That a simple net and proper hygiene have increased her cows’ milk production by more than 50 per cent is a surprise to her.
Mary Oendo, as many other dairy farmers in Kisii, has been grappling with low profits due to diseases, particularly mastitis.
However, her struggle is now over thanks to a net of not more than three metres high.
Studies have shown that insects such as tsetse flies cannot fly more than a metre high, and that is the saving grace for Mary and her husband Benard Oendo.
The net was provided to her and other farmers as part of a two-year study by the Ministry of Agriculture and International Centre of Insect Physiology and Ecology (Icipe), a research organisation that investigates tropical insect science for development.
The study ran from May 2011 to December 2013.
During the period, Icipe discovered high cases of mastitis had lowered milk production.
The study was funded by the government and the International Fund for Agricultural Development and carried out in nine districts. It revealed that unhygienic conditions provide a perfect environment for mastitis-causing pathogens such as Escherichia coli to thrive.
In addition, waste pits common in the districts that participated in the study, provided breeding grounds for insects such as tsetse flies, which bite animals causing distress. The insects make the cows stomp their feet all the time.
This stops the animals from feeding in turn affecting milk production.
Farmers participating in the study were required to put the net around their cowshed to protect the animals from harmful insects. The net, however, does not cover the entire pen but reaches a metre from the ground.
The farmers were also required to maintain high standards of hygiene and proper nutrition.
For instance, they were to collect cow dung from the sheds regularly and feed the animals on clean troughs.
Dr Rajindar Saini, the Principal Scientist and Head of Animal Health Division at Icipe, says the net has special chemical that wards off insects. However, proper hygiene must also be maintained for effectiveness.
The net is made by Swiss company Vestagaard and has an insecticide called deltamethrin, which kills most of the flies 10 to 20 minutes after landing on it. Mr John Ndege, the Director of Livestock Production in Kisii County, says the net allows the animals to feed well without being disturbed by insects.
Harmful farming practices driven by culture, such as denying the animals sunlight and ventilation to hide them from ‘bad eyes’ are rampant across Kenya. What many farmers do not know is that the practices make their animals prone to trypanosomiasis, helminthosis, anaplasmosis and mastitis.
Ndege notes farmers in Kisii have been affected by the diseases for years.
Using the nets, according to annual combined data collected in the participating regions, increased production and earnings by as much as 80 per cent.
Mary Oendo now milks at least 20 litres a day from her two Friesian cows, much better than the eight litres she was accustomed to two years ago.
In a town where milk costs Sh60 a litre, the Oendos make as much as Sh36,000 a month, a remarkable improvement from Sh15,000.
NOT DIRECTLY LINKED
While the net has not been linked directly to the reduction of mastitis, it has played a major role in providing the peace that the animals need during feeding and keeping away disease-causing insects.
Clinical mastitis, according to Prof William Ogara from the University of Nairobi, can cause the cow’s udders to swell and become painful.
The milk that a sick cow produces has watery appearance, blood clots or pus, and should not be drunk.
Cows with strong immunity fight the disease. Sometimes the animal develops more severe illness to the point of losing half of its udder or it even dies. The cost of treating mastitis—even the uncomplicated forms of it — is about Sh3,000 per cow.
Prof Ogara says hygiene is key in fighting mastitis. “The udders must be cleaned thoroughly with warm water and a disinfectant and handled with clean hands. The cows have to be in a clean place too.”
For the nets to be effective, a farmer must clean them regularly when they become dirty.
“When they are dirty, they lose insect-killing qualities. The farmer should, thus, never get tired of cleaning them by splashing water or removing dust,” Dr Saini says.
The net is yet to be commercialised as work on an affordable price for small-scale farmers.
The net has been used in Ghana in pig farming. More studies are focused on fortifying the net.