It is hard to believe that 10 weeks has gone by so quickly and that our internships have ended. The final few weeks were not only busy with finishing up the projects, but also full of new, fun experiences.
I (Maggie) also had a chance to visit the Meru side of Mount Kenya and help with the Farmers Helping Farmers (FHF) project that has been started there. As Mira and Sarifa have previously mentioned, it was really interesting to see the differences in the management styles of cattle in this area, as well as such a new and rapidly growing dairy with such a promising future. Some of the major differences I noticed were that most farmers have larger herds of cattle, graze their cattle, and use more natural breeding as opposed to artificial insemination (AI). These different management practices resulted in different health implications; the tendencies I noticed were that the grazed cattle were in better body condition, but had considerable number of ticks, and I even saw one that had severe skin cancer from sun exposure.
While there, I also had the opportunity to spend an afternoon with the two Atlantic Veterinary College students (Emily and Krista) at the Mother Maria Zanelli Children’s Home, which is run by the Sisters of St. Theresa’s. I was extremely impressed with the facilities and the staff, and we had a lot of fun helping out with meals and playing with the children…they were very excited to learn “Red light, green light” and “Hot potato”!
When I returned to Mukurwe-ini, Emily came with me. It was a great week for her to visit, as we continued working on farms from the nutrition project, while also having the chance to accompany a local veterinary technician on his calls. The Wakulima Dairy has one veterinarian and four technicians whose services are available to members; it is a great system in which farmers can use their credits to pay for these services. Patrick is one of these technicians, and was kind enough to let two students (per day) accompany him for a couple of days. It was very interesting for us to see how veterinary services work in this area; in general, the veterinarian is usually called to challenging cases, and the technicians are called to treat the more common problems and to do AI, which is the primary method of breeding in this region. Despite being extremely busy (visiting 10-15 farms/day), Patrick was an amazingly patient and informative teacher and we learned so much in such a short period!
That week, we also taught at our last primary school. Once again, I was blown away by the attentiveness and enthusiasm of the pupils and the questions that some of them had, which demonstrated some impressive critical thinking. As veterinary students, these teaching experiences have been invaluable to us. Not only have we been able to share knowledge that we are well versed in and that we believe is important in the daily lives of these children, but we have also been able to strengthen our communication skills while being inspired by the motivation and studiousness of these children. At the end of the lesson, we were actually told an unfortunate story of a women in the area who died of rabies only a few years ago; this tragedy really reinforced the fact that the diseases we taught about are very relevant and of real concern.
Students at Mweru Primary School going over the review activity on zoonotic diseases.
After teaching, we had the opportunity to spend the night billeting with some local farmers. Both Joyce and Esther are directors at the Dairy and were gracious enough to host two students each in their homes. It was a really enjoyable time full of cooking, meeting friends and neighbours, and engaging conversations! We also toured their farms, checked their cows for mastitis, and discussed some ideas for changing stalls to improve cow comfort.
At the end of the week, we also had a chance to visit the University of Nairobi Veterinary School. We had a great tour of the facilities, and even got to try some yogurt made by the Department of Food Science that shares the campus. The campus was fairly quiet, as the veterinary students are out on 2-month rotations around the country; in Kenya, this is part of the curriculum for all students in second to fifth year.
Last week marked our final week of work, but we were fortunate to continue having new opportunities! The Dairy has several extension officers whose roles are working with and educating farmers in different topics. On Tuesday, Sarifa and I attended a training session that Elias, one of the officers, was holding for a new group of farmers. Farmers can come together and form a group (this one had 10) that can then request free training on subjects of their choice. This particular day, the topics were on cow comfort and calf nutrition, and we were excited (but a little surprised!) to get to teach the portion on cow comfort.
The following day, Mira and I accompanied Elias to several farms to see some silage making. In the past year, the Dairy has invested in several new chaff cutters that are available (free of charge) for members to borrow to make silage. In addition, when a cutter is borrowed, an extension officer also comes and helps/teaches the farmer the entire day that they are making the silage! This investment certainly seems to be paying off, in the past year, the number of farmers making silage has gone from 40 to over 200! This is very exciting as it means more reliable feed sources during dry periods, which translates into increased milk production and increased profits. It was really interesting to see the process on different farms, since each farmer has to work with what they have available and what they can afford. We saw a wide range of storage methods, from 200 kg bags to 1 tonne plastic-lined crates, to 2 tonne pits!
Elias also brought us on a tour of the Dairy’s Demo Farm. This is a plot of land that they acquired just over a year ago and on which they are now growing several crops including Calliandra, sweet potato vines, desmodium, maize, and Napier grass. The crops are used for both educating the farmers, and growing seeds to provide to members (again, free of charge!)
Seeing Elias and the other Wakulima Dairy extension officers at work these two days and learning about all the services they provide to farmers was really impressive and inspiring. It was very evident that they really care about their jobs and that farmers are benefiting from their help.
On Thursday, Mira and Sarifa had the opportunity to accompany Patrick on calls again, while Shauna and I visited the final farms of the nutrition project. These last visits brought the number of farms I had been to up to nearly 150 and yet, I continued to be moved by the eagerness and generosity of the farmers. In fact, while not surprising, it was definitely a nice treat to finish off the visits being invited into one last farmer’s home for chai and food!
