Luisa Olmo, PhD candidate, The University of Sydney
Building the knowledge of local people in developing countries rather than providing once-off cash hand-outs is the new-age cornerstone to aid-work and agricultural development that we should all be proud of. While the concept of increasing local knowledge sounds very pretty, in practice, it is a demanding, creative, and at times a bizarre process that eventually leads to change. A recent visit to Laos and Cambodia allowed me to be yet again reminded of some of great quirks to international agricultural research. I am now starting my second year of PhD research at the University of Sydney which focuses on improving the efficiency of reproduction in cattle and buffalo in smallholder farmers in Cambodia and Laos. This is our proactive approach to address the food security perfect storm being brewed by rapid swelling of the developing population and increasing waves of protein consumption. This will require increased production of animal sourced protein and the only way to achieve this sustainably is to promote efficient market-driven beef supply.
Domestic animals can only reproduce when all their needs have been met and this is why it is often the most difficult outcome to achieve improvement. Despite recent gains in nutrient availability through forage technology and animal health through vaccine administration, reproductive improvement relies on smallholders strategically positioning these gains in line with the reproductive cycle. This is why the project held specifically a ‘reproductive workshop’ involving agricultural staff held in the spiritual and beautiful city of Luang Prabang, Laos, in February of 2017.
Our team prepared in Sydney initially, and my job was to track down pregnancy testing gloves and lubricant. While most supplies can be tracked down in-country, our team has learnt you can never be too prepared. To my surprise, I found that you can bring 3 litres of lubricant to Asia without raising any eyebrows at customs. Day 1 of the workshop entailed bovine reproductive expert Dr Peter Alexander delivering a run-down of reproductive physiology which was translated by Dr Sonevilay Nampanya, whose strong technical knowledge as a University of Sydney PhD graduate and Lao-national was truly beneficial to the dissemination of knowledge. The entire group broke for lunch together at a small local noodle shop where we all competed in ritualistic staining of our soups the reddest with chilli sauce as a humorous demonstration of our characters.
Image 1: (From left to right) Luisa Olmo, Dr Sonevilay Nampanya, Dr Syseng Khounsy, Professor Peter Windsor and Dr Peter Alexander breaking for lunch at local noddle shop
An after-lunch makeshift pregnancy examination of buffalo reproductive tracts at varying stages of gestation provided a welcomed change of pace. The activity is to try and distinguish the parts of the reproductive tract just by feeling. A piece of butcher’s paper is used to hide the reproductive tracts and Peter Alexander guides everyone through the tracts one-by-one.
Image 2 and 3: Peter Windsor and Peter Alexander leading group examination of buffalo reproductive tracts
Not unusual to the Lao staff is an early morning start the next day at a local buffalo farm. Buffalo are led into a makeshift cattle crush constructed by the team the previous day. The gloves and lube are whipped out and everyone is given a chance to test for pregnancy, many for their first time. One of the great perks of working in reproduction is that it is a naturally a fun topic and the excitement is visible on everyone faces.
Image 4: Excited DLF staff with Luisa Olmo preparing for pregnancy testing
Image 5: Dr Nampanya guiding a district staff member through pregnancy testing
We return to the conference room for a group discussion where we hash out potential reproductive interventions to assist farmers improve efficiency of reproduction. A passionate discussion leads to the identification of a list of skills that farmers need, an image of the ‘model Lao beef farmer’ and a list of practices required for controlled breeding management. It is a long and grueling process but finally we have what we all came for, a better idea of what is needed by local farmers and district staff to promote efficient market-driven beef supply.
At the end of the day our approach to teaching is the KISS principle (“Keep it simple, stupid”). Clear, simple messages backed up with hands on activities and plenty of coffee breaks to allow the Australian and Lao team to develop personal relationships. In my opinion, building capacity of in-country staff is the only way to ensure that change transcends the lifetime of development projects. Over-complicated messages quite literally get lost in translation. However when all else fails in Laos, at least you can rely on the booming coffee industry to provide ‘turbo’ Dao coffee satchels which at least provide the guise of engagement.
Acknowledgement: This research activity is funded by the Australian Centre of International Agricultural Research and this support is gratefully acknowledged.
