JOHNSON CREEK — Maria Bendixen has always had ambitions to help people achieve their farming goals, working with agriculture producers on farm financial management for more than 15 years through UW-Extension and the Wisconsin Technical College system. She now has her own business, Cowculations Consulting, in which she continues to help farmers understand good cow and crop management and unlock the key to long-term profitability.
Several years ago, she took her ambitions international when she and a veterinarian colleague traveled to Kenya to help a small group of farmers with their operations, sharing her story with attendees of the 2019 Wisconsin Outstanding Young Farmer awards banquet.
Bendixen and her colleague traveled to Kenya to work as a team to educate about 20 farmers on profitability and animal care. She provided ideas for feed storage and how the farmers could improve feed quality for their animals, as well as financial suggestions, while her veterinarian friend performed lots of cow pregnancy checks. Bendixen also spent some time studying the farmers’ bean plants, providing education on cultivation and nutrient recycling.
The farms they visited were about 2.5 acres with two dairy cows providing 15 pounds of milk per day. The farmers were growing a variety of crops, including maize or corn and potatoes, and had an interest in cow genetics from the U.S. They also had lots of Guernseys, and had an interesting way of harnessing their cows.
“They were tethering all their animals by their feet instead of haltering them,” Bendixen said. “And I was actually surprised at how well it worked. It just goes to show that we think we know what we’re doing, but we can learn something from everyone.”
The farmers were worried about biosecurity when Bendixen and her colleague visited farms, asking them to wash their boots before entering their farm, which Bendixen found a bit surprising.
Bendixen and her colleague were also interested in what the farmers were feeding their animals. Cows were eating straw, cornstalks and Napier grass, a tall grass that looks like cattails, along with any kind of waste product, such as carrot tops and weeds. Most of the crops were harvested by hand, with little machinery appropriate for farming in the mountains.
The cows were also being fed “dairy meal,” which came in a sack with no feed tag detailing what was included in its contents. Bendixen said she made it her mission to find out what was in the dairy meal, eventually learning it was all byproducts. Interestingly, retailers charged more for the dairy meal than raw corn and bean products as it was marketed as a premium product.
Other than cows, farmers raised a variety of other livestock too. There were lots of chickens, with farmers taking extra care to protect the eggs by placing a lock on their nesting boxes. Sheep, goats and camels were also kept; camels were raised for a milking operation, and are not native to Kenya, Bendixen said.
The farmers were primarily selling their crops at roadside stands while milk produced was sent to a co-op called Khura Dairy Farmers Milk Bar. Farmers would deliver their milk to the milk bar, where people lined up with plastic bottles, sometimes for as much as 45 minutes, to get milk, if there was enough available for that day. After getting their milk, people would then have to go home and boil the milk as it is not tested at the milk bar.
If there is leftover milk from the dairy bar, it is brought to a larger dairy plant, where it is packaged and pasteurized for a larger market.
People in this Kenyan community processed all their monetary transactions through their cellphones, Bendixen said. Locals said it is more secure than carrying money and makes stealing money more difficult.
She also commented on Kenyan transportation, which was either by foot, oxen or donkey. Roads were very muddy and rutted, and people packed into vehicles and onto bicycles.
“Everything was a bus,” Bendixen said.
The women had one day during their trip to explore on their own, taking in a tourist safari, where they saw rhinos, giraffes and more.
Along with sharing her experiences in the world of Kenyan agriculture, Bendixen also spoke to the eight Outstanding Young Farmer finalists about financials and profitability ahead of the awards dinner Jan. 27.