Australian students experience smallholder cattle farmer productivity research and extension in Cambodia
Authors: Holly Harrison, Holly Laurence & Rhiannon Phillips
Editors: Peter Windsor & Isabel MacPhillamy
During June and July 2017, the authors, Rhiannon and the Two Holly‘s, all final year Honours students from the Bachelor of Animal and Veterinary Bioscience degree (BAVBioSci) in The Sydney School of Veterinary Science at The University of Sydney (USYD), travelled to Cambodia to conduct applied research projects within the larger ACIAR-funded project “Village-based biosecurity for livestock disease risk management in Cambodia”. The students were based in the capital city Phnom Penh working with the local partners in the General Directorate of Animal Health and Production (GDAHP) and collaborating with project team members from both the GDAHP and the University of Sydney.
Each student was tasked to prepare a survey that aimed to explore with smallholding farming families, several different aspects of their farm production system. The Honours project topics included: cattle reproductive health; vaccine usage, availability and storage; and gross margin budget analysis of interventions used to improve livestock productivity. Under the guidance of the GDAHP team members, the students travelled to project village sites in the provinces of Takeo and Tbong Khmum, where they met with 12 smallholder farmers and their families, inspecting their livestock-raising facilities and conducting interviews to gather information for their research. This was achieved with the help of a local team GDAHP members Phallaep and Vitou as translators plus USYD PhD student Katherine Ashley who has developed reasonable fluency in Khmer language during her thesis work.
The local farmers were enthusiastic and graciously offered their help, plus samples of their produce, including coconuts, grapefruit, mangosteen and peanuts. Of course this all was well accepted by the hungry students keen to broaden their experience of Khmer cuisine. In addition to appreciation all of the fresh produce, the students thoroughly enjoyed meeting the farming families and learning details of the constraints to smallholder production in Cambodia. It was clearly apparent that livestock have an important socioeconomic role in Cambodian rural livelihoods and cattle in particular have been increasingly important with low return to rice production and other commodities. Forage growing for the feeding of livestock was found to be far more beneficial than the growing of rice and other crops, including cassava and most vegetables.
Figure 1. Project participants at the cattle reproduction workshop learning thoracic auscultation with a stethoscope to examine cattle.
One of the highlights for the students was being able to interact with the village children and spend time learning about the rural society, culture, education and history in Cambodia. Many of the older farmers experienced the ‘ground zero‘ history of the ‘Pol Pot time‘ during the disastrous genocidal Kampuchean Khmer Rouge (KKR) revolution of 1975-1978. However, there were many smiling faces when the students tested their newly acquired fledgling Khmer language skills and particularly when Holly Harrison gave some of the children Koala toys delivered all the way from Australia!
Figure 2. Farmers in Sen Ouk village collecting forage seedlings to improve cattle nutrition and reproduction.
The research team visited two businesses that supplied veterinary medicines and vaccinations to smallholder farmers and their information enabled Holly Laurence to assess the availability of these products within Cambodian rural communities as part of her research. Much needs to be done to ensure a satisfactory ‘cold chain‘ can be developed in rural Cambodia that can deliver efficacious livestock vaccination, particularly for endemic Foot-and-Mouth Disease. Rhiannon was fortunate to be able to stay on for a week and attend a cattle reproduction workshop for 25 participants, hosted by the GDAHP courtesy of HE Dr Sen Sovann and in-country ACIAR project leader Dr Suon Sothoeun. The workshop was conducted by the Australian team of Professor Peter Windsor, Bega Veterinary Practitioner Peter Alexander, and USYD PhD student Luisa Olmo who is examining cattle reproductive health. The first day addressed reproductive anatomy and physiology, measurement of reproductive outcomes, and work on understanding constraints to reproductive efficiency. The second day was practical training at the Tamao Breeding Station in Takeo where participants were trained in clinical examination, body conditions scoring and pregnancy testing. The next day the research team visited the Sen Ouk village project site in Takeo for a project meeting with a grateful and enthusiastic group of farmers involved in the distribution of forage seedlings to improve cattle nutrition.
This reproduction workshop was for Provincial and District officers working in animal health and production, encountering the challenges of working with farmers expecting cows to regularly deliver calves from low condition score Haryana and Indigenous crossbred cattle in rural Cambodia. Previous work by the USYD-GDAHP research team established that Cambodian cattle have a mean inter-calving interval of 20months (in Australian beef cattle the target is 12months). This low reproductive efficiency is considered mainly due to endemic nutritional anoestrous in Cambodian cattle provided with poor nutrient availability from the largely ‘cut and carry‘ feeding system in widespread use, particularly in the wet season. Rhiannon presented her preliminary findings for a draft calving calendar that encourages alignment of calving with seasonal availability of a rising plane of nutrition when energy demands of lactating cattle are 2.5x those of dry (non-pregnant) cattle. The calendar was very well received and useful feedback was provided, enabling Rhiannon and the team to progress her work and understanding. As some attendees have commenced artificial insemination activities in response to demand for better quality cattle, future training is planned that will address problems of advanced reproductive technology in cattle.