Peter Windsor, Professor Emeritus, Faculty of Veterinary Science, The University of Sydney
Siem Reap in northern Cambodia is one of the most familiar cities in SE Asia, with over 2 million visitors annually, due to proximity to one of the great wonders of the world, Angkor Wat and the temples of the Khmer Empire. The Angkor kingdom ruled the region from the 9th century, falling in the 15th century to become a vassal state ruled by neighbours. Cambodia became a protectorate of France in 1863, increasing in land area through reclamation of parts of the north and west from Thailand. Sadly, Cambodia is equally well-known for the genocidal regime of the Pol Pot Communist Party of Kampuchea that emerged in 1968 as the Khmer Rouge, seizing power and ruling over a bizarre attempt at agricultural reform led to widespread famine and the tragedy of the Cambodian genocide from 1975 to 1979, with ~4 million people lost. The Khmer Rouge were eventually removed from power by Vietnam in the Cambodian-Vietnamese War in 1979, although continued a guerilla warfare until 1994. Today the Kingdom of Cambodia is a constitutional monarchy with King Norodom Sihamoni as head of state, although the Prime Minister Hun Sen has now ruled for 32 years, over a population of almost 16 million people, of which ~80% live in rural areas and over 50% of employed people between the ages of 15-64 are engaged in the agricultural sector.
Angkor Wat is an immensely popular tourist destination in South-East Asia, as well as being an important cultural site for locals (Photo: J Young)
Our previous ACIAR-funded project in Cambodia (AH/2005/086, ‘Best Practice Health & Husbandry of Cattle, Cambodia) worked in the 3 southern provinces of Kampong Cham, Takeo and Kandal, establishing that because of persistent low returns from rice growing, smallholder farmers needed to diversify away from their dependence on rice and those with cattle that adopted high-yielding forage plantations, improved their livelihoods significantly through improved financial returns for beef cattle. Importantly, they had more time to establish additional enterprises, including the raising of chickens and pigs.
Cattle raised under traditional management practices are often used for agricultural work during rice planting and transport of produce (Photo: J Young)
Our new project (AH/2011/014, ‘Village-based Biosecurity for Livestock Disease Risk Management in Cambodia’) commenced in April 2015, and is a 3 year program that will test the best methods of establishing a preventative health system involving all species that addresses disease constraints to improved livestock productivity, ultimately enhancing smallholder livelihoods i.e. ‘healthier animals make healthier families’. Importantly, the new project extended the previous successes in Takeo and Kampong Cham, to the new south-eastern province of Tbong Khmum, and developed new project sites in Siem Reap in the north and Battambang in the north-west.
As our previous findings established that the most suitable ‘entry point’ for healthy cattle-raising was improving nutrition, the new project immediately began by establishing forage plantations (of Mulatto 2, Mombasa, Terenos and Stylo) in the project sites and by late 2016, a total of 292,600 square metres of forages were being cultivated in sites in the 5 provinces. Improved condition scores of cattle increased their value, an important achievement at a time when cattle prices declined approximately 30% due to the loss of the export trade to Vietnam (most likely a direct result of the Australian live export trade of feeder & slaughter cattle into Vietnam in recent years).
The project team inspecting the fenced off forages in Tbeng Lech in Bantey Srey district in Siem Reap of Mr Chuun Hean on 22/02/17 (Photo: P Windsor)
On a visit on February 21st 2017 to the project site in the village of Tbeng Lech in Bantey Srey district of Siem Reap province, 4 farms were visited where the forages were still thriving despite the severe evaporative heat of the mid-dry season. This was in part due to the occurrence of later than usual rains, but also the establishing of irrigation systems on all 4 farms to prolong the growing season and ensure the plantations survive until the expected onset of the monsoon in late May. The first farm visited had recently sold 3 of his 8 cows and invested in both a cattle-raising shed to commence a small feed lot when the rains return, plus a small but increasing poultry-raising enterprise, currently at 65 adult birds and 200 grower chicks, with an innovative styro-foam kerosene lamp egg incubation system enabling him to expand this enterprise. Two of the other 3 farms had diversified their enterprises in addition to growing forages for cattle, with one purchasing a valuable bull to provide stud services (at $10-15 per service fee), another expanding pig raising and vegetable growing, whilst the fourth farm had considerably expanded the forages, with an extensive irrigation system and fencing off of sites to prevent unwanted grazing.
The project team inspecting the forage plantations of Ms Buth & Ms Pros in Boeung Prey, Banan, Battambang province (Photo: P Windsor)
Of particular interest was that the 3rd round of FMD vaccination was occurring in Tbeng Lech during our visit. This village consists of 271 families, with about 110 cattle and 10 buffalo. Presentation of animals for vaccination and ear tagging had increased from 60% initially, to 70% at the 2nd round 6 months ago, and now over 80%. Increasing enthusiasm for vaccination is likely attributable to biosecurity training, although it is likely to have been motivated by a widespread FMD outbreak in Siem Reap province in January and February, involving 7 districts and including Bantey Srey, although not in Tbong Lech.
