New Research Aims to Breed the Ideal Dairy Cow for Africa

GLOBAL - A PhD student from Scotland’s Rural College (SRUC) will combine social science with animal genetics in an attempt to help African dairy farmers breed the ideal cow for their environment.
calendar icon 9 June 2016
clock icon 3 minute read

Aluna Chawala's innovative approach means he won't just study the cows, he will be closely observing the humans too.

Aluna's PhD has been funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation which aims to lift the poorest people out of hunger and poverty, and he plans to use the data he gathers to create practical breeding goals for African dairy farmers, so that their livestock is adapted for an African system, rather than a Western one. The project is a collaboration between SRUC and the Nelson Mandela African Institute of Science and Technology in Tanzania.

Aluna, who is studying at SRUC’s Dairy Research and Innovation Centre in Dumfries, will spend hours chatting with and observing African farmers to try and identify the key genetic traits required to help grow the dairy industry on a continent where farmers can make as little as a few pounds a day.

“There has historically been a lack of understanding around what breed companies consider to be a good dairy cow, and what is actually a good dairy cow in Africa,” Aluna explains. “The environment is so different over there, in terms of weather, feed and diseases, that we really need to breed a completely different type of dairy cow. But first we need to know exactly what that dairy cow should be.”

Breeding dairy cows so they produce more milk, while staying healthy and living for many years is now run of the mill in countries like the UK, yet in Africa farmers make do with traditional techniques, and indeed are often using breeds which are completely unsuited to the conditions. In the UK dairy cows can produce 50 litres of milk a day, but to do so they need huge amounts of food and water, something scarce in many parts of Africa where the average cow produces just five litres a day.

There will be many elements that may be important in the ideal dairy cow for the African system, high milk yield could be less important than disease resistance for example, as there are many infectious livestock diseases to contend with, but Aluna really won’t know what the key genetics traits will be until he spends time with the farmers in Tanzania.

He will then combine the data collected from the farmers with animal performance data to get a balanced view of the required breeding strategies. Aluna believes that using this very different approach should allow him to build up a truly detailed understanding of dairy farmers, something that previous surveys have failed to do.

“The problem with quick fire type surveys is that the farmers do not build up a relationship with the researcher and so they may not feel comfortable enough to be completely honest. They might be worried that certain answers might make them look bad, and sometimes people simply can’t think of the answer in the sort time they have with a scientist. Also survey questions may be interpreted differently by different respondents, and so the results can be misleading.”

Instead of coming armed with clipboard and pen, ticking of preferred traits and visited farmers, Aluna will take a more social anthropological approach, staying within the community, spending many hours with the same farmers, watching them at work, and through conversations and observations he will build up a clearer picture of the traits these farmers need to grow their dairy sector.

This completely different approach is certainly a novel one in animal genetics, where data and statistics tend to rule, but Aluna believes that it is the only way to build up an accurate picture of what African dairy farmers really need.

“It will be very different to a lot of the work I have done before,” Aluna admits. “But I think it will yield good results because I will be able to develop a more complete understanding of the farmers’ priorities and processes, and the challenges they face.”

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