In conclusions, the BAVBioSci Hons students, supported by New Colombo Plan mobility grant funding, enjoyed learning about the Cambodian smallholder productions system and participating in research that is improving the livelihoods of the rural poor in this most interesting of countries. They also appreciated the rich culture and history of the Khmer population, both during their work and in ‘down-time‘, visiting many historic locations, including the spectacular temples of Angkor Wat and the strangely dark and sobering monuments of the KKR killing fields. Like many visitors to Cambodia, these contrasting experiences are challenging and informative, although unlike most tourists, the Hons students gained much deeper insights into rural Cambodian life that enabled them to connect and communicate with famers for a much richer experience of Cambodia.
Figure 3. BAvBioSc Hons students Holly‘s and Rhiannon with Phaleap (far left) visiting project site villages in Cambodia.
Authors: Cameron Grundy and Georgia Andrews (reviewed by Isabel MacPhilamy & Peter Windsor)
Cameron and Georgia were in Laos for four weeks in June/July this year as part of their final year rotations in Public Practice rotations, obtaining hands-on experience of the challenges faced by the veterinary personnel and extension workers involved in smallholder livestock development activities in northern Laos. In addition to contributing to management of a variety of interesting companion animal cases at the SK Vet Clinic in Luang Prabang, including a case of suspected rabies, they were particularly fortunate to have the opportunity to participate in serological monitoring activities evaluating the Foot-and-Mouth Disease (FMD) Vaccination project, a program involving strategic administration of over 1.6 million vaccines into large ruminants in northern provinces between 2012 to 2016, aimed ultimately at developing an FMD-free zone with vaccination in northern Laos. Cameron and Georgia visited the local farming communities of Vang Vieng, a town known as popular tourist destination in northern Laos on the Nam Song River and surrounded by picturesque mountains. These communities had recently participated in the FMD vaccination program, and were now having the immunity of their cattle and buffalo tested. This allows researchers to determine to level and duration of immunity provided by vaccination in the local Lao bovine species and breeds. They submitted the following blog.
“To test for immunity to FMD following vaccination, the team needed to obtain blood samples, an activity that made us extremely grateful for the farm facilities we have in Australia. As most livestock farmers in Laos are ‘smallholder farmers’, generally owning less than 10 head of cattle/buffalo, the finances available to purchase conventional cattle crushes are absent. Nevertheless the teams and farmers are quite resourceful in their ways of restraining their cattle. Some may say even better than a few hobby farmers many Australia cattle vets have had to deal with! In most cases the animals were restrained between a tree and a metal ‘bleeding pole’ that works in a similar fashion to the head bail in a crush. Tail jacks are then implemented to restrain the back end of the animal. While this system may still pose a slight danger to the person collecting blood, it generally works quite well and the pole can easily be moved between farmers and villages, so is very cost effective. Ideally, as cattle production and incomes increase it would be great if each village could afford to have communal cattle crushes, as long as appropriate biosecurity measures are established to prevent risks of disease transmission. After the blood is collected the samples were stored until the serum was separated and frozen for later analysis in the government veterinary laboratory in Vientiane.
Image 1. Cameron jugular bleeding a cow in northern Laos to enable post-vaccine serological monitoring for FMD antibodies; note the use of a wooden bleeding pole enabling restraint of the cow.
This field trip was a great opportunity to witness the conditions involved in both animal health activities and those of the smallholder farmers. We were able to see where the cattle and buffalo are grazed and housed, with current risks of disease transmission that are faced by many smallholder farmers, clearly observed. FMD is caused by the highly contagious FMD virus, with multiple circulating serotypes which need to be established so that the correct vaccine is used when implementing vaccination campaigns. In the developed world during an FMD outbreak, many affected animals have traditionally been slaughtered in effort to contain outbreaks. In the developing countries such as in Laos, the slaughter of animals does not occur as cattle representing the household “bank” and governments cannot afford paying farmers compensation for the loss of their animals. All of these factors highlight the need for increased biosecurity practices, vaccination programs and public awareness campaigns targeting FMD.