Official reports were that 651 large ruminants had been affected (including 12 buffalo) by FMD and that 19 had died (including 5 buffalo), although under-reporting is widely recognised as an issue for FMD control in Cambodia. The provincial and district offices of agriculture had administered 1,602 doses of trivalent FMD vaccine (O, A, Asia 1) to animals in villages surrounding where outbreaks occurred. It is hoped that the lessons of improved biosecurity and vaccination practices as a means to protecting more valuable better-fed cattle, has been understood by the villagers of Tbeng Lech and can be extended to other areas. During a training session in the village on the day following the FMD vaccination, very capably led by project extension specialist Ms Hok Chan Palleap, the 31 villagers in attendance (including 16 females) expressed their enthusiasm and gratitude to the MLR team (Windsor, Olmo and Alexander) for the project and the action learning that has been offered them through this ACIAR-funded project, supported by the Cambodian and Australian governments. As Cambodia rushes from the still recent tragic past (certainly in the minds of those born before 1975) towards a more prosperous future, it is projects like these that offer pathways for smallholder farmers to participate, albeit as relatively minor beneficiaries, in the economic transformation of their country and the South-East Asian region.
Farmer biosecurity training in Boeung Prey village in Banan district, Battambang Province, 23/02/17 (Photo: P Windsor)
Education of future Lao veterinarians at the National University of Lao in Nabong – a student perspective
Mason White, BVSc V student, The University of Sydney
During my final rotation of my fifth year of the Bachelor of Veterinary Science Degree, I was privileged to get the opportunity to travel to the National University of Laos’ Nabong campus with Professor Peter Windsor, Associate Professor Russell Bush and Dr Sonevilay Nampanya. The purpose of the visit was to participate in a workshop with educators of veterinary students at the Faculty of Agricultural Science, which aimed to review and propose improvements to the current veterinary curriculum. The experience provided great insight into education in Laos’, highlighted several of the many challenges associated with establishing and maintaining a veterinary course in a developing country.
The National University of Laos (NUOL) currently runs two veterinary degrees through the Faculty of Agricultural Science: Bachelor of Veterinary Science (BVSc), a 5-year undergraduate degree in its third-last year of operation, currently being phased out and replaced by the Doctor of Veterinary Medicine (DVM), a 6-year undergraduate program introduced in 2015, and due to produce its first graduates in 2020. With both programs combined there are 287 Lao students currently studying to be veterinarians, of which approximately 23-25 graduate each year. Having only produced its first veterinary graduates in 2013, the degree at NUOL is still very much in its infancy.
Photo: (from left) A/Prof Russell Bush, Mr Mason White, Dr Corissa Miller, Prof Peter Windsor & Dr Sonevilay Nampanya enjoying Lao BBQ!
Approximately 75% of Laos’ rural population live on less than USD 2 per day, receiving 50% of their household cash income from livestock production. Improving the quality of livestock farming, through veterinary assistance, represents a means of alleviating poverty and raising the standard of living for many Lao people. As such, the faculty’s goal is to produce capable veterinarians with a particular focus on the medicine and production of food producing livestock, in line with the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry’s aim to have 900 qualified veterinarians within Laos by 2020. However, as a young degree newly established in a developing country, NUOL faces a number of challenges in producing a sufficient number of capable veterinarians in keeping with the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry’s goal.
Photo: University of Sydney students vs National University of Lao students in volleyball!
Despite the government’s desire to increase the number of veterinarians in the country, only a handful (6-7) of government positions are made available for veterinarians each year. Whilst the course is tailored towards producing large animal veterinarians, remaining employment opportunities tend to draw graduates away from rural farming areas and into cities to work for non-government organisations or with small animals in private practice. Veterinarians in Laos appear to be in high demand – according to Dr. Vannaphone Putthana of NUOL, they are unable to produce a sufficient number of graduates to satisfy the number of potential employers contacting the university. Nonetheless, should the Ministry desire to produce veterinarians for the betterment of livestock farming in Laos, it appears that a greater number of employment opportunities must be afforded to graduates to keep them within the industry.