Friday was my final day in Mukurwe-ini, and it was definitely a great end to an amazing summer! The morning was spent helping our chef Samuel prepare a huge spread of Kenyan food including chapatis, Mukimo (potatoes, greens, and maize), beef stew, chicken, and stir-fried vegetables. That afternoon, we had a party to thank all the incredible people (and their families) that we have been fortunate to work with this summer. The party extended well into the evening, and was a blast of delicious food, heartfelt speeches and thank you’s, and bittersweet goodbyes. It was really nice to have a chance to express our gratitude to everyone, including (but not limited to) our awesome drivers, talented chef, skilled translator, incredible laundress, and all the wonderful employees of the Dairy.
This summer was truly a once in a lifetime experience. I began the internship with the hopes of helping farmers improve their milk production and maybe learning and improving a few skills myself, but in the end, got so much more. As student interns, we did get to share the knowledge we have from our schooling, and were extremely fortunate to actually see some nearly instantaneous results; extension officers told us that one farmer went from getting 8L to 15L of milk/day solely as a result of the stall changes we made to improve cow comfort. However, I had no idea this experience would be such an exchange of knowledge; for everything that we taught, there is no doubt in my mind that we received 10-fold back in return. In the past 10 weeks, I have learned more than I could have imagined about veterinary medicine, farming, teamwork, communication, Kenyan culture, and being resourceful, generous, and appreciative for all the wonderful people and things in my life. On behalf of Mira, Sarifa, and myself, I would like to offer my sincere thanks to all those that made this unique opportunity possible, including all those who donated time or money to our fundraising, Veterinarians Without Borders and all their sponsors, Farmers Helping Farmers, and all the wonderful people we were privileged to work with in Mukurwe-ini!
The 3 student interns with our amazing laundress and friend, Ruth and her son Cedric.
We only have 2 weeks left in Kenya! Time has gone by very quickly. We have continued visiting the nutrition study farms. This past week, I (Sarifa Lakhdhir) spent time in Naari with two veterinary students from PEI who are representing Farmers Helping Farmers (Emily and Krista) and two Kenyan veterinary PhD students (Joan and Dennis). They are all starting a project in Naari similar to the one we have been working on down here in Mukurweini. Our project has been of great benefit to the dairy farmers in Mukurweini, and that is the reason for starting the same type of project in Naari.
Picture 1: Naari Dairy Farmers Co-op Society
We visited several farms during the week. Normally the PhD and veterinary students would have a guide from the dairy to help them locate the farms in the study. On the first day of my visit however, the dairy was having a general meeting and all farmers and dairy employees were required to attend. Thus, we were left to find study farms on our own. We managed to find the first farm and after we were done, we asked the farmer for directions to the next farm. This worked fine for the first few farms. But we had quite a time locating one farm in particular. It was only after we had hopped around three farms that we managed to get to the farm that we thought we were looking for. Upon arrival, we found out from the farmer that we were at the wrong farm! The mix-up occurred because this farmer’s name was the same as the name of the farmer we were looking for. So we were back to square one! Looking for these farms while driving on dusty and bumpy roads definitely did not help! After the exhausting search, we found the farm and managed to examine the animals there. Thankfully we had a guide for the rest of the week.
At every farm that we visited, we performed a physical exam of each and every cow and calf, recorded some identification information for future visits, and collected some baseline data. The number of cattle on the farms varied from as few as 1 to as many as 10. I got a lot of practice drawing blood and performing rectal palpations! The farms contained a mixture of both grazing and non-grazing cows. Many of the non-grazing cows were tied via rope to a stake. It felt like a rodeo trying to corral and restrain them!
Picture 2: Enjoying tea, eggs, and “malaria oranges” with a farmer. Malaria orange is a fruit thought to prevent malaria if eaten regularly. It tastes like bitter grapefruit with a lasting aftertaste. I think I’ll stick to the malaria pills! Left to right: Dennis, farmer, Steven (our guide), Joan, Emily, Sarifa, Krista.
I also had the opportunity to attend to some interesting veterinary cases during my time in Naari. During one visit, we examined a cow that had a growth on part of her eye. It was a squamous cell carcinoma of the third eyelid. This is a cancer commonly found in cows, especially those with sun exposure. In most instances, it does not hurt or harm the animal in any way during the early stages. Treatment is surgical excision of the affected tissues when the growth becomes invasive and causes discomfort to the cow. In this case, the cow was still behaving normally and there was minimal discomfort associated with the growth. Thus, we did not need to perform surgery on her during this visit. Another cow we visited had metritis, an infection of the uterus. The cow had recently given birth but had not immediately expelled her placenta. So someone had manually pulled it out of her. In cows, it is best to leave retained placenta alone and let the cow expel it herself so long as she is still behaving normally. Pulling out the placenta can harm her reproductive tract and introduce bacteria into it. In this case, the cow had pus in her uterus due to the infection. Thankfully, within one week of treatment, the metritis had improved drastically!
Picture 3: Zebu bull in Naari. Cattle in Naari tend to be more of the local Zebu breed.
Over the weekend, two Kenyan members of Farmers Helping Farmers, Salome and Steven, took us to visit some interesting places.
On Saturday, Steven took us to some farms to show us screen houses and greenhouses. Many people in the Meru area own either a screen house or a greenhouse and use them to grow crops, especially tomatoes. Steven explained that a screen house is an area enclosed by screen cloth. Air can freely pass through the enclosure, and the temperature inside varies with the temperature on the outside. On the other hand, a greenhouse is an area enclosed by plastic sheets. The temperature inside the greenhouse tends to be higher than that on the outside, and this allows crops to grow much faster. The downside of a greenhouse is that any disease brought in will tend to stay inside the enclosure and spread rapidly to all the other crops.
