Wednesday, 24 June 2015

Week 5 with the Naari Dairy Group, by Emily Egan - June 24, 2015

Me again! We’ve officially completed 100 farm visits from our randomly generated list, and perhaps now would be a good time to describe what it is that we actually do on these shambas…
First of all of course we have to get permission from the farmer to use their information in our project. Krista and I don’t really take part in this step because it’s usually in Swahili and, therefore, way over our heads. Once they’ve agreed to participate in the study we get to work. Most often the talking is again done by either Dennis or Joan, but sometimes one of the farmers will speak enough English that Krista or I can do the survey with guidance (and assistance!) from one of the others. When that is the case we ask a series of questions about the animals, their health, feed, living situation etc, and then we give the farmers a handout and talk to them about several topics related to animal husbandry. Otherwise we focus entirely on the cows and youngstock. We take their height and estimate their weight using the girth of their ribcages, then we give them a body condition score and thorough physical exam. If they’re zero-grazed cows, meaning they don’t leave the stall area, we take a blood sample to be used for lab tests later, and we measure and assess the stalls. For pregnant heifers and all cows, we do a rectal palpation to assess ovary status or confirm pregnancy, and we give hormone injections where required. For milking cows we also do a California Mastitis Test and treat any quarters that are infected. Finally, if deworming is needed we either do it for them or leave them with some dewormer to use at the appropriate time. Usually the whole process goes very smoothly, and we can be in and out of a farm in an hour, but sometimes there are more animals, the questionnaire takes a while, or the animals aren’t as cooperative as they could be.
For example, the other day at our last call of the afternoon, we were all very pleased to see that the farmer had only one cow and one heifer. They weren’t zero-grazed (so no blood and no stall measurements) but the woman had them corralled in a small pen. We all heaved sighs of relief that our last farm would be quick and easy, and Joan and I climbed into the pen with the halter to restrain the cow while Krista took notes and Dennis did the survey with the farmer. The cow really was quick and easy, she was fairly quiet and didn’t fight the halter at all, and while she did dance around a bit during the rectal palpation, we’re getting pretty used to keeping up. The heifer, on the other hand, was the craziest specimen of milk producing bovine I think I’ve ever seen! She must have been part Zebu and part wildcat.
We tried being nice, we tried being sneaky, we tried chasing her around the 20’ by 20’ pen for a quarter of an hour, we tried lassoing her, we tried to corner her, we even had Krista, and Dennis in the pen to help. I honestly don’t know how we finally caught her, but she ended up with a rope around her neck dragging Joan around the enclosure until we got her tied to a post. Usually at this point the animal will calm down, once it realizes fighting won’t free it. Not this girl. She spun and kicked, and twisted till she nearly did herself an injury. The only information we were able to get was an approximation of her height and weight and a body condition score based on what we could see from a safe distance. And then, for reasons I will never understand, we decided that it would be a good idea to follow protocol and use an oral dewormer on her. In hindsight I think using the pour-on variety that we usually reserve for lactating cows would have been a better idea, but I’m sure this way was much more exciting!
Unfortunately, our Valbazen syringe only holds 6mL (normally just treating young cattle) and she needed about 14, so Joan had to be quick on the refill once Dennis, the farm owner, and I had the heifer restrained. Dennis lunged for the head and got her in a head lock while the farmer lady grabbed the halter rope and held on for dear life. I grabbed a hind leg to keep her from jumping. Or at least that was the theory, and on most animals that would’ve been enough, but Joan only had 12mL or so into her before chaos broke loose. I swear I’ve never seen a cow do a flip before that day, but that is exactly what she did. She kicked out with both back legs and landed on her back, neatly breaking the holds of all three restraint personelle and giving Dennis a good kick in both shins at the same time. But she got herself really tangled in the rope as she did it so we had to let her go to stop her from hurting herself…She never did get the last 2mLs of Valbazen, but we just couldn’t compete with a somersaulting cow!

Krista preforming a rectal palpation.

