Farmer-to-Farmer Volunteer Mary Nelson Recalls her Egypt Assignment
This article was adapted from a story featured in the Dairy Star and written by Ruth Klossner.
While most Minnesota dairy farmers were enjoying an early spring, Mary Nelson of rural Winthrop, Minnesota was halfway around the world, working with Egyptian dairy farmers. Nelson was asked to go to Egypt by Land O'Lakes International Development as part of a five-year agreement it has with Egypt to educate farmers in many facets of agriculture. Land O'Lakes works with ADCI/VOCA, an organization that seeks volunteers from companies like Land O'Lakes, to implement the Farmer-to-Farmer program, which is made possible by the American People through the United States Agency for International Development (USAID).
In Egypt, Nelson worked with the Nahdet Beni Suef Foundation in Beni Suef Governorate, located about 75 miles south of Cairo on the west bank of the Nile River. "The Foundation is set up to take the poorest people out of poverty and give them a form of income through education and animals," Nelson said. "The project gives two calves to a farmer." The farmers also get help with feed expenses, veterinarian services, and some land to grow bercine (clover) to feed the animals. They are expected to learn correct ways to raise the animals, get them bred timely, keep them healthy, calve them correctly, then raise the heifer calves and return the bull calves to the project to fulfill their contract.
"All [farmers] are hungry for knowledge. They were the most attentive students I have ever taught. Their animals are more important than anything to them. Their animals are what will keep them alive," Nelson said. A project manager in each village tracks the farmers' progress, and watches over 50 to 70 farmers and brings people together to share ideas and tips.
Each day Nelson visited small farmers in their livestock housing area. "The farmers are very proud. Most of the housing areas are enclosed rooms on the lower level of their homes with dirt floors. The rooms had at least one source of air, plus the door. It was dark in the rooms, and this situation should not work but, for the most part, the animals were healthy," Nelson said of those visits.
The animals go to the fields with the farmers during the day. Straw, bercine, ground corn and minerals are the usual ration ingredients. "A few cows were small, maybe 700 to 800 pounds, and the calves nursed for seven months. The cows were rundown and it was difficult to get them pregnant. The project manager will follow up to get changes made. My job was to encourage the change," Nelson said. In addition to the visits, Nelson presented seminars to farmers from the surrounding villages.
"I was to teach people about calf raising," Nelson said. "My first question to them was, 'Will they listen, since I'm a woman?'" Working with two interpreters, who were veterinarians, Nelson started her presentations with cow health, then moved on through the birth process, including incorrect positions and how to turn a calf. There may have been some quizzical looks when Nelson took out a stuffed calf to demonstrate the birth process, but the farmers did listen. "They followed along, they played the game when I gave random participants ropes to practice correct placement on the calf's legs for pulling," Nelson said with a chuckle.
After talking about the birth process, Nelson moved on to feeding colostrum. That's where the farmers really raised their eyebrows. "They said, 'We throw that first milk in the Nile,'" Nelson said. "I knew I was going there to change customs and it wouldn't be an easy job. I explained why colostrum is good for the calf's immunity. I told them how to wash the udders and to allow the calves to nurse or to milk the cow by hand. Then we went on to encourage them to start giving calf starter at three days." That, too, was a foreign concept, as Egyptian farmers typically grind all grain mixes.
"When I showed them a sample of our calf starter, they said 'la'a' (no). I had pictures to show why whole grain is so important in developing the rumen. Typically, they feed milk and bercine until weaned, then introduce grain. This change is a huge turning point in their thinking, even to try it," Nelson said.
Nelson went on to talk about the importance of calves being kept clean and dry in a well-ventilated area and to always have fresh water available. "Some limit feed and water to their animals. The two vets [interpreters] reassured them that what I told them is what they should do," Nelson said.
There are many kinds of dairy animals in Egypt: native, French, German, Holstein, and Egyptian dairy buffalo. But, the ones Nelson saw most were Holstein and Egyptian dairy buffalo. Nelson also visited four large dairies where cattle were in open pens with overhead shade. The climate and sand made for easy care, but the farmers don't use sand to their advantage. It was spring with 80-degree temperatures. Low humidity with two inches of rainfall during the year made shaded areas comfortable. Cows eat under shade and stand on cement. The manure scraped from the cement is scattered in the sun to dry.
"More sand in the pens would help with traction and cleanliness. Pens are arranged in order of age and production," Nelson said. "Individual calf cages with overhead shade can be moved as needed. The calf is moved a few feet so the sun can dry the wet area. Easy."
Rations are bercine, corn silage, ground barley or wheat, ground corn, soybean meal, vitamins and minerals, which are similar to American-style rations. Crops are grown in rows of mounds, with the entire mound seeded. Each field is flooded once a week using a canal system from tributaries along the Nile. The work is all by hand. Crops were beautiful, Nelson said.
"All bulls are raised as 'fats.' They do not castrate because, when the carcasses are at the marketplace, buyers want to see the testicles. They don't want to eat heifers," Mary said. Low milk prices and government regulations are the biggest challenges Egyptian farmers face.
"They asked me how to deal with low milk prices and I told them I'd have lots more money if I could answer that question," Nelson said. The first large dairy milked 50 cows in two stalls with a mobile milker. Mary said, "They poured milk from standing buckets into the bulk tank. When milking was done, they unplugged the milker and plugged in the compressor. There was no straining milk and the tank cover stayed open during milking. This was not typical."
Nelson visited different dairy farms of various sizes - ranging from 120 to 500 cows per farm. Each one had different methods for feeding cows, and catching and storing milk. The largest dairy farm she toured had 500 cows that were enclosed in a perimeter wall. All vehicles drove through a vehicle bath at the entrance. The calves were at the beginning of the breeze, so their air was the freshest of the farm. "This guy spoke fluent English. He didn't understand why Egypt has dairy farms. They import the cows, metal, equipment, meds, vaccines, minerals, vitamins, etc. He said it was crazy to have cows there, but they have done well for him," Mary said. "He has a large house, swimming pool, outdoor party room, etc. The farm is designed much like American farms. He has a double-12 milking parlor, a TMR and rations for each group."
For more information on Land O'Lakes International Development's involvement in the USAID Farmer-to-Farmer program, click here.