Image 2. Cameron and Georgia examining a canine patient at the SK Vet Clinic in Luang Prabang in Laos during their final year BVSc Public Practice rotation
The importance of disease prevention was further highlighted when we were invited to participate in an Australian Centre for International Research (ACIAR) led goat production and marketing workshop held at the Department of Agriculture and Forestry Office in Luang Prabang. This workshop involved participants from University of New England, University of Sydney, National Agriculture and Forestry Institute, National University of Laos, and the Lao Department of Agriculture and Forestry, along with representatives from NGOs and Agroforestry. The workshop was aimed at identifying areas within the current goat production systems that require research, including identifying the current markets that are being accessed by goat traders both within the country and in neighbouring Vietnam (it is believed that currently about 3,000 goats a month are sent to Vietnam from Laos). This was a great experience for us to witness the collaborative efforts required in resolving current production issues facing the emerging Lao goat industry. These experience as enabled us to gain a better understanding of the challenges faced by the Lao animal health sector and the enormous efforts that are required to create a more food secure country with improved rural livelihoods for some of the poorest people in the SE Asian region. Importantly, we observed how veterinary and animal scientists working in academic institutions with and supported by organisations such as ACIAR, OIE (the World Organisation for Animal Health) and NGOs, can contribute significantly to the development of rural communities and help combat regional poverty.”
Image 3. Georgia jugular bleeding a cow near Vang Vieng in Laos to enable serological examination for antibodies FMD following vaccination, using a wooden bleeding pole.
“We conclude this with a big thank you to our Lao government hosts and the MLR team for having us this past month, plus the Australian government for financial support for us through the New Colombo Plan. We’ve had a really amazing and enjoyable time in Vang Vieng and Luang Prabang, with special thanks to Phiwanh who has been amazing, looking over us at the clinic everyday. We can’t wait to tell students in the year below what a great place Laos. Hopefully you can get many more students here in coming years to experience the important work done by the DLF & USYD with assistance from ACIAR, in addition to the work of other agencies in helping improve Lao smallholder livelihoods.”
Prof Em Peter Windsor, 17/06/17
On Thursday June 15th, 2017, members of the MLR team from the Lao DLF (Dr Syseng Khounsy) and USYD (Drs Peter Windsor and Sonevilay Nampanya, with project coordinator Isabel MacPhillamey & PhD student Luisa Olmo), crossed the Nim river by ferry (Figure 1) and visited an interesting ‘cattle bank’ enterprise in Boungpao village, Toulakhom District, approximately 60km from Vientiane capital. This occurred during a field trip to inspect the local manufacture by Mr Vanthanouvong, of 6 mechanical forage ‘choppers’ ordered by the in-country Lao project leadership. The cost of each chopper is USD190 for use with a hand tractor, or USD310 if required with a motor. These devices are considered essential for improving the utilisation of high fibre forages (e.g. Napier and Guinea grasses) for cattle fattening and potentially silage production (Figure 2). The choppers will be provided to our 4 collaborating provinces (LPB, XK, XB, SAV) & 2 universities (NUOL & SavU) by our research project on development of a biosecure beef marketing system for Laos (ACIAR/2012/068).
Figure 1. MLR team on ferry crossing river to village (from left: Peter Windsor, Luisa Olmo, Isabel MacPhilamey & Syseng Khounsy)
This ‘cattle bank’ is a private enterprise initiative of the Phonesack company, supported by high level Lao government officials. This village enterprise involves 60 local farmers, and has been in operation for almost 3 years (reputedly similar operations are occuring in other locations). Each farmer needs to have at least 5 cows and is expected to grow forage to enable fattening by grass-fed feed-lotting (Figure 3). The co-operative enterprise provides an extra ‘crossbred’ cow (Brahman x Indigenous breed) ‘on loan’, with the first calf returned to the co-operative, the 2nd retained by the farmer, the third passed to another farmer, and the cow and all further calves then considered to be owned by the farmer. Matings are arranged by payment for service using superior bulls owned by several of the farmers in the village. All cattle in the enterprise are vaccinated regularly for Foot-and-Mouth Disease and Haemorrhagic Septicaemia.
Figure 2. Mr Touay Vanthanouvong demonstrating use of one the 6 forage choppers currently being prepared for ACIAR project AH/2012/068
With the wet season now commencing and increasing available forage for feeding, the cattle in the inspected feed-lot appeared to be flourishing and the owners interviewed were pleased with the initiative. However, the history of ‘cattle banks’ have not always been positive and whether this initiative proves to be sustainable, particularly with the obligations of the ‘calf return’ process, remains to be seen. With the current market demand for beef in Vientiane exceeding local supply, the current situation for expansion and improved efficiency of beef cattle production in Laos appears strong, despite the significant increase in cattle numbers into the region in recent years, particularly from Australian live cattle exports into Vietnam, Cambodia and potentially China.
Figure 3. Sonevilay Nampanya, Mr Touay Vanthanouvong & Syseng Khounsy observing cattle in forage feed-lot fed chopped fresh forages
Whilst these are positive developments for the livelihoods of many smallholder and semi-commercial Lao farmers, the expansion of the Lao cattle trade also raises some important issues that need to be managed. In particular, increasing live trade leads to significant increases in the risks of transmission of infectious and non-infectious diseases respectively. The principles and practices of animal biosecurity plus improvement of the current veterinary surveillance system and veterinary and animal science training capacity in Laos, is becoming increasingly important for Lao livestock farmers and other stakeholders, including policy makers.
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