Another challenge that the university faces is obtaining sufficient teaching materials and facilities with the current government funding. When compared to the equipment that students at The University of Sydney are so lucky to have access to, the facilities at NUOL are relatively rudimentary. Whilst the laboratory has a variety of tools available to students, including several microscopes, textbooks and anatomical models, supplying disposable items – microscope slides, veterinary injectable drugs, blood analysis cassettes needed for day-to-day teaching and student learning – may represent an ongoing cost that cannot be maintained.
On a similar note, the current level of government funding afforded to NUOL enables the addition of one staff member only once every year or more. As a result, the veterinary department of the Faculty of Agriculture appears drastically understaffed. Whilst any given unit of study at the university could be taught by 4 or more academics in Australia, a single academic staff member at NUOL is solely responsible for teaching up to 4 units of study. When I participated in a practical class, the sole lecturer was responsible for teaching Histology, Parasitology, Pathology and Entomology. With such a large and broad workload, the help of support staff would be invaluable in ensuring that all educational material is created and delivered in a precise and comprehensive manner, but at this stage cannot be afforded.
Given these circumstances, electronic and digital learning resources have the potential to provide a relatively convenient, accurate and comprehensive source of learning material for academics and students alike. However, one of the greatest challenges faced by staff and students of the veterinary degree at NUOL is achieving a suitable proficiency in English. With limited veterinary literature published in Lao, there is a major reliance upon resources in the English language, and to a lesser extent Thai. During the workshop I attended, Prof. Windsor demonstrated the use of the Online Library of Images for Veterinary Education and Research (OLIVER) – an invaluable database maintained by The University of Sydney, to which educators at NUOL had been granted access. Whilst a multitude of information was accessible, feedback from Lao educators was that there was a great deal of difficulty understanding the English terminology, rendering the tool less accessible. The University of Sydney has also donated many English textbooks in the past, to assist the education of students at NUOL. During my visit I was shown two full book-cases completely filled with veterinary textbooks that were available to students, yet remained unopened in their original wrapping. This not only limits the opportunities for students to learn, but also limits foreign job opportunities – feedback received by NUOL from the Asian Veterinary Network about two graduates was that whilst their practical skills appeared adequate for the job, their ability to communicate in English was not.
Whilst meeting the standards of the OIE Model Veterinary Curriculum is a great challenge for a limited staff with few resources, there is abundant enthusiasm of the mainly young staff and great appreciation for any help provided. With the ongoing Australian Centre of International Agricultural Research (ACIAR) funded research projects in Laos, The University of Sydney will continue to provide support to work with NUOL towards meeting these objectives.
Photo: University of Sydney students receiving a tour of NUOL
Helen Law, Final year Veterinary Science Student, The University of Sydney
As part of my final year internship programme I was fortunate to complete a placement rotation within the livestock projects (ACIAR AH/2012/067 AH/2012/068) conducted by our Faculty in collaboration with the Department of Livestock and Fisheries (DLF) in Luang Prabang, Lao PDR. These projects are funded by the Australian Government through the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR) and my travel was supported by a successful application by the project leadership to the New Colombo Plan program. I attended this placement in October, 2016, with Brianna Smits, one of my close friends also completing the final year of the Bachelor of Veterinary Science at The University of Sydney.
Luang Prabang is a UNESCO protected city in the heart of Laos. It’s heritage buildings and lively main street full of cafes, restaurants and market stalls was a fabulous location to settle in and spend a month. Luang Prabang is located in a large valley surrounded by impressive mountains. During our stay here we spent time in the office at the Department of Livestock and Fisheries as well as out in the field, in the laboratory or at the SK Veterinary Clinic. This Luang Prabang clinic is possibly the only companion animal clinic outside of Vientianne Capital, as small animal clinics are rare in Laos and only have only recently emerged.
The SK Veterinary Clinic is located on one of the main roads in the town, just a short bicycle ride away from the DLF office. It is open from 9am until 7pm, 7 days a week. All of the clinics consultations are walk-ins and not by consultation appointment. The veterinarian is not always present during opening hours as throughout most of the day, they work at the DLF and are available to be called into the clinic by clients, plus spend their evenings at the clinic. Brianna and I spent a number of our evenings and some Saturday shifts with the clinicians at the SK clinic. This was an interesting, rewarding and challenging experience. The major challenge was the language barrier, making it especially difficult to obtain a thorough history. Kindly, the clinicians were more than happy to translate the history into English for us. It was interesting to compare the approach of clinics here to what we have seen in Australia, particularly regarding their lack of facilities. The limited diagnostics available made a thorough history and physical examination even more essential within each consultation. The clinic itself is quite small, consisting of one room with an attached bathroom/washing room. The main room acts as the waiting room, reception, treatment room, pharmacy, surgery and consult room, all rolled into one. It was impressive to see what could be achieved in such a small space.