I found it interesting that tomato plants planted in screen houses must be grown and maintained differently than those planted in greenhouses. Due to the accelerated growth in greenhouses, it is essential that only one main stem of the tomato plant is allowed to grow vertically up. All side branches must be trimmed down regularly. Once the stem has grown tall and matured, it is laid flat onto the ground and a new stem is allowed to take its place vertically. This process controls the growth of the tomato plant. In screen houses, tomatoes grow much slower and because of that, less maintenance is required as the plant will not be able to quickly reach the size of the plant grown in a greenhouse.
Pictures 4 and 5: Screen house (left) vs greenhouse (right). Notice how the tomato plants in the greenhouse are bigger than those in the screen house.
Later in the day, Salome and Steven took us to visit the Muchui Women Group Business Centre. This group of women grows crops such as tomatoes, kale, beans, and an assortment of trees to sell to the community. There are now around 110 women who are part of this group. I was impressed and very happy to see how this initiative has helped to empower women in the community to work together to make a living in order to support their families.
Picture 6: Visit to the Muchui Women Group Business Centre. Left to right: Steven, Krista, Emily, Salome, Sarifa.
On Sunday, Salome took us to visit the Ngare Ndare Forest Trust. We hiked along the Ngare Ndare river and visited some waterfalls and springs. The river has about 11 springs along it. These springs are often visited by elephants looking for a drink or just to cool off. Elephants will tend to slide down steep banks to get to the springs! Salome had packed us a wonderful lunch of chapatis (baked flattened dough), cabbage, and chicken, which we all enjoyed sitting beside one of the springs.
Picture 7: Group picture by one of the springs of the Ngare Ndare river. Left to right: Emily, Krista, Charles (our driver), Salome, Zablon (our guide), Carol, Sarifa.
In the afternoon, we went on a canopy walk. This canopy was built in 2007 and is 500 meters long! The view from above was breathtaking. On our drive out of the forest, we had to cross the river in our car. Thankfully we had a four-wheel drive and the river was only one foot deep at that point! We also passed under dangling live electric wires. I came to learn that the wires are strategically positioned above the roads to keep the elephants from crossing into areas inhabited by people.
On our way back to Meru, we drove through the Lewa Wildlife Conservancy. We saw so much wildlife along the way, including giraffe, lesser kudu, ostrich, and even a rhino and its calf! The mini safari was a great end to our productive and adventure-filled weekend.
Picture 8: Beautiful drive to and from the Ngare Ndare Forest.
Seeing the Naari side was a great cultural and veterinary experience for me, but I am glad to be back in Mukurweini for the last few weeks of the project. We have continued our visits to nutrition study farms. The weather has been cold and rainy, making for very muddy and slippery roads. We have had to hike to some farms and push our car out of the mud a few times! And we occasionally got a break from the peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Our chef, Samuel, made us some veggie sandwiches for lunch one day, which we very much enjoyed. Unfortunately, our driver, Jeremiah, was not a big fan of the green, leafy stuff. Priscilla, our translator, really enjoyed watching Jeremiah’s face as he attempted to finish the last of his sandwich!
Picture 9: Walking to a farm near Mukurweini.
I am excited to see the project wrap up successfully as we near its end. We have received positive feedback from the farmers and the dairy, and I am so glad that the work we have done here has benefitted the community. I have really enjoyed my time in Kenya, and I am already dreading the time when I will have to say goodbye to our Kenyan friends and families. This amazing experience has been life-changing and humbling, and the generosity and hospitality of the Kenyan people has been second to none!
The past few weeks have been filled with a mixture of farm visits, teaching and learning opportunities, exchanges, and hands-on opportunities; I (Maggie) cannot believe that it is already mid-July and that we have only 3 weeks left!
Last week was somewhat of a milestone, as we finished up the welfare project we had been working on since arriving, and started on the second part of Shauna’s PhD, which focuses on nutrition. It was also Sarifa’s turn to head on exchange to Naari, so last Monday, after a full day of stall constructions, pregnancy checking, and deworming cattle, she set off with our other driver, Jeremiah. Jeremiah is a local taxi driver in the area, who has been working with Shauna for the past 3 years. He has been a great help to us when we need a second vehicle, and also a great addition to our construction team (one of my favourite lines of his has been “the Nail Man has arrived” – in reference to our abysmal skills with a nail and hammer, and his superior ability to get the job done much more efficiently and accurately).
Photo 1: One of the last farms of the welfare project that we visited. The farmer is holding a photo of her and Anika, one of the student interns from last summer!
Last Wednesday, Mira and I had our first teaching experience at a local primary school. The school was Ithanji, the one we had visited in June. It is a fairly small school, and we had planned on teaching classes (equivalent to Canadian “Grades”) 6,7, and 8. However, when we arrived, the room was quite full, and some of the children looked younger than we were expecting…we found out afterwards, that all the classes except one were there! Considering how many students and what a wide range of ages were present, it was really incredible how attentive, well behaved, and engaged the students were. We had spent a lot of time creating a lesson plan that followed their curriculum, but also emphasized things that we feel are very important to human and animal health. In the end, this plan included material on “One Health” (how the health of the environment, animals, and people are all connected and can affect each other), how to recognize signs of disease in animals, how to prevent the spread of diseases, and then some more specific information on the zoonoses (diseases that can be spread from animals to humans) rabies, brucellosis, and diarrheal diseases.
