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Tackling mastitis in Africa

16 April 2019, at 9:30am

The problems encountered with milking in developing African countries are very different to those we’re used to in the UK

At the British Mastitis Conference, Peter Edmondson, who runs UdderWise, gave a sobering and amusing account of work in developing countries in Africa. Veterinary surgeons from the UK have been involved in supporting local initiatives to provide training and support for cow keepers. It was Peter’s comments, aside from the formal presentation, that gave an interesting insight into human factors that may not be immediately apparent to those of us enjoying the benefits of living in the UK.

Peter outlined that in 2012, Mike Thorne from Rutland Veterinary Group began an initiative that has now involved 36 UK veterinary surgeons in a six-year project. For the project, two vets travel to Africa for two weeks at a time, three times a year. The flights are paid for, accommodation provided in the project compound and each vet gives their time. The speaker commented that we take things very much for granted in the UK and that involvement in the project provides a different perspective; each vet is taken way out of their comfort zone. For many, it proves to be a life-changing experience. There are a few who find it too difficult, and vets who volunteer are initially encouraged not to travel. The project provides an essential infrastructure that allows a safe working environment.

In introducing the mastitis aspect, Peter pointed out that developing countries in Africa do not have a history of dairy farming and the keeping of indigenous cattle is a sign of wealth. The price of milk is very variable and although the nutritional value is recognised, production is limited by the local conditions and infrastructure. He noted that in Malawi, the minimum daily wage of $1 is equivalent to four litres of milk. Planted crops often fail if the expected rains do not arrive in time for germination, and growth is dependent on further rain at the right time. Feed for the cows is cut and carried every day. Water has to be fetched from a well, with 100 to 125 litres of water needed per cow per day. Milk is taken to a collection centre on foot or by bicycle, donkey or maybe motorbike. Small-scale farmers with 1 to 10 cows utilise lots of people on a daily basis.

One cow will provide for the needs of a family and a dead calf is a complete catastrophe. Tick-borne diseases from the bush are a real threat and so there is no grazing. Hand milking is the norm with Staphylococcus aureus infections commonplace. Muck and dirt in the milk requires the removal of physical contamination by straining through a sieve; somatic cell counts and total bacterial counts are likely to be high.

Many small-scale farmers keep their cows in a corral by their home to avoid theft or wild animals attacking their stock. In the rainy season, there is very high humidity and temperatures of over 35 degrees centigrade, with cows suffering heat stress. Corrals become very muddy with six inches of rain in a day and so environmental clinical mastitis is a problem. Cows will literally bury themselves in mud and manure to stay cool, Peter said.

Veterinary surgeons are few and there is limited availability of extension advisory services. The supply of medicines is intermittent, and this includes the availability of vaccines for important African diseases including Rift Valley fever, lumpy skin disease and foot and mouth disease. Local cattle wander around and act as a vector for many diseases. Post-milking teat dips can be difficult to obtain, are of poor quality and are little used, and antibiotic dry cow tubes are expensive and come from dubious sources containing low levels of antibiotic. The social and economic implications of culling are massive if the farmer only has three cows, especially considering the cost of a replacement heifer.

A notable comment was that in developing Africa, mastitis is treated with people rather than drugs. Prevention of disease is essential, with clinical mastitis cases being hand stripped. Some of the more progressive dairy companies have persuaded farmers to pre-dip with hypochlorite and wipe it off with newspaper, wash and dry their hands between cows and apply iodine teat dip after milking. For the visiting veterinary surgeon providing basic information to farmers in the bush, it is necessary to develop imaginative ways to deliver animal husbandry and welfare messages that are easy to understand and realistic to implement.

On Peter’s first visit, chairs were set out under a tree in the shade, where initial prayers and speeches were led by the chief. The chairs were for invited dignitaries and the planned one-hour training session, through an interpreter, was reduced to less than half. However, the people have had a “tremendous willingness to learn” and once farmers grasp the need and benefits, they have been meticulous about applying the milking routine. There is also a strong tradition of storytelling and oral communication. Individuals attending a training session are unlikely to take notes, but they can repeat verbatim what has been said, Peter explained. Increasingly today the farmers have smart-phones and contact is maintained with individuals when the vet returns to the UK.

There are some commercial herds with up to 2,000 cows (with milking parlours, tractors and full mechanisation), and they employ as many as 200 people who are totally dependent on the farmer. Generating electricity and a supply of clean water is essential but the availability of raw ingredients to include in rations can change overnight and ration formulation, with subsequent rumen issues, is a regular problem. The text of the paper “Mastitis in developing Africa” can be found in the proceedings of the British Mastitis Conference.

XL Vets and Send a Cow are currently involved in Farm Skills Africa. Working in Rwanda, Uganda and Burundi, two veterinary surgeons are supporting local staff twice a year. The sixth programme is due to be completed this spring and then a review will assess how best to proceed. Increasingly, there is veterinary involvement with Send a Cow and an initiative to enable veterinary practices to engage with the programmes and support veterinary trainers is available. BVA President Simon Doherty has been appointed to the Board of Trustees. When the review has taken place, the lessons learned and future intention will be widely shared. Information and contact details are available via sendacow.org.