Figure 1: Brianna and I, on our first day at SK clinic, treating a dog with dehydration
External parasites presented frequently at the clinic, with subcutaneous injections of ivermectin given to multiple dogs that presented with tick infestations. Rhicephalus sanguineus is the most common tick found in South-East Asia. Ticks are capable of a carrying a vast range of disease, including some zoonotic tick borne diseases including Ehrlichiosis, Anaplasmoisis, Heptazoonoses, Babesiosis, Dirofilariasis and Bartonellosis. The stray dog population in Laos is a reservoir for ticks and other external parasites, and with the warm, humid climate, this provides the ideal ecosystem for the maintenance of a large tick population. Regular parasite prevention in small animals did not seem as common here as what we have observed in Australia. Preventatives against ticks and fleas, such as Nexguard and Bravecto, would be ideal products to introduce into the Laos market and maybe the SK clinic will begin to promote these to the expanding client base in the future.
The SK Veterinary Clinic offers surgical neutering services, although none occurred during our time at the clinic. Interestingly, we saw a female dog present for an injection with methylprogesterone as a method of chemical contraception rather than performing an ovariohysterectomy. The clinic promotes vaccinations against such as canine distemper, canine adenovirus 1 and 2, parvovirus, parainfluenza virus, with additional vaccinations against zoonotic diseases, including leptospirosis and rabies. Rabies vaccinations are offered free to animals on Saturday and Sunday and disease prevention is an important and growing aspect of the SK clinic activities.
Parvovirus runs rampant in Luang Prabang and throughout Laos with plenty of clients presenting their dogs to the clinic with a high suspicion of parvovirus infection. Whilst working at the clinic we observed and treated quite a few dogs with suspected parvovirus, with the lack of diagnostic work up due to minimal facilities and financial constraints causes most parvovirus cases to be diagnosed presumptively.
An example was a 4-5 month old male puppy presented to the clinic one Saturday morning after 4 days of lethargy, inappetance and diarrhoea. The clinician had seen the dog the day before and had given it supportive fluids. On physical examination the puppy was very lethargic with an elevated respiratory rate with increased effort. The puppy had a prolonged skin tent and tacky mucous membranes indicating dehydration. While on the examination table the puppy produced some watery, dark and foul smelling diarrhoea. At this point suspicion of parvovirus was very high. A catheter was placed and a total of 300mL of 5% dextrose fluids was administered intravenously throughout the day, the puppy was also administered intravenous metronidazole. The dog was also given a vitamin injection and enrofloxacin intramuscularly as well as an amoxycillin-clavulanic acid injection subcutaneously. The clinician made up an oral medication containing metronidazole, L-dacin suspension (aluminium hydroxide gel, aluminium hydroxide, magnesium hydroxide and simethicon) and a cephalexin solution. The puppy remained in the clinic on fluids and under observation for most of the day and was picked up in the afternoon, by which stage it was looking brighter. The clinic is not well equipped to deal with critical patients, particularly overnight so the puppy was sent home with oral medications and subcutaneous fluids and directions to keep the clinic updated and to return the dog to the clinic if it needed more fluids or deteriorated. The puppy recovered and enabled us to witness a particularly interesting case in comparison to our experiences in Australia.
Overall, working at the SK Veterinary Clinic in Luang Prabang was a rewarding and a fantastic learning experience. We have enjoyed our time here at the clinic and are looking forward to see what the future holds for the SK Veterinary Clinic!
Figure 2: Parvo puppy receiving intravenous fluids
Image 5: Farmers are investing in feeding bunkers to feed forages to fatten cattle prior to sale to market.
Smallholder livestock owners in Laos traditionally keep cattle as a means of storing wealth and providing manure as organic fertiliser for cropping. However, this resource in recent years has been keenly sought by cattle traders supplying the rapidly expanding meat markets of south east Asia. Improving this resource by addressing the constraints to cattle health, production and marketing, is a major challenge as general livestock husbandry knowledge is low, as is livestock extension capacity of the mainly government provincial and district agricultural officers and the village-level village veterinary workers. However, improving the quality of their cattle herds offers an opportunity for smallholders to improve their livelihoods and potentially, the larger ‘cattle keepers’ and become early adopter smallholder ‘cattle producers’ by developing small to medium cattle production enterprises.