Overall, we felt that the whole experience was a great success, and the feedback we received from the teachers was extremely positive; they even requested to keep the teaching aids we had made. It was also nice to hear teachers and students discussing how they would share all the information they had learned with friends and family at home. For me though, the most rewarding part of the day was walking outside afterwards and seeing a group of girls practicing the handwashing technique we had taught them (at the hand washing station built by Farmer’s Helping Farmers!).
On Wednesday, we also visited the last farm of the welfare project, thus ending our construction marathon! That same day, Mira and I also had some practice changing a flat tire, so it seems we will be going home with a range of new handy skills!
The next day, we started visiting farms that have been part of a nutrition project that Shauna started in 2013. This project has looked at the effects of different feeding methods such as feed types and amounts, and their effects on growth of calves, and reproduction and milk production of cows. This year we are doing physical exams on the cows and any of their calves (now 2 year old animals) that are still present on the farm, while Shauna gathers more information about their health and reproduction. The study has found some really interesting results and it is nice to be able to give some feedback to the farmers on practical and economical ways that they can feed their animals in order to maximize profits for themselves and the animals’ health.
That same day, we also visited a farm that one of the local veterinary technicians put us in contact with. This farmer had a cow that had clinical mastitis and he was drying her off (stopping milking to give her a rest before her next calf due in September). Mastitis treatment is generally done via intramammary infusions, where an antibiotic is put into the affected teat(s). Since this cow had not responded to previous treatments we decided to give her a different dry cow treatment. Dry cow treatment is often more effective because the type of antibiotics used are able to stay in the udder for a longer period of time compared to when a cow is still being milked. This visit provided us (the students) with a great opportunity to practice giving intramammary infusions, and also discuss management practices that the farmer could use to reduce the risk of mastitis for his cows. On a side note, he also had the largest heifer that I had ever seen!
Yesterday, we had another opportunity to do some teaching and also see some different farming styles. Kamau is an extension officer that used to work at the Mukurwe-ini Wakulima Dairy providing education and training to farmers. He is now working in a similar role but in a different part of Nyeri County, and had organized for us to meet some of his farmers and provide them with some training. They were an extremely enthusiastic group that were very keen to learn, and the morning flew by as we discussed cow nutrition, mastitis prevention, and stall management with them.
We then spent the afternoon visiting many of their farms, which was very valuable as they are quite different to the ones we have been visiting around Mukurwe-ini. Like in Naari, most of their cattle are grazed at least part of the time, which means that they must also be sprayed for ticks on a weekly basis. Some of the farmers are also growing a variety of high-protein plants that are great (and economical) replacements for the more expensive dairy meal that people feed their cattle. One farmer actually had hundreds of Calliandra trees, which are the seedlings that we were giving to participants in the welfare project. It was really cool to be able to see what tiny seedlings can grow to in just a few years! As it turns out the farmer was unaware of what a good protein source Calliandra is until we had mentioned it during the nutrition part of the talk that morning, so he was very excited to learn about the ‘dairy meal’ that he had growing on his farm already!
Some of the farmers also had many more cows than we are used to seeing, and it was very interesting to see how they manage these larger numbers. A common problem farmers face in Kenya is feed shortages during the dry season, and this can be especially difficult when there are more mouths to feed. Recently, there has been a growing interest in making silage, which is fermented, storable feed, to help with this problem. Kamau has done a great job working with his farmers to teach them about this, and one of the larger farms we visited had just built brand new silos to start making and storing silage in.
Coincidentally, as I am writing this blog, the farm where we are living on is actually in the process of making its first batch of silage. This farm also has a large number of cattle (~20), so this is an exciting step to ensuring there will be forage available for the animals, even when crops aren’t growing well during the dry seasons.
Finally, I cannot forget to mention our newest Kenyan friend. Last week, a kitten was found orphaned outside the Mukurwe-ini Wakulima Dairy, and after being unclaimed by her mother for over a day, we decided to feed her. While it is difficult to guarantee the long-term health of such a young kitten, Maziwa (“milk” in Swahili) has proven herself to be an extremely resilient, voracious, and of course, adorable little furball.
Photo 11: Maggie feeding little Maziwa.
This past week, I (Mira) was fortunate enough to spend time working on a smallholders dairy project in Naari, Meru County. Farmers helping Farmers, the Prince Edward Island NGO that started working with the Mukurweini dairy thirty years ago, also works with other co-operative dairies in Kenya. VWB-Canada partners with Farmers Helping Farmers to offer a greater range of veterinary services to their partner dairies. Due to the success of the Mukurweini dairy, Farmers helping Farmers is now working alongside new and developing dairies throughout Kenya to provide valuable knowledge and support so that these dairy co-operatives can grow in a sustainable and profitable manner. The Naari dairy has recently partnered with Farmers and Helping Farmers, and this summer, several Canadian veterinary students and Kenyan veterinarians are conducting research on cow nutrition and health as part of a baseline survey in this area. My visit to Naari was a wonderful opportunity for me to gain exposure to smallholder dairy farms in another area, and for me to appreciate the opportunities for develepment of the smallholder dairy farming in Kenya. And both Maggie and Sarifa will also be visiting Naari as well! So I packed my bags and off I went to the other side of Mount Kenya.
