Did it ever cross your mind that cows, goats, sheep and all animals have tribes, families, clans and other family groups much like human beings do? Or that keeping track of those families is as important as it is for human beings?
Understanding livestock families’ means understanding the parents of an animal, specific characteristics like the dominant colour of their skin, the likely weight it should have, the amount of milk or taste of meat it should produce when properly fed and its ability to cope with certain environments. It also involves understanding what feed and how much is best for that “tribe” (breed) of animal to produce the best milk or meat.
Keeping records on the identity of livestock and their performance in a specific environment is a key strategy to changing the milk and meat industry. It is a practice that has been carried out for many years in parts of Europe, Australia and America but remains unused in Africa.
Over the last decade, an increase in trans boundary trade of animals with a concurrent shift in zoonotic diseases has resulted in an increased demand for traceability of livestock products. A group of scientists and researchers brought together through a collaborative project of the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) and the Swedish Agricultural University (SLU) promoting capacity in the sustainable use of animal genetic resources in developing countries strive to ensure that the concept of livestock recording remains at the top of the livestock agenda for African governments.
In November 2013, the ILRI-SLU project team, in collaboration with The African Union Interafrican Bureau for Animal Resources (AU-IBAR), and the Food and Agricultural Organisation of the United Nations (FAO) held three consecutive workshops – one each in West &Central Africa, Eastern Africa and Southern Africa- to reflect on progress made and strategize for the best way forward.
Samuel Mbuku is one of the champions from the ILRI-SLU training. He grew up herding cows, sheep and goats in Kitui County in Kenya’s Eastern region. The area is marginal, perhaps the last frontier giving way to the harsh terrain of the arid lands in the east of the country. Yet, Mbuku remembers even in that terrain, their cows produced 6-7 litres of milk as late as 1990. Today, those animals have ‘disappeared’ and all they get is cows that produce 2 litres “if we are lucky! And, the number of animals has also reduced. The average per household now is 3 cattle- 2 bulls for draught power and 1 cow.”
Curious, I ask why? The answer shocks me to a reality I have not quite reckoned with until now.
“Indiscriminate cross breeding and inbreeding levels are high. It means fathers may mount their daughters, or siblings mount each other due to small herd sizes. This has led to a stunting of indigenous breeds mainly comprising the hardy short horn zebu, and therefore, reducing their competitiveness”.
To revert these trends and improve the levels of production, there is need to have sound breed development programmes in the country. These should involve all stakeholders in the value chain continuum, especially farmers whose needs have been overlooked. A first step he suggests, is developing simple livestock recording and monitoring methods.
“When you have records, you can evaluate and select the most desirable animals to be used as parents of the next generation. Which production and fertility traits are you looking for? Is it more milk or better tasting meat?” he poses.
In Kitui, eastern Kenya, cows are producing 3 litres of milk a day compared to the 7 litres of milk they produced in the 1990s due to indiscriminate breeding.
An Egerton University graduate with a BSc in animal production, and an MSc in animal breeding from the same university, Mbuku enrolled in the third group of the” SLU-ILRI training in 2008 during his first year of employment at the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (KARI). He has since gone on to pursue a doctorate in genetics through a sandwich program between Egerton and the University of Kassel in Germany.
The initial training received from the ILRI-SLU program helped him take a new look at Kenya’s Boran cattle national breeding program. He suggests that the future of the program will be digital as it is possible to trace breeding bulls using the internet by describing the parameters one needs. He is proud of his role in championing the pride of indigenous animal genetic resources at various policy platforms in Kenya. ‘I am a member of various national taskforces on animal genetic resources, and currently, the national beef co-ordinator in KARI’, he says.
Hassan Ally Mruttu is another champion of the ILRI-SLU project, and currently Tanzania’s principal livestock research officer. He is based in Dar es Salaam at the ministry’s headquarters. He first encountered the science of animal breeding while studying for his undergraduate degree at the Sokoine University. He stayed the course through his Master of Science degree at the same university and following his involvement in the capacity building project, went on to take his PhD at Marathwada Agricultural University (MAU) in Maharashra State, India.
“Animal genetics and resources (AnGR) is my passion. We must carry out characterisation up to genomic level for our populations in Tanzania because we must know what we are conserving. We conserve a gene pool, however, using it for improvement of productivity of a population is dependent on its intrinsic characteristics,” he said on the sidelines of the Eastern African workshop which was held in Kigali, Rwanda.
“We need a benchmark on characterization”, he said recalling that he had initially started his PhD training in Tanzania basing it on characterization. Unfortunately, he had to stop and move out of the country to study due to lack of funds.
His appointment as research coordinator for animal genetic resources gives him the interesting and privileged position as chair for the animal identification, registration and traceability which are key areas in the profession of animal breeding.
‘We want to go systematically‘, he says, stressing that ’no one knows whether we have strains or breeds‘, while easily adding that the Zebu in India has 37 breeds. Tanzania now has a strategic plan and the livestock policy is well elaborated while the breeding act is currently before parliament.
It was his first encounter with the SLU/ILRI team in Ethiopia 2011 that encouraged him to know that there were others with more knowledge and yet others with limited resources like him, all willing to walk the journey together.
Interest, mentorship from the project team and recognition by peers have kept him on Tanzania’s livestock map. Prior to this encounter in Ethiopia, ’I had several people who ‘harassed’ me’, he says. There was however this senior administrator called James Kundaeli K. Msechu to whom Mruttu shall forever remain indebted. He involved Mruttu thoroughly in work related to animal breeding and following his death in 2011, his successor never left Mruttu behind.
Please find the workshops proceedings here:
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