Photo 1: A new born calf in August 2016 in the northern Lao cattle herd of Mr Thong. Calves are usually born in the dry season in this and many herds when feed is short and cows struggle to feed their calves adequately. Calving at this time demonstrates the advantages of wet season calving during when feed is more plentiful and plantation forages are growing in abundance, provided good parasite control is achieved.
To address this opportunity, ACIAR are funding the project AH/2012/068 ‘Developing biosecure market-driven beef industry in Laos’, a research collaboration between The University of Sydney Faculty of Veterinary Science plus the Lao Department of Livestock and Fisheries, National Agricultural and Forestry Research Institute, National University of Laos and Savannakhet University. Recently, project co-leader Prof Peter Windsor and Dr Somevilay Nampanya from The University of Sydney, accompanied by Dr Mike Nunn, ACIAR Program Manager Animal Health and Mr Charles Olsson, proprietor of Australian stock feed company ‘4 Seasons Pty Ltd’ examined the cattle herd of Mr Thong of Ban Nou in Luang Prabang province.
Photo 2: This image is Dr Sonevilay Nampanya of The University of Sydney discussing cattle herd management plus forage plantations and the role of urea supplementation, with Mr Thong of Ban Nou near Luang Prabang.
When previously visited in February this year, Mr Thong had 103 cattle including 70 cows, 12 calves and 21 bulls, with an average estimated condition score of 1.5/5 due to limited grazing availability. However, he had recently agreed to participate in a trial examining the use of molasses urea blocks medicated (MUMB) with the anthelmintic fenbendazole, donated by 4 Seasons. This trial is examining this convenient technology that may control the parasite Toxocara vitulorum, recently identified in 76% of northern Lao herds and considered the most severe pathogen of neonatal calves, causing mortality rates commonly observed as 50% of calves. A major difficulty with managing this parasite is the minimal knowledge of farmers about the need for parasite control and the lack of restraint facilities and skills to enable routine treatment of calves with anthelmintics.
Photo 3: Cows & calves eagerly consume urea molasses urea (UMB) for nitrogen supplementation, improving herd condition scores and assisting herd management as cows are easier to muster due to their interest in the blocks, plus it is a safe and convenient method to provide anthelmintic control of parasites as fenbendazole medicated blocks (MUMB’s).
At the visit in February, in addition to provision of MUMB’s, Mr Thong was also provided with advice on managing his herd structure and the planting of forages to better feed his cows, particularly in lactation. When revisited in August, Mr Thong had followed many of these recommendations and recently sold most of his bulls and less productive cows, reducing his herd to 62 cows, 2 bulls and now 20 calves. The average estimated condition score was now 2.5/5, and he was delighted that his cows were fatter, all had shiny coats, there were no ‘shy feeders’, and there was no evidence of external parasites, meaning he had decided not to treat them with the expensive ivermectin product that he usually used to try and control parasites. He noted that the calving had been extended and now had more calves than he expected, with no losses, plus all the calves appeared to be growing more quickly. Much of these improvements he attributed to the use of the MUMB’s and was keen to obtain more, particularly as at this stage as there was little evidence of improvement in the availability of feed from his young forage plantation.
Photo 4: Dr Mike Nunn, Research Program Manager Animal Health ACIAR, negotiates a pathway through mud on the farm of Mr Thong, to examine cattle, MUMB feeding and recently planted forages, as part of project AH/2012/068.
Molasses urea blocks containing urea and bypass protein as a feed supplement for cows, is a commonly used technique used widely in tropical and subtropical cattle production in Australia. The ‘feeding the rumen’ provides the nitrogen required by cows to improve digestion of poor quality roughage, a major issue in the dry season in northern Australia and the Mekong, plus in many of the rice-growing areas of the Mekong where cattle are fed very low quality rice straw in the wet season due to the need to prevent them grazing rice paddies. The researchers consider the provisional data on improving the feed base with forages, supplemented with a safe source of urea in molasses blocks, is encouraging and could eventually prove to be transformational for Mekong cattle productivity. As the lick blocks can also provide a safe source of anthelmintics for control of parasitism in MUMB’s, the technology has considerable potential to improve the efficiency of cattle production by reduced calf mortality and improved growth rates, plus improve food security and reduce rural poverty by enhancing smallholder livelihoods in Mekong countries and beyond.
