From Dumfries to Africa – environmental challenges faced in studying cow fertility

Published Wednesday, 16th August 2017 in International Activities news

Bridgit muasa and ice cub
pictued: Bridgit Muasa

SRUC PhD student, Bridgit Muasa, funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has swapped Dumfries for Nairobi as she continues her studies into the fertility of dairy cows.

Bridgit will be in Nairobi for another six months, continuing her studies into the use of cow side diagnostics (carrying out testing immediately after the sample and still by the side of the cow) for fertility management in dairy cows, but not without several challenges encountered by this new environment.

The project involves collecting milk samples from the cows to analyse progesterone/concentration to assess fertility rates in cows.

Bridgit confirmed: "My main focus for this project is on small holder farmers in Sub Saharan Africa and finding a solution for this group to improve their fertility rates in diary cows for farming, that is fundamental."

Based in the outskirts of Nairobi at the International Livestock and Research Institute (ILRI), Bridgit is working with diary cows from the University of Nairobi. This stage of her project includes using data from the University of Nairobi and understanding how three different technologies for monitoring the reproductive performance of dairy cows work and how it’s validated. This involves doing a cow alert test, which is an analysis of cow behaviour and activity using activity meters.

Another technology being tested is an estrotect heat detector. This sticker is attached on the back of the cow and changes colour when the cow is mounted during oestrus.

The new environment however, has several hurdles to consider, such as the climate, differences in production systems, and variation in the scale of operation and management.

Apart from the issue of the warmer and drier environment, some cows roam and graze outside and at times covering long distances with others being kept in sheds through out the year. These differences even within the same country and agro-ecological zone, mean that data collected is not always cross comparable.

Bridgit commented: "Most cows at the SRUC Dairy Research and Innovation Centre in Dumfries are housed for the better part of the year and some herds are housed all year round. Cows at the University of Nairobi are outside and moving around a lot, so it is a very different environment."

This is in contrast to Scotland, where cows are predominantly housed or grazed in fields devoid of trees and bushes. In these conditions, the Estrotect heat detector remains intact and colour change is easily observed.

Bridgit’s studies are beginning to highlight the challenges of collecting data from different settings and raise the question of whether the bio-physical environment has an effect on the effectiveness, ability and robustness of different technologies in different dairy production systems.  Bridgit hopes the next 6 months will provide conclusive evidence on this debate.

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