Visiting Naari and the Meru area was an eye opener for me for a number of reasons. Meru may only be about three hours away from Mukurweini by car but the landscape changes drastically from tropical and extremely hilly to flat and arid. Accompanying these geographic differences is a change in the way cattle are farmed. There are more beef cows in Meru and dairy cows are often found grazing in fields rather than being zero-grazed (where food is cut and brought to the cows in their pens). This presents different challenges and benefits for the farmers. For example, grazed cows are more likely to acquire ticks harbouring diseases and farmers must dip their cattle in acaricide, a chemical that kills ticks, much more than zero-grazed cattle. However, the benefit of Meru’s flat and less populous landscape means that farmers can graze their cattle along roadsides and in pastures, thus reducing the work of having to harvest and carry forage for their animals. But in both Naari and Mukurweini, cattle are a very important source of income and pride for farmers.
The Naari dairy is what I imagine the Mukurweini dairy must have been like thirty years ago. It is hard to paint a picture of the two dairies, but I will compare and contrast them to give a sense of their differences. The Naari dairy was started in 2010 after a ten-year hiatus when the co-operative fell apart. Now, the dairy is under new management and the growing success of this dairy is attracting more farmers and investment. The Naari dairy has seven employees and has a bulk tank where milk is stored before being shipped to Meru as milk is not processed nor sold at the Naari dairy. There are 500 farmers that supply milk to the dairy and milk cans are collected each day by several donkey carts. By contrast, the Mukurweini dairy has 6,500 farmers supplying milk to the dairy. Milk is collected by trucks at collection points before being processed on site and then sold on to Nairobi. The Mukurweini dairy might currently be larger and more developed than the dairy in Naari, but they both started in the same place; thirty years ago, the Mukurweini sold only 32 litres on its’ first day in business!
The possibility of improvement and development of the dairy industry in Naari and other smallholder dairy farming regions in Kenya is tremendously exciting. Having a good dairy co-operative is extremely important for smallholder dairy farmers as a well functioning co-operative dairy can provide loans, veterinary services, and farming education to its’ members. By learning from the successes and challenges in developing the dairy in Mukurweini, Farmers helping Farmers (and future Veterinarians without Borders interns), can transfer this knowledge to new areas like Naari and continue to research best farming practices that benefit both farmers and their animals.
P.s. On a fun note, we have noticed some interesting trends in cow names. A very popular name for cows in Mukurweini is ‘Meni.’ I would hazard that at least 85% of cows here are called Meni (we even met a Meni Junior!). In the Meru area, cows are often called ‘Matunay’, meaning brown, or ‘Chiro’, meaning black. Occasionally, cows are given names that are also given to women. I met several cows named Mawdu-ay, meaning ‘beautiful lady’ in the local language.
Blog written by Sarifa Lakhdhir:
We have been in Kenya for just over a month now. We have settled in quite nicely with our extended Kenyan family, including those with whom we stay in Ichamara and the local villagers and farmers with whom we are working with on a daily basis. I have even learned to love peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Lucky for me, I get to have them for lunch every day for the next 6 weeks!
Last Friday, we were invited to attend the Wakulima Dairy’s annual general meeting. This meeting was held on a soccer field, and all farmers of the dairy as well as the dairy’s board of directors were invited to attend. At the meeting, the board of directors updated the farmers regarding progress that was made by the association in the past year. They also commented on plans moving forward. At the end, farmers had an opportunity to ask the board questions they had regarding its plans and actions or regarding farming in general.
The dairy has done exceptionally well this year. Their product is in high demand, and they are planning on expanding the number of farmers contributing milk. They are also planning on producing yogurt in the coming years. They have been given a grant from the Nyeri county government, which will help to pay for the equipment needed to make yogurt. Sale of yogurt also has a higher return than milk – almost double! Thus, making yogurt will be a more profitable option for the dairy in addition to production of processed milk.
We visited Ruth’s farm over the weekend. Ruth is one of our Kenyan co-workers. Thus far, we have visited and worked with many smallholder dairy farmers, who typically own 1 to 2 cows that produce milk and generate income for the family. Ruth, on the other hand, grows crops for income. She showed us around her farm. She grows a variety of crops including beans, sweet potatoes, arrowroot, avocados, passion fruit, yams, pumpkin, cassava, peppers, guava, and sugar cane. She uses manure from her rabbit and goats as fertilizer for the crops. Once the crops have matured, she sells them at the market every Wednesday when people bring their crops as well as other items to sell. Luckily for us we got some passion fruits as a gift to enjoy over the remainder of the weekend.
As we were leaving for work Monday morning, we encountered several young people in white lab coats carrying coolers. We learned later on that there was an outbreak of Lumpy Skin Disease (LSD) in the Mukurweini area. LSD is endemic to this region. It is contagious and is most commonly spread by biting insects. LSD results in lumps throughout the skin, mucous membranes, and internal organs as the name suggests. It also causes emaciation, enlarged lymph nodes, edema of the skin, reduced production of milk, and can be fatal leading to huge economic losses for farmers. Due to the reported outbreak of LSD, the government was sending veterinarians and veterinary technicians to vaccinate all the cows in the affected areas. People here do not vaccinate their cows regularly as a preventative measure because it can be quite expensive. When an outbreak occurs, the government subsidizes vaccination of cows in the affected areas. Unfortunately, most people wait for an outbreak because that is the only time that they are able to afford to vaccinate their cows. This is not always in the cow’s best interest because without the vaccination, it is prone to infection. So far we have not seen a case of LSD. However, we did do a follow up visit with a farmer in our study who had lost both her cow and heifer calf to LSD last September. She was having difficulty since her cow and heifer were her main source of income.
