to learn about the unique challenges and opportunities of dairy farming in central Kenya.

Nicole and Lucy Njoki’s cow Admiration

The VWB team headed to a farm seminar

Baadae – (until next time). Your team of bovine enthusiasts: Laura, Lexie, and Nicole.

About the authors:

Laura is a second-year student veterinarian at the Ontario Veterinary College, in Guelph, Ontario. Laura has received both her BScH (Animal Biology) and her MSc (Animal Science) from McGill University. She has also collaborated closely with Canadian dairy farmers while working at Holstein Canada and is very excited to compare and contrast dairy practices in Kenya.

Lexie is a student veterinarian at the Ontario Veterinary College. Lexie has a BSc in Agriculture and an MSc in Animal Biosciences both from the University of Guelph. Coming from a small cow-calf farm in Norfolk County, Ontario, she has spent many years working with and learning about cattle. Lexie is passionate about cow welfare, which she hopes to share with the smallholder farmers in Mukurwe-ini. Lexie would like to thank her sponsors, Merck Veterinary Affairs Team and Nutrien, for supporting her in this project.

Nicole is also a student veterinarian at the Ontario Veterinary College. Nicole completed a BSc (Agricultural and Environmental Sciences) at McGill University. She is interested in practicing bovine medicine in the future and hopes to be able to use her experience with dairy cattle to make some positive impact in Mukurwe-ini but also learn just as much about local dairy farming and culture.