By Janet Nguyen (BVSc V student, University of Sydney, New Colombo Plan Scholarship recipient) – Janet traveled to Laos for 1 month to participate in the Australian Centre of International Agriculture Research (ACIAR) funded project aiming to enhance transboundary livestock disease management in Laos.
In late May 2016, Kate Sze-Kay Luk (also a final year veterinary student) and I embarked on a journey to Nan district, approximately one-hour drive from the popular tourist destination Luang Prabang in northern Laos. It was interesting seeing the steep inclines of utilised farmland which were noticeably unlike the flat plains I’m more used to in Australia. We arrived at a guesthouse which had basic facilities but I was thankful we were given a room and comfortable bed to rest in and the air conditioning was a bonus! In the afternoon we were invited to lunch with the Department of Livestock and Fisheries (DLF) staff members. Lunch was the now familiar bowl of Pho or Vietnamese noodles which provided a satisfying meal. In the evening we joined the DLF staff members again for a meal. The meal was novel to me and proved another delicious surprise. Dinner consisted of a bamboo basket of sticky rice and two dishes, both of which contained fish. The first bowl that arrived on our table was a soup dish and the second plate was laap, a somewhat spicy but refreshing dish with fish and various herbs. We were given a quick lesson on how the dishes were eaten; a handful of sticky rice was rolled into a ball which was used to scoop the accompanying dishes. Although we were new to this method of eating, we were happy to follow their example and enjoyed the new culinary experience!
Photo: Kate Sze-Kay Luk (left) and Janet Nguyen (right) trying out some Lao cuisine!
The next day we embarked on a short walk to the first village with our DLF vaccination team. Each vaccination team consisted of four people and there were four teams in total. Each team carried with them an esky with bottles of vaccinations for haemorrhagic septicaemia (HS) and foot-and-mouth disease (FMD) – both diseases are exotic to Australia – a box of needles and syringes and ear tags with applicators. We arrived at the Head of the village’s house and exchanged introductions and formalities.
I found it very interesting that both the ducks and chickens were free to roam around the front yard and scavenge food for themselves. Unlike the broilers in Australia, these birds were a lot leaner and more ambulatory as they did have have the same musculoskeletal issues seen in broilers in Australia. The husbandry practices and productions system in Lao PDR were completely different to Australia’s; in Laos poultry production is dominated by backyard systems which was a stark contrast to the commercialised systems in Australia. It was also apparent that veterinary services were limited especially in more rural areas. This made me ponder on the impact of infectious diseases. Although devastating, the impacts from major infectious diseases like Avian Influenza and Newcastle disease in backyard poultry would be quite different compared to in the commercial sector. The different production systems mean that approaches to biosecurity would need to be carefully implemented. It’s easy to imagine the impacts of a disease outbreak in a small rural village causing major implications on income loss for already poor families and human health.
Behind the Head of the village’s house there was a huge plot of land used for crops and animals. The first thing I noticed was the lack of a cattle crush for safe animal restraint. All the animals on this property were free to roam the area, however all of them had a rope which was a few metres long and attached to a noose around their necks and unlike in Australia, these animals were freely roaming unconfined by fences. I also noticed there was a lack of holding yards to gather the animals to a single location. Instead, the villagers would bring the animals up one-by-one by leading them on the free end of the rope. Using the length of the rope, a makeshift halter was made to help restrain the head while the animal was brought in closer to the tree. Once the animal was adequately restrained, a DLF staff member would approach the animal from the side and vaccinate the animal with the two vaccines. The first vaccination was the HS vaccine; this vaccine was administered subcutaneously in the lower part of the neck. The staff member positioned the beveled edge of the 18G needle almost parallel to the skin but slightly off the vertical. Each animal was given 3mL of the vaccine, administered on one side of the neck while 2mL of the FMD vaccination was given on the opposite side of the neck. The FMD vaccination was given intramuscularly below the vertebrae and higher up in the neck compared to the HS vaccination. I was quite surprised at how well tolerated this procedure was. The method of restraint here was something that was completely different to what I had been used to. In Australia, animals requiring a vaccination were moved into a crush or a race however here in Laos, only minimal restraint (of the head) was practiced. This presented safety concerns associated with this type of restraint, however the lack of facilities meant that this was unavoidable. I ensured I was out of harm’s way whenever possible by keeping a safe distance from the animal. The method of restraint did come across as a surprise to me initially however after vaccinating several animals I started to become more accustomed to the practice while remaining cautious. You make more effort to read the animal and watch its movements and demeanor. Along with the vaccination some animals also required an ear tag and this was predominantly done by a DLF staff member. It was a pleasure working alongside the villagers and learning more about their lifestyles. It was evident that in more rural areas livestock production is an important source of income and the initiatives to help safeguard this livelihood was evidently appreciated. After the morning vaccination session, we joined the Head of the village for a breakfast made by his wife and daughter. The display of food was quite interesting and I was taken aback by some of the exotic dishes. Like other Laotian dishes, sticky rice was offered and we helped ourselves to the chicken soup and spicy dishes. I was not attuned to spiciness of the dishes and although delicious I could not eat a lot of it. I was encouraged to try a delicacy consisting of fried grasshoppers and although curious, I was unable to overcome my distaste for insects. Following breakfast, we walked a kilometer up the road to another property to continue the vaccinations.
