‘Unlocking the value of the cow’: New project to identify the best breeds for East Africa’s small-scale dairy producers

woman and cows

A small-scale dairy farmer with her cows in Uganda. A new three-year project will identify and make available appropriate dairy cows for smallholders in East Africa to help them increase their milk yields (photo credit: EADD).

A new project identifying appropriate dairy breeds for small-scale farmers in East Africa, and making these breeds more available in the region, was launched in February 2011 at the Nairobi campus of the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI). The Dairy Genetics East Africa project—a partnership between ILRI; the University of New England, in Australia; and PICOTEAM, a consultancy group facilitating change processes—will help smallholders obtain the most appropriate cows for their farms so as to increase their milk yields and improve their livelihoods.

Speaking to dairy stakeholders from Kenya, including officials from Kenya’s Ministry of Livestock Development, the East Africa Dairy Development (EADD) project and other dairy industry development partners, at the launch on 9 February 2011, Okeyo Mwai, a researcher and the project’s coordinator at ILRI, explained that even though smallholder dairying is booming in parts of East Africa, such as in Kenya’s central region and the north and southern Rift Valley areas, where farmers have adopted improved animal breeds and intensified milk production, many more smallholders lack research-based knowledge about which dairy breeds are best suited for their farms and production systems and information about where to obtain them. According to Mwai, ‘Kenya’s dairy sector currently does not have a clear “breeding strategy.”’ That means that many poor smallholders are unable to take advantage of breeds that best suit their situations.

In the absence of appropriate breeding strategies and the ready supply of appropriate replacement stock, farmers face an unpredictable, unreliable and often costly replacement processes. Many are forced to replace their animals from their existing animals or from their neighbours. Others go to large-scale commercial farms and end up ‘upgrading’ to the main commercial dairy breeds even where these don’t suit their farms.

This project will determine the breed composition of cows currently kept in the project areas, the breeds smallholders prefer and the reasons for their preferences, and which breeds perform best under specific conditions. ‘This information will help us assess the relative fit of the various breeds to different production systems,’ says Ed Rege, a team leader at PICO. ‘We’ll then develop partnerships and business models with the private sector to breed, multiply and continuously supply the best-performing dairy breeds to farmers at affordable prices.’

The project will be implemented in five sites in western Kenya and three sites in Uganda. The first phase of the project will start with gathering information to assess the relative performance of breeds in the sites, setting up partnerships with other stakeholders in dairy development in the region and developing business models that will be carried out the later (phase 2 and 3) stages of the project.

In the first phase, project staff will collect information on about 3000 cows based on two monthly farm visits made over a period of 18 months. Field agents will compile information on the performance of the cows vis-vis farm-level inputs for a cost-benefit analysis of the different breeds. The agents will also collect information on farmer-perceived risks associated with different breeds, on means of livelihoods of the farmers, on any gender-specific preferences for certain breeds, and on farmer use of the various breeding services available and their costs.

The breed compositions will be obtained using advanced genotyping technology, which will be led by John Gibson, the project’s principal investigator, who is based at Australia’s University of New England. This information will be combined with cow and household data to identify the most appropriate breeds for various dairy production systems and household circumstances.

‘This project will harness the diverse expertise of the key partners, and combine the latest technologies with tried and tested methods of engaging with the community, to answer critical questions much more rapidly and accurately than has been possible in the past,’ said Gibson, who formerly worked at ILRI as a livestock geneticist.

Participants in the meeting expressed their support for the project, noting its focus on cattle genetic improvement—an area that has received inadequate research attention in the region. Alex Kirui, country director of the non-governmental organization Heifer International, said the project’s focus on ‘giving farmers the right breed for given circumstances’ is an essential requirement if the dairy industry is to be competitive enough to meet the high and increasing regional demand for fresh milk and other dairy products. Moses Nyabila, regional director for the East Africa Dairy Development Project, said the project would ‘unlock the value of the cow, which is a key asset for smallholder farmers.’

Results from the project’s first phase will guide future dairy pilot studies in East Africa and will inform a comparative study of the South Asian dairy industry.

The project is funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. It started in September 2010 and is scheduled to end early in 2013.

For more information visit: http://www.ilri.org/node/598

View presentations from the meeting

Improving cattle genetics with in vitro embryo production technology

Livestock scientists from ILRI and the Clinical Studies Department of the University of Nairobi (UON) recently succeeded in breeding Kenya’s first test-tube calf using a technique called in vitro embryo production (IVEP). IVEP makes it possible to rapidly multiply and breed genetically superior cattle within a short generation interval.
Why is this important?
For several reasons. First, livestock is the fastest growing sub-sector in the world, as increasing trends of 114% in demand for meat and 133% for milk attest. To improve on food security, it is essential to double livestock production in the developing world by 2020. IVEP is clearly one of the most efficient ways to accomplish this.

Second, let’s consider the problem of environmental impact. Doubling livestock production through traditional breeding techniques increases pressure on natural resources—water, land and biodiversity. So the need for enhanced efficiency without degrading natural resources is urgent. Again, IVEP, which requires only laboratory equipment in the production process, comes to the rescue.

