This past December, I spent almost a month in the African nation of Kenya working closely with local farmer groups in the central Kenya county of Meru. Animal agriculture is a constantly evolving industry in Kenya. While some regions of the country host large, modern dairy operations, most livestock farmers take care of just enough animals to supply their own family’s needs.
It did not take long to notice the stark contrasts in cattle, goat, and poultry management between rural Kenya and what we are accustomed to in the US. Many livestock subsist on grazing. When grass and other forages are plentiful, this may be sufficient to meet some animals’ needs. However, Kenyan climate is characterized by rainy and dry seasons. Inevitably, dry conditions shrink the amount of available feed. Animal production and growth suffers accordingly. One of the greatest challenges faced by Kenyan farmers is resiliency. Very few of them have the capacity or knowledge to harvest and store forages that can be used to sustain production through the dry season.
The disease pressures faced by livestock in Kenya are quite different than those we face in the US. High on a Kenyan cattle raiser’s threat list were diseases such as East Coast Fever, anaplasmosis, theileriosis, and contagious bovine pleuropneumoniae. With the exception of anaplasmosis, these are diseases unknown to those of us in the US. The common thread among these illnesses is their vector-borne nature: they’re spread by flies and ticks. Kenya’s tropical climate during the rainy season means plentiful plant growth, but it also means great conditions for insect survival. As such, most cattle and goat raisers treat their animals with insecticide sprays once a week. Some insecticides have become ineffective due to frequent use over the years.
Kenya is listed as a Foot and Mouth Disease (FMD) country. However, the occurrence of this disease in central Kenya seemed quite sporadic. However, when it did hit an area, the results were devastating to a small farmer’s livelihood. Government vaccination programs are in place to help limit the spread of FMD, but many of the small farmers attending my meetings indicated these efforts were often incomplete, leaving many herds vulnerable.
The farmer groups I spoke to were hungry for knowledge about basic animal nutrition and disease control. They were eager to improve animal production and health through genetic and nutritional improvement. They are not without available resources. Ground feed, as well as mineral and protein supplements are available for purchase. Livestock veterinarians are available to tend to health issues and administer vaccines. However, these animal raisers found it challenging to reach a level of production with which they could take advantage of those resources. Transportation of goods and services on their substandard roads also hindered many of these farmers.
Perhaps the most striking livestock health contrast between rural Kenya and the US lies in the nature of the disease issues we face. While Kenyan farmers constantly dealt with the threat of insect-borne and contagious diseases, they had very little or no issues with diseases like post-weaning respiratory disease, shipping fever, or calf scours. Their dairy animals rarely had problems like milk fever, acidosis, or displaced abomasums. To me, it drove home the fact that many of our major animal health issues are largely self-inflicted. We manage weaned beef calves in such a way as to provoke stress and illness through abrupt weaning practices and long hauls to the feedlots. We manage calving such that animals are easy for us to tend to, but closely housed so scours pathogens build up in the environment. And we push the limit with nutrition to the point where dairy cows are often on the brink of metabolic issues such as milk fever and acidosis.
To be sure, I am not advocating for a movement back to grazing road ditches, as farmers do in Kenya. US livestock management has evolved over many years to the place we’re at now – the most productive and safest systems the world has ever known. Sometimes, however, it takes a trip across the world to remind us that the decisions we make about our animals have a whole lot to do with the disease pressures our animals face.