Photo: The students participating in large0scale FMD vaccination campaigns in northern Laos.
The next day we moved onto a second village. Again, we met up with the Head of the village and had breakfast before venturing out into the field to vaccinate the animals. This particular village raised buffaloes which I anticipated would present more of a challenge to us than the domesticated cattle. However, surprisingly the buffaloes were very quiet and although quite intimidating to approach were calm and quite familiar with the sight of the villagers. Again, restraint of these animals were quite minimal. Unlike the cattle from yesterday, most of the buffaloes did not have a noose around their necks and so the villagers had to catch them first before bringing them in to a tree or post. The process was slow but quite effective. The noose was secured in a slit made into a bamboo stick and this was used as an extension of the villager’s arm to catch the animals. Once the animal was caught, the loose end of the rope was tethered to a secure post before the animal was brought in closer. The head was restrained with a figure-8-like configuration made with the length of the rope. The approach to vaccinating buffaloes was similar to cattle and similarly an ear tag was given when required. Comparatively, I found it was more difficult to vaccinate the buffaloes as the skin was thicker and the buffaloes’ horns were a lot larger which obscured the view of the neck and presented an additional safety hazard. The terrain here was also more steeply inclined than the previous village and with the wet weather, getting around was more difficult. Overall the experience of vaccinating buffaloes was rewarding as it allowed me to work with animals which was an experience I have not had before. It was insightful to discover the relationship the villagers had with the animals and this made me realise that livestock animals are very much ingrained into their livelihood of the village folk and are important sources of income and food security.
The rest of the week was not dissimilar to the events of the first two days. On the second-to-last day I had the opportunity to work with another DLF staff member who devised a method to better safely restrain the animals. A fairly large branch was planted firmly into the ground and secured to a sturdy tree at the free end; this apparatus would then serve as the head restraint once the animal was walked in between the tree and the branch. I thought this was very clever from a practicality and safety point of view as it meant the animal did not require as much handling. The animals also seemed to cope with this method a lot better and did not resist it as much.
Overall the experience was a rewarding one. I observed many differences in the practices here in Laos compared to those used with Australian livestock. It was great to become a part of this initiative to help prevent important diseases seen in livestock production and it definitely provided me with a new found awareness of the exotic disease threats in the country. The experience also highlighted the importance of veterinary attention. In light of the economic and development situation in Laos, it is not always possible for livestock to receive immediate veterinary attention due to costs and limited (but developing) veterinary services. It is evident that the vaccination programs (and other preventive focused interventions) are pertinent as these major infectious diseases not only affect the welfare of an animal in the event of an outbreak but there’s also the major impact on human lives both economically and socially. As well as increasing my awareness of how veterinary services can be implemented in a rural setting, the experience gave me an insight into the rich Lao culture. It was quite exciting and novel for me to interact with the local villagers and share meals with them. Although the language barrier made communication difficult, I could still appreciate their warm gestures and open generosity. I learned to appreciate the basic necessities of living and the connectedness of the community was quite endearing to see. In rural northern Laos, technology was quite limited, food was cooked over a fire and air conditioning and internet were considered luxuries which many could not afford. Showering facilities were limited; most villages washed themselves using a tub of water and the toilets were not flushable which may come across as a surprise to some. These experiences have culminated to provide a greater understanding of the culture and despite some of struggles I faced, I could still appreciate and respect the Lao culture. I felt that this trip was definitely an eye opener. The lessons I’ve learned about livestock production and the culture in Laos were numerous and enriching.
Photo: Local Lao food delicacies!