We continued visiting farms and constructing stalls this past week despite the LSD outbreak. One farm especially stood out for us. On our first visit to this farm, we were told that the cows are very shaky. As we watched them move around their pen, we saw that they were very careful with each step they took. The floor seemed very slippery, and the stalls looked lumpy and hard. The cows were covered in mud indicating that instead of staying in the stall made for them, they probably preferred to lie down in the dirty alley outside of their stalls since the alleyway had the most space. As the alley was made of cement, it seemed quite uncomfortable and painful for the cows to lie down on it. Since this was a control farm, we fixed the stalls this year and provided training on the importance of cow comfort and welfare. The farmers were very receptive to the new information as they had not realized the great importance of having a soft/dry stall not only for the cow but also for their income via increased milk production and reduced mastitis. Additionally farmers are often wary of how much extra work and cost is needed to build a new cow stall/shed and are hesitant to make changes until we explain there is little to no cost with the changes we make. Often times we use wood boards already present on farms, dig soil from surrounding hillsides, and use our own labour to make the necessary changes. We do purchase locally sourced wood shavings as bedding for stalls but farmers are advised of low/no cost alternatives such as dry leaves or hay/straw. To improve these stalls we removed some boards from the front of their stalls giving the cows more lunge space (cows need space in front of where they will lie down as they push their heads forward when they are lying down and getting back up). We had to dig up a lot of dirt to flatten and soften the stall floor. Once that was done, we added shavings on top of the dirt as bedding. As soon as we finished with the stalls, one of the cows went in and laid down. It was great to see that the cow liked the adjustments we had made to her stall! It’s not often that we get a chance to see immediately the difference our hard work makes. This also helped the farmer see the great benefit that a few changes can have for her cows.
In our farm visits, we have found last year’s treatment farms to be in different conditions, from very well maintained to not maintained at all. In order to understand better why some farmers maintained the changes made to their stalls last year, we developed a follow-up survey. We found that farmers who have kept up with maintenance have done so because they found that their cow’s milk production increased and that she got less mastitis. These farmers have spread the word to their neighbours to help them increase their production, too. Seeing results has helped many farmers realize the importance of increasing welfare and comfort of their cows: increased cow comfort and welfare leads to increased milk production and decreased risk of mastitis, which ultimately leads to higher income for their families.
On Thursday, Ephraim, another one of our Kenyan co-workers, took us to see a waterfall after our farm visits for the day were complete. He explained that the energy from the falling water is used to power a pump, which then pumps water up pipes to people’s homes. The pumps are very strong; they can push water to homes a few kilometers away, all due to energy from the waterfall!
After a week of visiting farms we headed to Meru for the weekend, which is located on the north side of Mount Kenya. There we met Jennifer, an influential lady in her community. She is one of the founding members of Farmers Helping Farmers and is heavily involved in coordinating projects in her area. She was also the head of a women’s group whose mission was to better the livelihood of the community through the sale of crops and distribution of water tanks. She has done a lot in her community and is greatly respected. We also met Emily and Krista, two veterinary students from the Atlantic Veterinary College in PEI working for Farmers Helping Farmers in Meru. They are starting up a similar project regarding cow comfort, welfare, and nutrition in Meru. We spent time with Jennifer, Emily, and Krista learning more about their projects.
On Saturday, we did a day hike on Mount Kenya. We hiked approximately 18 kilometers to Lake Alice and Nithi Falls. Although the hike was long, the views were breathtaking and worth the hard work! The next day, Jennifer took us to church. Church is a very important part of most Kenyans’ Sundays. The people were very welcoming and made us feel right at home. Jennifer had us go up and introduce ourselves as her “Canadian daughters”. Part of church consisted of an auction of food donated by people. As a welcome gesture to us and to show their appreciation, many members of the church bought items from the auction for us. We went home with a lot of cabbage and green beans!
If there’s one thing I’ve observed from being here, it is that even though the people are not rich and do not own much, they are always friendly, welcoming, and generous to everyone around them. They live a very basic life. They do not have the luxuries we have back home in Canada, yet they are always willing to help their families, neighbours, and friends. Their income is often dependent on milk from their cows or crops from the field. Travel is by foot most of the time. Even though they do not have enough for themselves, they welcome visitors with open arms and offer them chai (tea), lunch, and fruits to thank them and to show them their gratitude. The great sense of community makes being here so enjoyable and such a wonderful learning experience. I am so thankful to have been able to work alongside our Kenyan colleagues. I am looking forward to the weeks ahead, and I hope that I can use what I have learned and experienced here in my life back home in Canada.
- Two of the stalls we fixed:
- Waterfall that powers the water pump. Left to right: Sarifa, Shauna, Priscilla, Mira, Maggie, Ephraim.
- At Jennifer’s house in Meru. Left to right: Maggie, Mira, Krista, Emily, Jennifer, Shauna, Sarifa.
We have almost been here two weeks and I (Maggie) feel like we have really settled in and are getting into a fun routine. Our first full week flew by in a blur of construction, tea (‘chai’ in Swahili), mud, manure, and laughs.
