A Global Agricultural Research Partnership

The quest for the best of breed; improving animal genetic resources

Increased productivity in Ghana from fast-growing Nile Tilapia.

Kenyan vet Bridgit Muasa has set her sights high. In a region where women dominate livestock farming, but only account for one in four agricultural scientists, she is pinning her hopes on developing a ‘super cow’, to improve productivity for local cattle rearers. A veterinary officer with the Kenya Ministry of Livestock Development, Muasa has been mentored in the African Women in Agricultural Research and Development (AWARD) program by Karen Marshall, an animal breeding scientist at the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI – a member of the CGIAR Consortium).

Muasa is now on a 6-month research attachment with EMBRAPA in Brazil, working on the cryopreservation of cattle embryos. Using assisted reproductive technologies, she is focusing on improving animal genetic resources, “building a sort of ‘super cow’ by breeding exotic cows with indigenous cows, and so getting the best attributes from each,” as she explains. “For this we use the technology of in vitro embryo production”

The right mix

Initiatives to improve livestock genetic resources can have significant benefits for smallholder incomes, as well as spinoffs for health and nutrition in local communities. In Senegal, new genomic approaches are enabling scientists to identify the breed composition of individual animals and determine which breed mix would be best for farmers.

A rapidly developing peri-urban dairy sector outside Senegal’s main towns has led to cross breeding between traditional West African breeds, such as Maure, Zaouak and Zebu Peul with European dairy breeds such as Holstein-Freisian and Montbeliard. But the absence of pedigree records has made it hard to keep track of the mix. The ILRI-led initiative to target cross breeding for specific conditions includes training, to help livestock owners manage their animals in the most efficient way.

In Ethiopia, where poultry production is particularly important to women, another ILRI project is developing a poultry breeding program to improve resistance to infectious diseases and increase productivity. A key aim is to identify genes that can be used in cross breeding programs to produce more disease resistant chickens. Each year, epidemics of infectious diseases result in the death of large numbers of birds, causing serious losses to poor farmers.

Community-based breeding

Meanwhile, in several marginal dryland countries, community-based livestock breeding is improving yields of sheep and goats for poor herders, especially in remote communities. Since modern livestock breeding methods are often unsuitable for poor households with small flocks, the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA*) and partners have developed a more sustainable alternative — community-based breeding programs focusing on indigenous breeds and suited to smallholder conditions.

Community-based breeding increases the productivity and profitability of indigenous breeds without undermining their resilience and genetic integrity. Farmers are trained in better selection methods, for example, retaining fast-growing ram lambs for breeding, rather than selling them young. Help in setting up record systems enables livestock keepers to monitor the performance of individual animals, leading to continuous genetic improvement.

Bigger profits, more nutrition

Fish are not being left out of the drive for better breeding programs. Two improved breeds of Nile Tilapia (Oreochromis niloticus) developed by WorldFish* and partners are achieving growth rates that are up to 30% faster.

In Egypt, a selective breeding program has produced the ‘Abbassa’ strain of Nile Tilapia which has a faster growth rate and superior harvest weight than the most commonly used commercial strain. This will help to provide affordable protein for many Egyptians, including almost 20% of the population that the CGIAR Research Program on Livestock and Fish reports is living on less than $1USD per day.

In Ghana, the ‘Akosombo’ strain developed by the Water Research Institute (WRI), in partnership with WorldFish, matures in as little as five months, compared with eight months for unimproved Nile Tilapia. The move is not just benefiting producers. It is helping to boost the country’s booming aquaculture sector.Ghana’s tilapia production is projected to increase tenfold by 2015. Said WRI fisheries expert Dr. Felix Attipoe “Most of the hatcheries have adopted the new strain as their brood stock, and are producing fingerlings for the whole industry.”

Photo credit: Daniel Jamu (WorldFish)

For more information:
Latest from Agriculture for Nutrition and Health
Latest from Livestock and Fish
Latest from Aquatic Agricultural Systems
Kenyan Bridgit Muasa on cross-breeding ‘supercows’ for Africa (ILRI Clippings)
Reducing the impact of infectious diseases on village poultry production in Ethiopia (
Community-based livestock breeding: ideal for remote communities (ICARDA)
Fast-growing Nile Tilapia bring vast benefits (WorldFish)
Increased productivity in Ghana from fast-growing Nile Tilapia (WorldFish)

* members of the CGIAR Consortium

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