The ILRI 2018 Annual Report> In the field

ILRI/David Aronson
A dairy farmer in Tanzania checks her phone for updates from program scientists

Scientists and farmers swap information for more profitable milk production

Cell phone apps and emerging genomic tools are giving farmers and scientists the information they need to improve dairy cattle in Africa

By Ekta Patel

The International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI), in conjunction with partners including local software developers, developed an information and communications system to sustainably improve dairy cattle breeding in east Africa. In a mutually beneficial partnership, smallholder farmers input data via cell phone on their cows’ key performance indicators and in return receive advice in the form of text messages on how to improve their animals’ health and productivity. The information collected from large numbers of smallholder farmers gives scientists with ILRI’s African Dairy Genetics Gains (ADGG) project the database they previously lacked, enabling them to properly evaluate breeding programs, while the advice the farmers receive serves as an incentive for them to continue participating in the program.

In east Africa, India and throughout the world, thousands of farmers depend on dairy cows for income. Previous studies indicated that crosses between indigenous and commercial dairy breeds are best suited for sustainable and profitable smallholder dairy systems. Smallholder farmers with crossbred cows that are properly tended and fed achieve much higher milk yields (at about 1,400 kilograms per lactation) compared to local cows (which typically produce only about 400 kilograms per lactation). This increase delivers dramatic improvements in household income.

The data the scientists gather enable them to help the farmers’ cows become more productive. The cows stay healthier and produce more milk, and farmers make more money.

Farmers and their cows are registered through a phone-based information and communications applications called iCow, developed by Kenyan social entrepreneur Su Kahumbu, which records a variety of key performance indicators. Using the short message systems, or SMS, the farmers share constraints they face with their dairying and in return receive short informative messages pertaining to their animals, for example, on husbandry, disease, feeds etc.

The data the scientists gather enable them to help the farmers’ cows become more productive. The cows stay healthier and produce more milk, and farmers make more money. For example, Stanley Ngugi, a dairy farmer in Githinguri, Nairobi, has four cows and two calves. Using the information from iCow, he de-wormed his cows, used feed inputs, and reduced the number of visits he had to make to the local veterinary clinic. He also lowered the incidence of mastitis—by milking out the animal and keeping the udder dry—based on information provided from iCow.

(Credit: iCow)

To date, more than 100,000 households and 170,000 cattle have been registered on the platform. Over 6.2 million educational, informative messages have been sent, targeted to meet the specific needs of the farmers, address their concerns and aid their management decisions.

Through independently facilitated quarterly meetings, an opportunity has been created for stakeholders to routinely engage with each other and to discuss the challenges facing the dairy industry, and co-create possible solutions. These discussions created new partnerships and linked farmers to markets and input supplies. By sharing information on, for example, the best feeds and animal health services, the farmers have been able to improve their herd health and increase milk production.

More than 100,000 households and 170,000 cattle have been registered on the platform and more than 6.2 million educational, informative messages have been sent.

In Kenya, ADGG has partnered with governments at the regional and national levels by providing an entry point for informed institutional and policy interventions. One of the projects involves collecting semen from selected bulls that will be used (through artificial insemination) to breed hundreds of thousands of farmers’ cows, thus resulting in more efficient and profitable future cows and potentially benefitting millions of farmers and consumers.

In short, work that began just three years ago has already achieved significant results. It has established digital national smallholder mixed-breed dairy herd performance recording platforms, demonstrated the application of genomic technologies to initiate genomic predictions in smallholder, mixed-breed situations and developed cell phone-based information and communication technology systems to send feedback to farmers. This work provided a foundation to address new challenges such as identifying and responding to feed/feeding, animal health, market access and gender-related equity issues.

Better lives through Livestock

The Human Face of Sustainable
Livestock Development

International Livestock Research Institute2018 Annual Report

Ethiopian girl drinking milk produced by the family cow
ILRI/Apollo Habtamu


Jimmy Smith (l) received a doctorate with honoris causa and gave the commencement speech at the University of Melbourne, Australia, on 6 Dec 2018, with Lindsay Falvey (r).
University of Melbourne

2018 was a year of continuing progress and solid achievement for ILRI—and for that we remain both grateful and proud. Thanks to our staff, our partners, our donors and the governments with whom we work, ILRI is helping countless farmers and other stakeholders in the livestock sector in the developing world live better lives through livestock. It is helping to raise household incomes, improve human nutrition and health, fight devastating livestock diseases, breed more productive and drought-resistant animals, redress gender imbalances, enhance biodiversity and develop livestockrelated policies that will address, mitigate and adapt to climate change.

In past reports, we’ve noted that the global demand for animal-source foods continues to grow rapidly in developing and emerging countries, a phenomenon we’ve dubbed the “livestock revolution.” In Africa, for example, the demand for livestock-derived foods is projected to increase by 80% from 2010 to 2030, mostly because of population growth. Asia, already the largest consumer of livestock-derived foods, will see a nearly 60% jump in consumption—and much of that will be due to rising incomes and greater urbanization.

The breadth of the opportunities these figures represent requires new science and new research results that are taken to scale. This report highlights just a few of the many activities ILRI staff have undertaken in the past year.

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In the field

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We thank ILRI's many partners and donors