On Monday we started fixing our first stalls for the welfare project. Most of the cattle here have pens/sheds that consist of a stall for lying in, a milking stall, an alleyway, and a feeding area. Last year, the farms were divided into treatment and control groups. The treatment farms had their stalls fixed and the control groups were given Calliandra seedlings. This tree grows well in this region and has a very high protein content. When fed in abundance, Calliandra can be used to supplement or replace expensive feeds like dairy meal. Though most farms are quite small and there isn’t much room to grow more crops, Calliandra can be grown in place of the decorative hedges found at the perimeter of farms. Aesthetically pleasing and functional!
This year, we are doing the opposite with the groups; we are fixing the stalls of the control groups and bringing Calliandra to the treatment groups. On Monday, our construction skills were put to good use on the first control farm. The cow on this farm, Meni, has eye problems and is completely blind. Her pen had no stall and the only area for her to lie down consisted of deep mud and manure. Within a few hours, we made her a roof-covered, comfortable stall. When we returned an hour later, we found Meni lying down in her stall and looking so comfortable! It was pretty incredible to see such instantaneous results and definitely worth the hard work! It’s also been really satisfying to go to farms that had their stalls fixed last year and seeing them being well-maintained and used by the cows.
In addition to the physical exams and mastitis testing/treating, we interns are getting lots of practice with other clinical skills. On our second visit to the farms, we treat all the cows and any cats or dogs on the farm for parasites (mites, fleas, ticks, worms, etc.). We are also checking the pregnancy status of many cows; this skill is critical (although perhaps not glamorous!) for any bovine practitioner. In addition to being good practice for us, it’s also great to be able to tell farmers that their cow is indeed pregnant, since they are counting on her to make milk (which requires having a calf).
On Wednesday, we had a break from farm visits and went to Ithanji primary school, which is a local school that is twinned with an elementary school in Prince Edward Island through Farmers Helping Farmers. We had a very successful meeting with the head teacher about the possibility of us teaching some of the classes later on in the summer. We also got a tour of the school, which has really benefitted from being twinned with the PEI school. Every year, Farmers Helping Farmers holds a barbecue in order to raise funds for a cookhouse for one of their twinned schools, and Ithanji is one of these schools. The cookhouse allows the school to have a lunch program for their students, and there was porridge and githiri (maize and beans) cooking away when we stopped by. The ingredients for the lunch program come from the school’s farm as well as from donations by parents. In addition to the cookhouse, the school has received many rainwater tanks, new toilets, a hand-washing station, doors, and windows from the PEI twinned schools.
Later that day, we also went for a tour of the Bora Feeds factory; this local company makes feeds for many different animals, and is one of the main providers of dairy meal in the region. It was really neat to see the whole process from the raw ingredients (fish meal, wheat bran, sunflower seed cake, etc.) to the grinding, mixing, and packaging.
We are having a great time working with and getting to know our Kenyan coworkers Priscilla and Ephraim. In addition to being our translator and driver, they have also quickly become good friends who put our construction skills to shame, introduce us to new music, and patiently answer our never-ending questions. We all had a good laugh one day when Mira learned (the hard way!) that the Swahili word for hammer, ‘nyundo’, closely resembles ‘nyondo’, the Kikuyu word for breast!
Working with the farmers has also been really fun and rewarding. We find them to be very enthusiastic and open to new ideas. In addition, their generosity is incredible. We have been here less than two full weeks and have already been served multiple meals (often cooked for the household and then given to us instead), and commonly sent on our way with bunches of fresh fruit. Many people, myself included, tend to have a picture in mind when hearing the word ‘poverty’, of people living in grim conditions, hungry, and in need of aid. However, working with people who are considered to live in impoverished conditions and seeing their constant smiles, positive attitudes, and unselfishness makes you realize that common portrayals of poverty in the media are not always consistent with real life experiences and that the face of poverty can vary quite dramatically.
Yes, they are still very poor compared to Canadians, but they are happy because they have food from their farm, water from nearby sources, and family around them – the essentials. Their happiness despite having little money, savings or material goods helps us put our lives in Canada into perspective.
Meni was so excited to lie down she couldn’t even wait for the shavings!:
Shauna giving Askari (‘Soldier’) treatment for fleas:
Githiri and porridge cooking in the cookhouse of Ithanji primary school:
Only a vet student could be this happy about pregnancy checking via rectal palpation!:
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).
“Napier grass”: Shauna teaching a farmer about the importance of cutting Napier grass short.
“Group photo”: Mary is an extremely motivated and dedicated farmer, and it shows! From left to right: Maggie, Mira, Mary, Sarifa, and Priscilla.
“Processing machine” This machine is where milk is pasteurized, homogenized, and then pasteurized again at the Wakulima Dairy.
“Happy cows produce more milk!”
“Transporting Napier grass to farm.”
Lumpy Skin Disease Encounters
We have continued to have some successful farm visits/changes but have also seen some unfortunate realities such as lumpy skin disease. Lumpy skin disease is not a disease we have in Canada but is common in African countries. It is a disease that affects cattle causing fever, depression, and nodules all over the body. Secondary bacterial infections often worsen the situation. This disease is transmitted by biting insects (therefore unlikely for travelers to bring back to Canada). This is a reportable disease in Canada to which the Canadian Food Inspection Agency would respond with efforts to eradicate the disease. This disease does not cross over to humans. There is no good treatment for Lumpy Skin Disease but vaccination can be effective. Here however, it seems that the recent rounds of vaccines wasn’t the best and some animals ended up getting the disease from the vaccination. But most cases we have seen were not vaccine induced.
