A project crossbreeding the local dairy breeds with the superior ones is hoping to boost milk yields by upto 6000 litres a cow per year with the belief that East African dairy sector holds the key to giving farmers meaningful income from agriculture.
The project led by researchers at Armidale’s University of New England (UNE), is working with local teams to develop an ideal dairy cow for use in the harsh African conditions. Professor John Gibson, who heads UNE’s Centre for Genetic Analysis and Applications, said the project had the potential to dramatically transform the lives of East African farmers.
“When you get them right, these dairy systems can literally double, triple, quadruple household income,” he said.
Dairy breeds have a long history in Africa, first brought to the continent by white settlers a century ago before British Friesians were imported in significant numbers for the first time from the 1950s.
Holstein cattle, which dominate dairy production in Australia, arrived in Africa 15 to 20 years ago. The dominant breeds of cattle in East Africa are native breeds, the Small East African Zebu and Ankole.
The project aims to determine the right content between the two groups in a crossbreeding program to maximise milk yields.
“The benefit of the native breeds is they’re extremely well adapted to the harsh environment of this part of the world,” Professor Gibson said. “They’ve got high disease resistance and good drought tolerance. “They will survive and thrive in areas where breeds like Holsteins will literally keel over and die.”
Professor Gibson said the right cross would take the best qualities of both animals to create a beast suited to the conditions while retaining the potential for high milk yields. “We want to combine that hardiness with the increased milk production potential of the exotic dairy breeds,” he said.
“The problem is actually worse than we thought; farmers have very little idea of what they’ve got,” Professor Gibson said. He said he believed this was caused by farmers selecting animals based on visual assessment.
“The inheritance of coat colour is very simple and is controlled by just one or two genes,” he said.
“There’s been a lot of selection for black and white coats because the assumption is if it’s black and white it must be high grade whereas that’s not the case, black and white just happens to be dominant over all colours.” A random sample of farmers in the region showed yields ranged from up to 2400 litres of milk per cow per year in the better regions down to 800litres in poorer country.
Some of the better country was not dissimilar to Australian dairy regions, he said. “Most of the dairying in Uganda is up on the highlands in subtropical, temperate environments,” he said. “In terms of rainfall and general conditions, those highland systems would not be that different to the main dairying areas in Victoria.”
The harsher, semi-arid country on the lowlands of Tanzania and Ethiopia was less conducive to the establishment of a dairy industry. “It would be like putting a dairy industry in Central Queensland,” Professor Gibson said.
Most dairy cattle in East Africa graze Kikuyu grass which is native to the region.
Professor Gibson said the project could increase milk production by an average of 600litres per cow per year.
“We’re talking probably Sh100 Sh200 extra income a day, which is the difference between being able to send their children to school or not being able to send them to school.”