Experiencing “firsts” in Kenya

by Ashley Kroyer

Monday, 4 June 2018

“In China there is a saying, ‘If you wake up in the morning and go to sleep in the night having learned nothing, curse the day’. Today, I have learned so much”.

Last week we visited the home of an engineer who now, in his retirement, keeps milking cows on his farm. He described to us with pride how much he enjoys them, even allowing them “exercise time” in the sun every week. He was keen in asking questions and eager to learn of how he was managing his animals well and how else he may improve. We completed our visit with him sharing this quote with us – the words having made a huge impact with me –  and then cutting 5 tall pieces of miwa  (sugar cane) as a thank you.

Today marks two weeks since arriving here in Naari, Kenya, and I have learned more in 14 days than I ever expected. Under the supervision and guidance of Dr VanLeeuwen, Lee and I have visited almost 30 smallholder dairy farms in this area to learn (and to advise) about issues with cow nutrition, reproduction, and comfort and hygiene. Having limited prior experience with cow health and management, much of this information is completely new to me and I am experiencing many “firsts” here in Kenya!

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Caption: Dr John VanLeeuwen discussing checkpoints for assessing cow comfort with our Kenyan veterinary friends (left to right) Serem, Remmi, and Benard.

On Day 1 of training, I did my very first rectal palpation – an easy one, on a cow 7 months pregnant. A giant womb and fetus were there to meet my hand, and I learned about detecting “fremitus” (palpable turbulent blood flow in the uterine artery) as the demands of the growing fetus increase. Lee and I practiced scoring body condition, and I learned how to milk a cow so that we could test her milk for mastitis (udder inflammation). I learned next about what it means to “dry off” a cow (to stop her milk production late in gestation), providing her system with a rest prior to calving. This farmer had a cow giving too much milk at dry-off – 17 kg/day which is a good problem to have – and so we advised to go back to the poor feeding management from a few years ago for this cow to reduce her milk production. On the second farm, we were presented with a cow showing no signs of estrus or “heat” (such as vaginal discharge, mounting, and increased restlessness) for more than 3 months after having a calf. On palpation, Lee and Dr V were able to detect a “CL”, or corpus luteum, as evidence that the cow had recently ovulated, despite not showing any obvious heat behaviour. With further investigation into her nutrition, it was diagnosed as a “silent heat” , which I learned can be attributed to a mineral and energy deficit. The fix? Feeding more dairy meal as well as more mineral supplement. On the third farm, Lee and I had a turn at estimating weight, measuring with a weight tape to confirm our guesses, and then calculating a dose of deworming medication. This farmer was preparing silage, so I also had a chance to learn about how this process of fermenting forage material will preserve it and ensure feed is available through the dry months (now until October).


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Caption: Lee “preg checking” this cow with a rectal palpation of the uterus.


The next day – believe it or not! – introduced me to more firsts. With much excitement, I was able to palpate an ovary! Granted, it was “cystic” (enlarged), but it’s better to start off easy, right? With a mix of excitement and apprehension, I gave my first intramuscular injection of GnRH, a hormone to stimulate the cystic follicles of this ovary to break and for this cow to return to a normal hormonal cycle. I learned about various causes of abortion, where we discussed freemartinism (when a female calf twins with a male), and advised about feeding adequate colostrum to newborn calves to avoid “failure of passive transfer of immunity” – calves need the maternal antibodies provided in the first milk to give them early protection and the best start at life. The last visit of day 2 provided us with an opportunity to learn and advise about improving cow comfort on a farm. After all, happy cows are healthy cows that make more milk! We learned 12 checkpoints to consider in a stall – from the condition of the roof to the condition of the floor – and how to recommend changes that will encourage cows to stand and lay appropriately in their stalls for better comfort and hygiene.


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Caption: “Kids” of all species like to watch when there are strangers on the farm!


Our first Saturday evening in Naari brought us our first “patient” – a 2-week-old lamb we found in the yard, away from the flock. Thin, hypothermic, and weak, he was carried inside the house to warm up. Taking full advantage of a teaching moment, Dr V directed Lee and I through a quick physical exam – collecting temperature and heart rate etc. – to assess how critical the situation was. I had little success encouraging him to drink and we did not have any dextrose solution to administer or a stomach tube to force feed, so he received a couple shots of medicine and we left him wrapped in a towel to rest while we figured our options for dextrose and stomach tubes. Our next challenge presented soon after: seizures. Teaching us about different causes of seizures, Dr V administered vitamins in hopes it would help with any deficiencies and I sat under my kikoi (wrap) monitoring the little guy. We concocted a home-made concentrated sugar solution (in place of the dextrose solution), thinking the little guy may have been at such a deficit to have fallen into insulin shock. To everyone’s delight, the seizures stopped. We tried to rig up a stomach tube from a cleaning bottle pump hose. When the lamb began to vocalize some time after that, we became more optimistic, only to realize his vitals had become weaker. Our little “Mukimo” (named after one of our favorite Kenyan dishes) didn’t make it through the night. On Sunday morning, I did the necropsy with a visiting student from Vets Without Borders. The post-mortem exam is crucial in answering questions about “what was wrong?”, and provided us with all the evidence we needed to diagnose starvation. While I struggled for a while thinking of what we could have done differently, I was comforted in knowing we had been able to learn a lot about neonatal critical care, and that he had been warm and shown the best love we could offer prior to his death.


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Caption: Practicing my stethoscope skills, monitoring heart rate on “Mukimo”.


With the days that have followed, we’ve continued to learn more and more. We’re becoming more confident in assessing the cows and their environment, along with what questions to ask and what suggestions to make. We attended a seminar at Naari Dairy and – taking a day off from the cows – I learned about all of the work that goes into cooking githeri  (a stew of beans, maize, and veggies) for 500 people! (Shout out to our nutrition team!)  I’m learning a new word or two in Swahili each day – today, for example, mayai means egg and ndizi means banana. I’ve tried new foods and took a turn at preparing sukuma  (kale). We visited Mother Maria Zanelli Children’s Home to help serve breakfast and I had my heart stolen by little Lester – the breakfast “winner”!


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Caption: Breakfast winner! Lester and I were the first to finish not one – but two – platefuls


Finally, I had the most wonderful and emotionally overwhelming couple of days with our crew at Sweetwaters resort in the Ol Pejeta Conservancy –  90,000  acres of wildlife conservation area. My lifelong love of “The Lion King” and obsession with Africa took over and I squealed inside watching rhinos and their calves, elephants, giraffes, buffalo, zebras, and lions! Watching the sky brighten behind Mount Kenya at 6am, with waterbucks grazing just in front of our tent, it hit me again that I am in Africa. This summer I am living on the continent that, as a 10 year old, I dreamed of visiting! I am growing my veterinary education, connecting with new friends – Kenyan and Canadian – and immersing into life on this side of the world. I couldn’t be happier.


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Caption: Our team on the equator – crossing back over to the Northern Hemisphere after our weekend safari. (left to right: Sarah, Hannah, Madi, Lee, and Ashley).


Sending love and hugs to Canada!





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