How scientists and farmers creating climate and disease resistant livestock for Africa

A man tests sheep for diseases in Bako, Ethiopia. Photo by: Barbara Wieland / ILRI / CC BY-NC-SA

CANBERRA — Visiting Brisbane in November for the International Tropical Agriculture Conference for 2017, Director General of the International Livestock Research Institute Dr. Jimmy Smith discussed with Devex a range of new and exciting programs his organization is delivering to help create climate and disease resistant livestock for Africa.

“In the past, livestock research has not had the benefit of the crop world where generation intervals are short,” Smith explained. “In cattle, the generation intervals are long, so to breed can take years and years. Using genomics now, we can find genes that improve livestock and move them around quickly. This allows us to make genetic improvements at a much faster rate than we could have with traditional breeding.”

The new programs use genomics to look for disease and heat resistance in livestock and understand the adaptive traits.

“It is creating a bit of excitement,” Smith said. “We can get productivity traits up, disease resistance up and enhance adaptive traits to climate change. That’s the new science.”

With research progressing rapidly, Smith believes 2018 will see ILRI deliver a number of findings and outcomes that will help better understand livestock genetics, diagnose and treat diseases, and develop healthier and more productive livestock in Africa.

How genomics and breeding programs will create resistant livestock

ILRI research programs are focused on large crossbred livestock in the developing world — particularly Africa.

“We are looking to find elite animals which we can identify through their ability to adapt and produce well in the developing world,” Smith said. “And then we want to be able to move these traits into the wider, larger population and use these wider populations to get them in the hands of farmers.”

Advancing genomic technology will enable the faster dispersion of “good” genetic traits.

To create animals that can better adapt to climate change, for instance, Smith said ILRI is “trying to understand how heat tolerant traits are conferred genetically, identify these genes and concentrate them within populations.”

The programs include similar scientific and genetic approaches to building disease resistance in livestock including the targeting of a big killer of livestock in Africa — east coast fever.  

While there is a vaccine for east coast fever, the price puts it out of reach for many farmers. “It’s the malaria of cattle,” Smith said. “Once an animal gets it, they are likely to die.”

By accident, ILRI researchers discovered that the progeny of one bull were all resistant to the disease. “We didn’t breed it — it was serendipity.” And it started a program of research to identify the genes producing the disease resistant livestock.

Identifying the best breeds requires data

Important in identifying the animals with particular genetic traits of interest is the collection of data from farmers. For ILRI, this is meant changing traditional approaches to livestock reporting.

“Traditionally, small-scale farmers in Africa in particular don’t collect data on the animals,” Smith explained. “They don’t keep breeding or production records, so we had no basis of information on livestock populations to begin with.”

Designing a method that would encourage farmers, including smallholder farmers, to collect and share information on their livestock populations has been important to the ongoing research.

“One of the things we are doing is giving farmers the capability to record the performance of the animal, upload their information into our servers and were provide back to them an analysis of the data with information about their performance,” Smith said.

In designing the program, Smith said that it was a prerequisite to ensure farmers could see results quickly from sharing their information to the program — and it has helped get thousands of farmers working with them in the target countries of Ethiopia, Kenya and Tanzania.

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“Two thing that helped us get farmers on board,” Smith explained. “One was that farmers themselves can see the benefit of keeping records and making improvements to their herd. Getting back information that they can use is a key reason for getting them involved.”

“The second thing is the electronic means of data collection that we are providing. In the old days, farmers would have had to fill in paper forms, have the forms collected and little analytics supplied back. The electronic age has allowed us to create services for farmers to share information through cell phones.”

Better record keeping and analyzing livestock performance is being embraced by farmers, but while each farmer is interested in his or her own population it is also allowing ILRI to look at the population as a whole, to identify the best animals and get them into breeding programs.  

Good genetics versus productivity

An unintended consequence of good genetics, Smith said, can be poor or reduced productivity. “Certain breeds of animals that are tolerant and resistant to diseases or heat are not always the most productive ones,” he said. “The most productive one tend to be highly susceptible to diseases.”

As part of the research, Smith hopes ILRI can close the gap between resistance and productivity.

“By understanding what it is and how it is that this resistance is conferred genetically, we can move these genes to those that are highly productive but susceptible,” Smith said.

The pursuit of a low-emissions cow

Researchers are working to identify cows that naturally produce less methane, hoping to spread these genes throughout the global livestock population.

Improved productivity is equally important in reducing the carbon footprint of livestock, particularly cattle, as well as feeding growing populations. “One of the biggest thing you can do in the developing world is increase the productivity of the animals,” Smith said. “If the animals that gives two litres of milk today can give ten in a few years’ time, you can see how you can cut emissions.”

There are many steps to look at performance traits, Smith said — from a genetic standpoint, as well as better feeding and better husbandry. “This not only reduces emissions, but as the demand for milk, meat and so on goes up, you don’t have to add more and more animals to respond to the demand. If you raise productivity you can meet the demand with fewer animals.”

And Smith believes the research, science, data and technology are now all combining to produce livestock that can best tackle current and emerging challenges in developing countries.

Read more Devex coverage on agriculture and livestock.

About the author

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    Lisa Cornish

    Lisa Cornish is a Devex Reporter based in Canberra, where she focuses on the Australian aid community. Lisa formerly worked with News Corp Australia as a data journalist for the national network and was published throughout Australia in major metropolitan and regional newspapers, including the Daily Telegraph in Melbourne, Herald Sun in Melbourne, Courier-Mail in Brisbane, and online through news.com.au. Lisa additionally consults with Australian government providing data analytics, reporting and visualization services. Lisa was awarded the 2014 Journalist of the Year by the New South Wales Institute of Surveyors.