Week 4 with the Naari Dairy Group. By Emily Egan - June 13 2015

Time flies here. I can’t believe I’ve been in Africa nearly a month already. The most obvious sign of time passing is the build-up of dust. While it was beautiful and lush and green when we first arrived, it hasn’t rained here in weeks and everything now has a thick layer of dust obscuring the original colours. Even us!
We’ve settled into a routine very well by now, with minor interruptions and alterations every day. Generally, we leave the house around 8 and pick up our guide who takes us to farms on our list. Vincent always makes us a delicious breakfast (all his meals are delicious, but I have to say, his chapattis are my favourite!) that holds us over till we find time to eat our lunch between farms. Since the second week we’ve been very careful to stow our sandwiches under the bench, because they mysteriously disappeared one day and we went 12 hours with only a cup of tea from one of the farms! Fortunately the farmers are very generous, so we usually don’t go hungry whether we bring lunch or not.
By about 5 pm, we’ve usually visited 6 farms and we’ve been bounced around in the back of the gypsy enough to make our heads spin, so we call it a day and head for home. Vincent usually has tea ready and waiting but we all feel (and, undoubtedly, look) too filthy to want to put anything in our mouths right away, so we go out for a walk before it gets too dark. Well, Dennis and I walk, the other 2 jog to keep up! Then we spend our evening eating wonderful local meals cooked by our wonderful chef, doing data entry, separating blood samples, and playing cards. Crazy 8s is the current favourite, although Go Fish is a close second.
This week we’ve had several unexpected, but entertaining, deviations from our routine.
                1. The gypsy, which we have dubbed Goliath, has been steadily deteriorating in health ever since John left. First the restraining chain on the door broke so it swings wildly whenever it’s opened. That’s not such a big deal except that we’re worried it might snap the whole door off if we’re not very very careful. We also can’t open the passenger side door from the inside anymore, which isn’t such a big deal since the window doesn’t close anyway. As well, the back door no longer closes properly, so we’ve jury rigged a system that consists of a piece of cord tied around the leg of the back seat, and we tie the door shut with a quick release knot around the door handle. And finally, yesterday the battery died. I know that doesn’t sound like that big of a deal, we do have jumper cables after all, but the real problem was that we couldn’t figure out how to open the hood. It took 6 of us over an hour to do it… We even tried pushing the car down the hill to try and start it that way, but once we found the button in the glove compartment we got everything sorted out in no time! And besides, it’s cars like Goliath that make driving memorable!
2. In a totally unrelated change of routine, yesterday (Friday) we quit work early to go to Meru Gakoromone Market with Geoffrey, the chairman of Naari Dairy. It was incredible in so many ways! First of all, the volume of traffic was unbelievable, people everywhere, but everyone knew what they were doing and even though to an outsider it looked like total chaos, nobody got in anyone else’s way and everything ran very smoothly. And the fruit!!! Geoffrey took us to the fruit section I guess, because every square inch of ground was covered in piles of exotic fruit! There were literally mountains of watermelons, papayas, mangoes, oranges, nectarines, bananas, cassava, avocado, arrow root… Jaw dropping. We filled the back of Geoffrey’s car with our purchases, and as if having all of that available wasn’t good enough, we got it for about $10. I was in heaven!
                3. Geoffrey came over for dinner last night as well. It was very nice to have company for a change, and he’s a very entertaining man so we had a good time. He calls me Kendi now, because Joan and Dennis decided that was my Kenyan name and they told him. He seemed to enjoy the idea of giving me and Krista new names. J He also found out that we’d seen camels in the Naari market the other day, so he took us to the Meru Agricultural show today. It was very interesting. There were booths and tents representing all sorts of schools, agencies, businesses, etc. There was even a pavilion from a prison that was filled with beautiful woodworking and paintings. And of course there were camels. We even got to ride one! It was an interesting feeling, much much higher than I would’ve expected, and not nearly as ungainly feeling as camels look! But of course, if people hadn’t been looking at us while we were walking around, they were all watching us 10 feet in the air! Not only that, several people thought it was worthy of pictures and videos! It was totally worth it though just to say I’ve ridden a camel!

Tomorrow, being Sunday, we’ve agreed to go to church with Solomon, the vicechair of the dairy. And after that, Geoffrey’s meeting us to take us to a football game that is somehow related to our project. I think maybe John donated the jerseys or something. All in all, it should be a good end to another great week!

Thursday, 18 June 2015

Week 2 with the Mukurweini Wakulima Dairy Ltd. by Maggie - June 20, 2015

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!

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!

 Shauna giving Askari (‘Soldier’) treatment for fleas

Tuesday, 9 June 2015

Week 1 with the Mukurweini Wakulima Dairy, by Mira, Maggie and Sarifa with Shauna's guidance - June 10, 2015

First Blog of the Summer for the Cow Project   2015

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).

Picture captions:

1. “Napier grass”: Shauna teaching a farmer about the importance of cutting Napier grass short.

2. “Group photo”: Mary is an extremely motivated and dedicated farmer, and it shows! From left to right: Maggie, Mira, Mary, Sarifa, and Priscilla.

3. “Processing machine” This machine is where milk is pasteurized, homogenized, and then pasteurized again at the Wakulima Dairy.

4. “Happy cows produce more milk!”

5. “Transporting Napier grass to farm.”