Recently, here in the Mukerwe-ini area of Kenya, there seems to be a larger out break than normal. We have seen several cases of cattle with lumps on their skin. Their stories are stricken by abortions and decreased milk production (along with many other negative results). The most frustrating case we have heard about this week was about a cow that had died one week ago of the disease… she was due to calve early August.
On average farmers here have 2 cows and therefore having a sick one (and potentially a dead one) is a huge loss that greatly affects the people’s quality of life. Finances get a hit largely because expected milk production is absent, they see no return on the money that went into breeding and feeding the cow to term, and they can’t sell the calf or benefit from it in the future. To some people this may mean the difference between putting their child through school or not (or other similar choices). It is frustrating in Canada to lose a cow-calf pair but does it ever make or break a child’s basic education level?
A reminder to stay thankful for what we have.
Back To School
We also got time to go visit an elementary school. We were very lucky to be welcomed to the Karaguririo elementary school in Mukurwe-ini. The school has over 500 students going from nursery to grade 8. (Nursery would be the class before junior kindergarden in Canada). With that many students, it was surprising to find out that each grade level only has one class. That means that in one room there are over 70 grade 7 students with just one teacher. I can’t even imagine the work that faces the teachers with that many students to educate, prep for and mark all their work.
The school day starts at 6 am with students responsible for cleaning to school after walking up to 5km to get there. By 7am classwork starts and continues till 5pm. At least one teacher stays at the school until 6:30pm so that students may finish their homework before they go home as many of them don’t have lights. That amounts to a 12hr school day. To add to this, the students go to school 7 days a week (only in the afternoon on Sundays). Finally, most schools have a break in August, one in April and one in December. This school however only takes the December break
Farm #24 (signalled by our fingers): Anika repairing a stall with John (who is an extension worker at the dairy). We promise he smiles all the time…except in pictures.
Going through our physical exam parameters (every cow got one at the beginning of the study and one at the end)
Farm #36: Ephraim (our main driver) and Nancy
This is “break a leg farm” so nicknamed because we could very easily envision one or both cows doing just that. The cows were obviously not using their stalls (see picture below). After a great deal of machete work to loosen soil, hammering, sawing, shoveling, discovering the partial remains of a cow, measuring and sweating, the cows had a new place to call home.
Farm #48 continued: “Yes we can!”
Nancy planting a tree with a student from the school that we got to visit
Sarah and Michelle: Chicken Vaccination Campaign – May 31, 2014
We had the amazing opportunity to get our first real hands-on vet experience here in Laos! We accompanied the Primary Animal Healthcare Workers or PAHWs around the various farms in Tha Chan Pa to vaccinate chickens for Fowl Cholera and Newcastle Disease.
It was a really hot day but overall pretty successful. This was an opportunity we otherwise might never have had back home in Canada, as the poultry industry tends to do mass vaccinations in ovo, or on day 1 after hatching. Rarely would we get the chance to do hands on vaccinations with adult chickens and roosters. It was also great getting the chance to meet new people from another village and to see how the PAHWs apply the training that VWB and the Faculty of Agriculture provides them.
We even got to meet the PAHWs’ families and purchased some fabric that one of their wives had handwoven. We think it would be great to purchase more fabric from this village and sell it back home, with proceeds going to the VWB/VSF chicken vaccination and animal husbandry programs right in Tha Chan Pa.
We have had an amazing first month here in Kenya!
We find it interesting to listen to Dr. Shauna talk to the farmers. She always says, “Your cow and calf need water…always.” Seems like a simple and easy concept however we must repeat it very often. Sometimes re-wording helps, “milk is made of water so, if you want more milk your cow needs to drink more water.” Often farmers don’t give their calves a constant supply of water because they think it makes them pee blood. Shauna then explains to them that this happens because, when the calf is deprived of water and then offered it, it will drink as much as possible and this actually causes them to pee blood. Many farmers are need to re-train their calves water drinking habits by offering them small amounts often throughout the day until they are ready to have a constant supply.
Local veterinarians do not have it easy. Diagnostic tools are limited and so is transportation. They ride a bodaboda (dirt bike) with a backpack on their back and a bag on their lap and that’s it…that is what they take to farm calls. They must keep tick born diseases (such as Anaplasma and East Coast Fever) in mind, not something we worry about in Alberta.
Our work these last few weeks has involved some construction. We modified the cows’ stalls so they can have a more comfortable place to rest. During our second visit to the farms we took out our hammers and shovel, and with the help of our drivers and the farmers, we set out to give the laddies a bit more space or soften their floor. In one case, within a few hours of leaving the farm, we received a call from the farmer letting us know that his cow, which had never laid in her stall before, was resting comfortably for the first time. On another farm, as soon as the tools were removed from the stall, the cow walked in and laid down.
Not all of our construction work has been an instant success. We’ve had to make follow up visits to some farms because the cows were not using the new stalls or the farmer had some concerns they wanted to discuss. This is all part of the process since one of our goals is to develop new guidelines for stall size, design and materials that are well within the reach of a small farm. In the weeks to come, we will be returning to all the farms to collect more data on the cows now that they have had time to get used to their new home.
Making the stall longer so the cow has more forward lunge space
Before picture of a stall with hard uneven stonesAfter picture of the stall with a thick layer of soft dirt and shavings:
Farmers often like to offer us tea:
Farmers and Dr. John replacing a roof:
Farm #38: Nancy with Eiphram (one of our drivers):