Farmers trained to talk to their cows

A project that helps farmers communicate with their livestock in order to understand when the animals are sick, hungry or uncomfortable by just looking at them has trained 50 farmers who report changes in the animals' wellbeing while saving costs in timely interventions.

The project’s main theme is to teach farmers, extension officers and veterinarians to listen to dairy animals speak by looking, thinking an acting. "When we pay attention to the signals, what animals are doing or not doing something, we can figure out what’s going on and take the right actions to ensure their comfort’, explained Jan Hulsen, a veterinarian. He’s a certified master trainer with CowSignals®, the dairy program that partnered with SNV, the Netherlands development organisation, to work with the first class of certified trainers in Kenya. The training is part of a systemic program helping improve the Kenya dairy industry—from grass to glass. It was funded by the Dutch Embassy.

Over two weeks, Hulsen worked with some 50 Kenyan farmers from the Eldoret Dairy Farmers Association, lecturers and trainers from Egerton University, the Dairy Training Institute in Naivasha and Practical Dairy Training Centers (PDTCs), extension workers from dairy cooperatives, and SNV Local Capacity Builders and veterinarians. He taught them to “listen” to dairy animals “speak” by following three steps: Look, think, act. Through serious observations, CowSignals trains dairy people to look at success factors, bottlenecks, and improvement points across farm operations to ensure cow comfort.  

The backdrop for CowSignal’s first training on the entire African continent was in western Kenya's dairy region--Wilsam Farm of Willy Kirwa the first week with one group, and Baraka Farm near Eldoret a second week with a different group. Hulsen walked participants through six key areas for livestock care: Rest, space, feed, water, light, and air.

By watching these six areas, farmers can ensure their cows get what they need to remain healthy. Healthy cows produce more quality milk. Better quality milk means more money in the pockets of dairy farmers because it’s more valuable to milk processing and marketing plants.
 
'I think we all had learned pieces of this either at university or in the field’, said Simon Mutoru, a local dairy expert who has travelled internationally to learn his profession and come back to Kenya to train others. ‘But this was a way to refresh and update our skills and knowledge so we can share it with our farmers in easy ways that they can use to improve their farms’.
Already, the operation that hosted CowSignals—Baraka Farm—has renovated stalls. Bedding was changed to include corn cobs mixed with sawdust or sand to more easily absorb urine and keep cow resting places like they prefer—dry.

"Though none of the calves have ever been coughing in the past 10 years, we followed up advice from the CowSignals training and improved the ventilation in the calf-rearing unit that houses animals up to six to seven months old’, added Jos Creemers, who manages the farm. This is easy to understand and easy to implement’, noted David W. Gitonga, another dairy expert who works daily with farmers. ‘Though our farmers are mid-sized operations, they spend time with their cattle and can easily focus on these points to make more improvements for their dairy cattle".

The people who trained with CowSignals work with farmers such those who market their milk through the Eldoret Dairy Farmers Association. It has been working with SNV to improve members' knowledge and skills. CowSignals piloted the training with SNV as just one component of a multi-pronged approach unfolding in the East African country. Rather than concentrating on smallholder farmers only, SNV works with middle- to larger-scale farmers and dairy processors, explained Harm Duiker, country director.

"The Kenyan dairy industry is quite progressive’, he said. ‘SNV has found that working with some of the middle- and larger-sized dairy farms opens more doors to help improve markets and opportunities for smallholder farmers’. This public-private partnership between CowSignals, other donors, and SNV is larger than Kenya. Global Dairy Coordinator Jurjen Draaijer says these types of partnerships are gaining attention across other SNV dairy projects in Africa, Asia, and Latin America.

"Teaming up with private enterprise introduces businesses to new countries and potential markets without making comprehensive commitments beforehand. Meanwhile, businesses such as CowSignals brings needed information and skills so the local consultants can work within the context of the industry they know so well to help producers go to the next level," noted Draaijer.

‘It becomes a win-win situation for everyone along the entire agribusiness value chain’, added Duiker.