Third, there is the biodiversity issue. Matching genotypes to environment is crucial. Scientists need to take several factors into consideration—among them adaptation, tolerance for disease, tolerance for new environments and alignment to market development. Although plenty of genetic diversity exists, thus far we’ve done little with it. Once more, IVEP could be the answer.

Fourth, IVEP has significant commercial potential because farmers can rent their best cows as donors and their lower-quality cows as surrogates.

Most importantly, we need to look closely at the constraints faced by small-scale livestock keepers.

  • Cattle genotypes and production environments, as often as not, do not match. Result:  low productivity.
  • Heifer replacement programs take a long time and are rarely done properly. Result: supply is low, prices are high.
  • Sex ratios are often disadvantageous. Result: too many males and high production costs.
  • The commercial relevance of many indigenous breeds is not optimised. Result: farmers incur unsupportable losses.
  • Programs for breed conservation and preservation are often improper. Result: some breeds are threatened by extinction and no gene pool for replacement exists.

IVEP does not—and should not—completely replace traditional reproductive technologies such as conventional embryo transfer (ET) and artificial insemination. Each of these techniques has its place, and each of them utilizes tissues, embryos and semen for improvement and reconstruction of cattle breeds. The difference is that while the traditional ET techniques involve more animals and are wholly done in the field, IVEP is undertaken in the lab and involves fewer surrogate animals in the field. IVEP eliminates the tedious steps of synchronizing donor cows.

Specifically, IVEP technology as a breeding tool has the distinct advantage of maximizing utilization of appropriate dam and sire genotypes by:

  • increasing efficiency of multiplication in breeding;
  • permitting  determination of sex of the offspring; and
  • permitting pre-testing of actual fertility status of the bull.

Thus, while natural mating or artificial insemination are necessarily slow and inefficient, producing only 10-15 offspring per life span of a cow …

…IVEP can produce up to 300 offspring per life span.

The SIFET Project: a successful IVEP program
The Sexed semen in-vitro fertilization and embryo transfer (SIFET) project was designed to exploit and promote the potential of applying IVEP reproductive technique to:

  • develop, multiply and disseminate female crossbreeds that appropriately match with production environment;
  • provide a system to preserve top bovine genotypes in cases of accidental culling in a recycle-like scheme (slaughterhouse collection); and
  • identify, multiply and conserve selected superior desirable breed traits.

The project involved collecting ovaries from slaughter houses or picking ovum from live cows. When the genetic material is brought to the lab, oocytes with high developmental competence are selected and morphological evaluation done. Once the ideal oocytes are identified, they are matured in vitro for 22-24 hours. The subsequent in vitro fertilization process is conducted for a period of 18-22 hours with a high sperm concentration. The fertilization itself requires removal of seminal plasma and extenders, separation of motile sperms from dead ones and induction of sperm capacitation. Once the embryos are formed, they are cultured in the lab for 7 days and then transferred to surrogates.

A conception rate of about 40% has been achieved, with calves born without abnormalities.

Conclusions

  1. IVEP technology is feasible in Kenya.
  2. Commercialization of the process should be facilitated as soon as supportive policies and proper legal/regulatory frameworks are in place

Challenges
Poor field heat detections leading to poor uterine synchrony and lower conceptions are concerns, as is the high genotype variability characteristic of animals brought to slaughterhouses.

Way forward and prospects
Looking ahead, the collaborating scientists anticipate bringing ovum pick-up (OPU) and cryopreservation into the picture as well as capacity building.

Clearly, such programs can help match breeds to appropriate production systems to ensure sound breeding programs. Where and when necessary, new breeds can be introduced within a relatively short period of time. Above all, embryos are far easier to transport across continents than live animals.

Through IVEP technology and well-planned crossbreeding programs such as SIFET that integrate the use of indigenous cows as donors and surrogates while using semen from appropriate (more productive and reasonably adapted) dairy breeds such as Jerseys, F1 heifers suited to the smallholder farmers’ conditions can be produced.

Niche markets for the technology and its F1 products should be further explored and exploited, notably with regard to the potential of forestalling the threat to key wildlife species.

Acknowledgements
Funding for the project was made available by Heifer Project International. UON provided the technical team and recipient animals. Administration and laboratory facilities were provided by ILRI. The cooperation of the abattoirs (the source of ovaries) and the animal owners are gratefully acknowledged. The capacity building program through a joint CNPq grant for the Embrapa-UON-ILRI partnership, as well as support from Dr Luiz Carmago and Dr Joao Viana of Embrapa, are highly appreciated.

The collaborating scientists are Mwai Okeyo, Henry Mutembei and Bridgit Syombua from ILRI; and  Erastus Mutiga, Victor Tsuma and Henry Mutembei from Clinical Studies, UON.

For more information, contact Dr Okeyo Mwai, Animal Geneticist/Breeder, Biotechnology Theme, ILRI, at o.mwai@cgiar.org.