Climate-Smart Cows May Boost Milk Production 20x in Global South

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URBANA, Ill. – A team of animal scientists from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign will deliver a potential game changer for subsistence farmers in Tanzania: cows that produce up to 20 times as much milk as native breeds.

The effort, published in Animal Frontiers, combines the milk-producing prowess of Holsteins and Jerseys with the heat, drought and disease resistance of Gyrs, a native breed of cattle common in tropical countries. Five generations of crossbreeding result in cattle that under typical Tanzanian management can produce ten liters of milk per day, exceeding the half-liter average yield of indigenous cattle.

After breeding the first of these calves in the U.S., project leader Matt Wheeler, a professor in the Department of Animal Sciences at the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences (ACES) in Illinois, is ready to bring embryos to Tanzania.

“High-yielding Girolandos – Holstein-Gyr crosses – are common in Brazil, but due to endemic diseases there, those cattle cannot be exported to most other countries,” Wheeler said. “We wanted to develop a herd with a high health status in the US so we could export their genetics around the world.”

Wheeler’s team plans to implant 100 half-breed Holstein-Gyr or Jersey-Gyr embryos into native livestock at two Tanzanian sites in March. The resulting calves will be inseminated over successive generations to create ‘pure synthetic’ cattle with five-eighths Holstein or Jersey and three-eighths Gyr genetics. Unlike Girolandos, Jersey-Gyr pure plastic does not yet have an official name.

Pure synthetics are worth the time and effort; Once the five-eighths/three-eighths genetics are established, they’re set. In other words, calves from successive matings will maintain the same genetic ratio.

“The whole idea is to keep disease and pest resistance linked to milk production so that these traits are not separated during breeding,” Wheeler said. “That will be the challenge in developing countries; until you get to the purely synthetic generation, there will always be the temptation to breed the bull further down the road and lose the effect.”

Wheeler’s team, including co-author Moses Ole-Neselle of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), wants to get this effort right. Although developing the embryos took years of painstaking work, they don’t stop there. The team hosted its first online course on bovine assisted reproduction technology last summer, which attracted 12 participants from Tanzania. And there’s more to come.

“It was important to start training the first group of veterinarians and graduate students to adopt the technology, so when we get there it won’t be a strange thing,” Wheeler said. “The Tanzanian government wants these training courses and student exchanges. We will continue to invest in this program as long as it is necessary.”

Wheeler recognizes that the best genetics and most comprehensive training won’t amount to much if the plan doesn’t take local culture into account. With advice from collaborators like the Tanzania Livestock Research Institute and Teresa Barnes, director of the Center for African Studies in Illinois, Wheeler has already adapted his strategy to the preferences of local Maasai herders.

“We learned that some Maasai clans have a strong preference for smaller, red cattle, so the Holstein crosses we initially created, which were large and black, would not work,” he said. “I had to start over with Jerseys, which put us a bit behind. It will be worth it if they are better accepted.”

But some aspects of Tanzanian livestock management will need to change to realize the full potential of improved genetics. For example, Wheeler said, nomadic Maasai herders often graze livestock 25 miles from their home every day, limiting the energy available for milk production.

Although the project is still in its early stages, it represents a step toward more climate-resilient livestock farming, the subject of the special issue of Animal Frontiers that publishes Wheeler’s article. While Wheeler’s current priority is strengthening food security in the South, where climate change is hitting hardest, he said the same technology could be used to protect livestock from changing climates here in the U.S. and around the world. In other words, tropical genetics could be introduced into our already high-yielding livestock to make them more resistant to heat, drought and disease.

“These cattle would work very well in Mexico, Texas, New Mexico and California. Maybe it’s time to think about that now,” Wheeler said. “People don’t normally think that far ahead, but my prediction is that people will look back and realize that having tropical genetics earlier would have been a good thing.”

/Public publication. This material from the original organization/author(s) may be contemporary in nature and has been edited for clarity, style and length. Mirage.News takes no institutional positions or parties, and all views, opinions and conclusions expressed herein are solely those of the author(s). View the full document here.

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