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How to keep your free range animals healthy

By John Githinji

Most livestock farmers in Nyandarua County use the free range style where cows are tethered at open farm paddocks during the day and fed in troughs in the evening.

At Ndemi in Kipipiri along River Malewa, farmers engage in different farming practices with commercial tomato booming. Cattle farmers constitute a huge proportion, with each homestead estimated to have a cow.

James Gitau is a community elder. He has five cows, two which became blind within 24 months. “This heifer got blind late last year, I sprayed it for tick control and soon after, it started showing symptoms of loss of sight,” he says. The farmer is yet to seek the help of a veterinary officer as the animal learns to use other senses to move around. A few blocks away, a neighbour complains that her cow also went blind.

Theories for cattle blindness

Investigation with the help of the local leadership brings out that about 40 per cent of cows in the area are blind or semi blind. Mr Samuel Mwangi, who is an animal health assistant, says there are several theories as to why cattle blindness is occurring at a high rate in the area. “It can be as a result of early cataract disease or injuries to the cornea or poisoning from acaricides used in commercial farms for weeds. Some pesticides are also harmful to animals,” says Samuel Mwangi.

He says there are veterinary surgeons who can treat most of these eye conditions in cattle. However, in Nyandarua, there are only two surgeons and their services are expensive for most farmers.

Ticks and other external parasites are also carriers of disease-causing pathogens and therefore cattle should be regularly checked for these parasites and cleaned. For example, East Coast Fever is a disease transmitted through ticks.

Farmers are advised to dip their cattle or spray them every once a week. “In Nyandarua, farmers have access to 78 dips spread across the county, with a farmer paying Sh13 per cow for dipping,” says Dr James Karitu, the country’s Agriculture executive. However, advancing cattle keeping practices are rendering cattle dips redundant since farmers are less likely to risk low produce for a trip to a cattle dip. They prefer to spray the animals in a backyard clutch.

It is during this exercise that most farmers make mistakes like messing with the recommended mix ratio measurements or direction of spray or simply poorly cleaned spray equipment that they end up with blind cows. “In case one has a recent blindness case for their cow, reach a veterinary officer since most of the cases are treatable,” says Dr Karitu.

Control measures

He urges farmers to register with the Kenya Stud Book where they are helped to get their animals to pedigree levels to help increase yields and become commercially viable.

Farmers should also acquaint themselves with emerging technology like e-extension and other integrated platforms to learn modern practices that will help keep clean and profitable farms.

Mwangi urges farmers to improve on animal husbandry to minimise the possibility of ending up with blind cows. He says those practising free range should carefully consider where to graze their cattle and how to select the best feed for the animals.

Dr Karitu describes the problem as a precipitation of a poor feed plan for farmers who practice free range cattle keeping. “We have been training farmers during our field days to dedicate portions of their farms to animal feeds to mitigate scarcity during dry seasons and maintain balanced diets for the cattle.” He adds that when you have enough feeds for the animal to go round all seasons, it becomes easy for the farmer to maintain graze paddocks since the cattle do not overgraze, thanks to the available supplements from fodder.

He says that with good farm records, specific monitored graze fields and animal feed reserves, the farmer will not have to go to graze the cows in places where they have no previous record on the activity that was carried out in the field hence mitigating the possibility of poisoned graze land and parasite attacks.

Dr Karitu says when unique cases like that in Ndemi arise, a team of veterinary officers visit the area to investigate the problem and advise farmers accordingly.    

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