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Americans working abroad: Jim Cullor

Progressive Dairyman writer Michael Cox Published on 11 September 2015

Fifty trips to China in the past 15 years may seem like the attribute of an avid adventurer with tunnel vision, but for University of California – Davis veterinary professor Jim Cullor, his trips abroad have one focus in mind: Improve the lives of dairy farmers around the world.

During his normal day-to-day job, Cullor is veterinary director of the dairy food safety laboratory at UC – Davis. It is during his “school holidays” and free time that Cullor carries out some of his most exciting work, helping to improve the dairy industries of Rwanda and China.

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Rwanda

“I got involved in the Rwandan project just over two years ago when Land O’Lakes required help with on-farm mastitis prevention in Rwanda,” Cullor explains. As a member of the UC – Davis Dairy Dynamic Management Group, Cullor has traveled with the group to assist Land O’Lakes with its USAID work in Rwanda.

His first task was to travel around the country and experience the local dairy industry firsthand, before the Dairy Dynamic Management team designed an education program to reduce mastitis in the Rwandan 1.3-million-cow dairy herd.

“To improve farm finance, you have to tackle their major problems. Mastitis is one of the biggest problems in Rwanda, and solving it would take the least amount of work to gain maximum benefit,” Cullor says.

Rwanda has a long, proud history of dairying. Milk is deeply embedded as a symbol of prosperity in the Rwandan psyche. The common phrase “gira amata,” the equivalent of “live long and prosper” in Western countries, literally translates to “have milk.” In recent times, the Rwandan government has built upon this sentiment and introduced the “Grinka Program” as a means of improving the dairy industry.

Grinka translates to “may you have a cow,” arising from a tradition of exchanging a cow as a sign of respect. Under the program, an in-calf cow is given to a poverty-stricken family, with the newborn calf being passed on to the next family in need. Between 2006 and 2017, 350,000 cows will be exchanged between impoverished families.

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For the Rwandan people, an expanded dairy herd could only be of benefit – provided they are healthy. Cullor has identified five key stakeholders that require education before mastitis prevention could begin at the farm level. These groups included two universities, a government department, “guerilla doctors” (local vets) and a private laboratory. The aim is for these groups to help farmers on the ground “manage their way out of using antibiotics.”

“The biggest challenge in all of this work was to reset our minds to how we farmed in the U.S. during the late 1800s,” Cullor says, citing that Rwanda has small family farms with minimal mechanization. “There’s no vaccinations, no nutritional knowledge, no herd health, no milking practices, etc., so it was like stepping back in time.”

Typical farm size is one- to four-cow subsistence farming. “Cows are milked by hand to feed the family first; if there’s a calf it suckles next; and if there’s any milk left it’s brought to one of the 135 collection centers around the country,” Cullor explains.

Dairy Dynamic Management is set to continue their efforts in Rwanda over the coming years. A weekly Skype meeting with the five stakeholders ensures progress is kept on track, and in late August, Cullor will travel to Rwanda in person to assess the program and plan future developments.

China

During the past 15 years, Cullor has traveled more frequently to China to assist the country with their dairy industry. His work in China poses different challenges, mainly due to variation in farm size from four-cow herds to 40,000-cow dairies. “A single focus on mastitis was unnecessary; we had to teach a little bit of everything from milking technique to parlor management to calf rearing to vaccination programs.”

Irrespective of farm size, the Chinese animal health and farm management skills present a major stumbling block to their development. “Right across the board, from the university veterinary programs to the herdsmen on dairy farms, the lack of knowledge and expertise is a major issue.

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In the Western world, we have strong veterinary programs, and preventative medicine is used alongside good nutrition and breeding management. These skills have not been developed in China.” Cullor says this skills deficit is not only hindering the industry’s development but is also affecting Chinese food safety standards.

While the recent melamine scandal made worldwide headlines, Cullor claims middle-class consumers are concerned with food safety standards of locally produced food, with salmonella, campylobacter, E. coli and brucellosis food scares a frequent feature of local news.

Despite these difficulties, Cullor acknowledges that China is adverse to imports, and future improvements in the country’s food safety standards could hinder the export markets of dairy producers in Europe, New Zealand and the U.S.

After decades of veterinary teaching and work abroad, Cullor claims the single-most important factor to successful and sustainable farming is training. “Training and education are crucial at all levels; it doesn’t matter if you’re a small holder in Rwanda or a 2,000-cow dairy farmer in California.”

Although increased skill levels will improve farm cash flow and profitability, for Cullor, his work abroad has a more important aim: “For me, it’s about trying to make one healthy village at a time; that’s my goal.”  PD

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