June 17, 2014.
UC Davis initiative is working to improve dairy cows’ health and productivity in African nation.
Cows provide Rwandan farmers with a nutrient-rich source of food for their families.
In Rwanda, the expression “have milk” — “gira amata” — is not part of a milk-mustachioed marketing campaign. It’s a wish for prosperity.
UC Davis scientists hope to make that wish come true in the small African nation, by improving dairy cows’ health and productivity — and thereby people’s health, too.
Dairying is a centuries-old enterprise in Rwanda, but production levels are quite low, and the milk is often contaminated with bacteria that pose health risks for cows and people.
“The underproduction of milk in Rwanda is heartbreaking,” said professor Ray Rodriguez, executive director of the UC Davis Global HealthShare Initiative. Rwandan cows produce just 5 liters of milk per day on average, whereas if the cows were healthy and well cared for, they should produce 25 to 40 liters per day, he said.
Partnership with Rwanda
The UC Davis Global HealthShare Initiative is coordinating a partnership among campus scientists and students, and their colleagues in Rwanda.
The UC Davis partners are not only teaching Rwandan veterinarians, veterinary students, university faculty and government officials how to improve the health and productivity of dairy cows and the safety of milk, but how to provide the same training around Rwanda, a nation of smallholder farmers.
Faculty members on the team are Rodriguez and Jim Cullor, a professor in the School of Veterinary Medicine and director of its Dairy Food Safety Laboratory.
Their team comprises Somen Nandi, co-founder and managing director for Global HealthShare and principal investigator for its Rwanda project, and several graduate and undergraduate students.
“It’s about feeding the kids,” Cullor said. “It’s the children of Rwanda who are our customers.”
Rodriguez added that the project also is a reminder of the international aspect of modern health issues. “All health is now global health; we can’t just look at our health in the U.S. in isolation,” he said.
Focus on mastitis and ‘rural tech’
The UC Davis team is focusing on mastitis, a bacterial infection of the cow’s udder and the most common dairy cattle disease in the United States. In Rwanda, mastitis reduces milk production, causes milk to be unfit for sale and may result in the cow’s death.
During the past year, the UC Davis team has provided training to 40 Rwandan veterinary students, university faculty and government officials, teaching them practical techniques for preventing mastitis and identifying the different types of bacteria that are likely to be found in milk.
The success of the Rwandan program relies upon developing a collaborative partnership with the Rwandan government, and identifying technologies that are appropriate for that country.
For example, sophisticated laboratory tests used in the United States are not economically practical for Rwanda. Instead, the UC Davis team is training the veterinary professionals and students to prepare petri dishes on which microbial cultures can be grown.
“It’s not low tech; we call it ‘rural tech,’” Cullor said.
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