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Better Cows mean Better Lives in Kenya

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A PhD student from the University of Prince Edward Island is hoping that happier cows will mean more milk for Kenyan farmers and their families.

Dr. Shauna Richards, a member of the board of Farmers Helping Farmers, is exploring ways  for Kenyan farmers to improve the health of their dairy cows.

Favourite Cow  “Farmers in Kenya are so excited and interested in learning about how to improve their dairy farm,” says Richards.

On her second trip to Kenya, Shauna Richards focused on improving milk production by improving the quality and quantity of food that the cows were being fed. Most dairy cows are fed locally grown forage materials, such as banana leaves (poor) or short Napier grass (good), and only a small amount of purchased grain and mineral. Richards wanted to see if increasing the amount of grain and mineral would improve milk production cost-effectively to the point where it made it worth the extra expense for the farmer.

“Current results from the study indicate that there is still room for improvement in the current feeding practices and management of smallholder dairy farms in Kenya,” she explains.  “For instance, feed shortages were common and led to lower volumes of milk sold, especially for women farmers.”

fhfcow2Richards says that education on methods to store forage such as making silage can reduce this problem.

“We’re still in the midst of doing the statistical analysis on the cost-benefit of purchasing grains and minerals to feed to cattle,” she continues.  “However, early analysis does indicate a strong benefit on milk production.”

Richards explains that while this may seem obvious based on nutrition work on cattle in North America, cattle in Kenya are often fed poorer quality forages. So the addition of grain feeding will not necessarily increase milk production at the same level as in North America.

“We hope to determine the economic impact of the purchased grains and minerals in the near future,” Richards says.   “If it is positive, it will hopefully persuade farmers to feed more grain and mineral.”

She is also curious to see if the additional grain and mineral led to earlier re-breeding and conception at the farms that she is working with.

narri women cowThe work of Farmers Helping Farmers has already dramatically increased milk production in the region where they are actively working with Kenyan farmers. The group has produced a "Handbook for Kenya Dairy Farmers". One farmer told researchers that when he followed the recommendations on nutrition, cow comfort and disease control, his cow’s production went from four kilograms per day to 26 kilograms. Another dairy group reported that their milk intake went from 300 kilograms per day from their group of farmers in 2011 to a remarkable 2,000 kilograms per day in 2014.

It’s on the family scale that the improved milk production really hits home. The increased results per cow may seem small. But they can make a huge difference for a family in eastern Kenya whose monthly income is less than $100. Most farmers have between one and five cows. So any increase in milk production instantly makes a difference for that family’s income as well as for the family’s nutrition.

Dr. Shauna Richards has now turned her focus from what cows are being fed to how they are being sheltered. She will be looking at cow sheds and how to improve them. She will try to measure what happens to milk production when the conditions the cows live in are improved.

“Most Kenyan milk cows are housed in small sheds called zero grazing units,” Richards explains.  “These protect the cows from the sun and rain while allowing the farmers to carry feed to the cows and feed them individually.”

“Many of these are poorly designed because improved breeding has made the cows larger and the farmer lacks the knowledge and the resources to build comfortable housing,” she adds.

“Livestock owners and veterinarians want their cows to be comfortable for the cows well-being,” Richards continues.  “Cows that are housed in more comfortable and clean environments will produce more milk than those housed in uncomfortable and dirty ones.”

Richards explains that a well-designed stall will allow the cow to lie down more, making for better digestion and more nutrients put into milk production rather than expended energy required to stand.

“It has also been shown that happy cows produce more milk,” she adds. “Which only makes sense, as it is hard for a stressed or fearful cow to let down her milk at milking time.”

She also points out that having a dirty farm and cow leads to increased risk of udder infections which can lead to decreased volumes of milk produced and reduced quality of milk that is not safe or pleasing to drink.

Richards will complete her doctorate in 2016.

“We plan to formulate a fact sheet that will summarize the research results to help farmers benefit from our research in Kenya,” she explains. “We will also publish the findings in research journals so other regions of the world with smallholder dairy farms can benefit from the information we gain.”