My entire life I have been surrounded by dairy. Avoiding milk, cheese and cows in a state like Wisconsin would be difficult. I was fortunate to live just down the road from my grandparents’ dairy farm and experience that way of life firsthand. My involvement in the dairy industry began with watching my father and uncles milk cows and my grandmother feed calves. Therefore, when I left the state, dairy farming was already a part of my identity.
For the past nine months I have been living in Senegal, a country the size of Wisconsin on the West African coast. I am here as a volunteer of the Young Adults in Global Missions (YAGM) Program through the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America (ELCA). Motivation to grow in my faith, experience living outside of the U.S. and continuing my work with agriculture is what prompted me to embark on a year of service.
When I was told that I would be working on a dairy farm, I immediately envisioned a state of the art milking parlor with automatic milkers (crazy, right?) much like what I was familiar with on my family’s farm. I knew I was going to rural Senegal, but nevertheless the image persisted. Imagine my surprise when I arrived and was greeted by a small herd of cows tied to a mix of trees and wooden stakes, ready to be milked by hand in the elements.
The farm began in 2004 as a collaboration between the Senegalese Lutheran Development Services (SLDS) and local herders to increase milk production. Senegal experiences an eight- month dry season. During this time, there is little to no rain and temperatures are typically above 100⁰F. All these factors contribute to a drop in milk production, which ultimately leads to a loss of income for the herders.
It was decided that crossbreeding the local cattle with European breeds like Holsteins, Jerseys and Montbéliardes would lead to higher production. The farm bought two bulls and several cows to begin the crossbreeding. Since this started, crossbred cows are now producing around 2.5 gallons during the dry season whereas the local cows were only giving two quarts. That is three times more than what the average local cow could produce!
Another issue that has been addressed is nutrition. Most local cattle receive their feed by eating local grasses. Such forages diminish, both in quality and quantity, the further we progress through the dry season. We now use a feed in addition to the grasses as a nutritional supplement. This added source of nutrition ensures milk production does not decrease as drastically as it once did. There is also the issue of land rights, which is becoming more problematic as the Sahara desert continues to expand south and herders compete for limited resources.
Area herders have the opportunity to enter one cow into the cooperative for $60 a month. This $60 provides access to one of the two bulls, a locked enclosure for protection at night, higher nutritional feed, and a portion of the profits that come from the milk that is sold through the cooperative.
Living in solidarity with our communities is a key component of the YAGM program. Part of this means that my job is not to come in and tell the farmers that they must adopt western agricultural practices. Any changes must come on the initiative of the local farmers. One example of this is when the herders decided to try in vitro fertilization with the local cattle. After a trial run, many herders were uncomfortable with the practice and it was discontinued. Dehorning cattle has never been attempted as horned cattle are valued.
The work that is being done through the cooperative is changing the herders’ lives. Improving the quality of feed and genetics of the cattle allows for an increase in milk production which substantially improves the income for many area farmers. This provides economic security and allows for access to education, medicine, and other important necessities that would otherwise be too difficult to obtain. One cow can now bring in $400 a month!
Dairy farming in Senegal is drastically different from everything I have ever known. I remember my ninety-year-old grandfather speaking of his days milking cows by hand as a boy. Here I am actually doing it! All of my muscles have been getting a workout from squatting down and using my hands the old school way. Yet, there is one similarity that I see between agriculture in Senegal and the U.S. – a deep and abiding love for the animals and the land.
Here, the sun turns to a cream color, I have never seen before, as it sets. It is watching the sun set as we are bringing the cows in to get milked, that I am transported to the days when I was a little boy helping my grandmother and uncles bring in the cows from pasture as the sun illuminated the landscape. The nostalgia I feel from those memories is strong.
My time in Senegal is rapidly coming to an end. I am continuing to treasure the work and all the memories that are being made. Wisconsin is where I first fell in love with the land, animals and the farming way of life. Senegal has continued to foster that love in a new context. I am forever grateful for my time here and look forward to sharing all that I have learned.
Nate Zimdars is a member of the Fond du Lac County Farm Bureau from Ripon. He is currently working at a dairy cooperative in rural Senegal through the Young Adults in Global Mission program of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America (ELCA). He will return to Wisconsin in July and continue working for the ELCA while milking at Zimdars Family Farm in addition to assisting on his own family’s hobby farm.