Improving the genetic merit of dairy cows is essential to increasing sustainable production and improving livelihoods and nutrition. Building on years of both CRP Livestock and bilateral projects work, this year, three top-ranked bulls were selected by the Ethiopian Livestock Development Institute (LDI) for use in the national Artificial Insemination (AI) breeding program. This has been achieved through a transformation in Ethiopia’s breeding system, brought about by the CGIAR and partners’ research, whereby farmers provide feedback on performance through a digital app ― thus facilitating feedback loops between farmers, extension agents, and the LDI.
Ethiopia’s population is rising by 2.57% per year and will likely reach 205.4 million by 2050. Incomes are rising, too, and the combination is putting pressure on provision of animal-sourced foods. To meet demand, agriculture ― including livestock ― must become more productive and efficient.
Dairy is key for Ethiopia’s economy. Around 85% of the population lives rurally, and livestock provides a living for about 80% of that population. Dairying is mostly practiced by smallholders and provides significant nutrition and livelihood benefits ― particularly for women and children. But most cattle are relatively unproductive, meaning there’s a missed opportunity to meet Ethiopia’s milk-producing potential and serve growing demand. Improved genetics is an essential element to boosting productivity while reducing environmental harm: Selecting animals for genetic merit means production can be increased while reducing the number of unproductive cows ― with positive impacts for land health and climate-change mitigation.
Under the Sustainable Animal Productivity (SAPLING) CGIAR Research Initiative, researchers are applying digital, genomic, and reproductive technologies to identify and deliver locally adapted improved genetics to smallholder dairy farmers, within the African Dairy Genetic Gains (ADGG) program. ILRI, LDI, Ministries of Agriculture and other national partners, funded by the BMGF, have established a national database, introduced an animal identification and registration system, and developed and implemented digital herd performance recording tools, platforms, extension services, and genomic evaluation pipelines for Tanzania, Kenya, and Ethiopia. This story focuses on ADGG activities, results, and outcomes in Ethiopia.
ADGG’s initial target was to register 12,000 dairy herds in each country, but in Ethiopia that number has been far surpassed, with over 58,000 herds and 134,000 animals registered between 2016 and 2022. The size and diversity of its database is growing. It includes 440,000 test-day milk-yield and 313,000 body-weight records, and genotype information for 6,000 cross-bred animals.
This has been used to undertake genomic evaluations, with results publicized in the national Cow and Bull Catalog for locally bred, genetically superior cattle. Three top-ranked bulls were recruited into the National Artificial Insemination Center for use in the national AI breeding program. A mobile app made the catalog available to farmers and breeding technicians, enabling them to co-select bulls based on phenotypic characteristics and genetic potential. Identifying, publicizing, and certifying top-ranked animals is opening doors for farmers to sell breeding cattle at better prices, and for buyers to develop confidence to buy a replacement herd from herds with records and information on genetics evaluation and secure loans.
To date, 73,000 semen straws have been extracted from three highly ranked bulls and are being used to breed cattle in 14 districts. This benefits many smallholders and saves the country about $702,000 in foreign exchange from importing bulls and semen: “Genomic selection enabled the evaluation of both locally bred and imported bulls. Semen selection of the top three genetically superior ones (i.e. the productive and locally adapted ones) was done from three ranked bulls, thus substituting semen imports and leading to increased genetic gains,” said Asrat Tera, LDI’s Director General.
Farmers are guided through a digital advisory system implemented with iCow. To date, 26,500 farmers have received 10,000,000 educational messages, while 5,300 have received 165,000 cow-calendar messages. Four digital training courses were developed with Farm-ink. Local infrastructure has been developed and capacity built to ensure gains are maintained beyond the project. The resources have also been used by postgraduate students for research.
ADGG has transformed Ethiopia’s genetic improvement to a two-way system that distributes semen and evaluates progress from the data collected and feedback. This required systematic animal identification and consistent performance recording ― crucial for sustained evaluation, identification, and use of genetically superior, locally adapted breeding stock. Identifying roles and responsibilities, strengthening collaboration, and strong government leadership and support were critical. Now, efforts must be scaled-up to attract long-term resourcing and investment for sustained genetic improvement, and its multiple benefits for Ethiopia’s dairy sector and other countries.
- Gebreyohanes, G., Meseret, S., Tera, A., Raphael, M., Nigussie, E., Ekine, C., Ojango, J., Lidauer, M., and Mwai, O.A. 2021. Scaling up and sustaining genetic improvement for increased milk production and productivity in Ethiopia: Lesson and policy recommendations from the African dairy genetic gain program. ILRI Policy Brief 32. Nairobi, Kenya: ILRI.
- Gebreyohanes, G., Meseret, S., Mrode, R., Ojango, J., Ekine, C., Tessema, E., Jufare, B., Negussie, E., Lidauer, M., Tera, A., Kahumbu, S., and Okeyo, A.M. 2022. Application of ICT tools and genomics technology for the transformation of dairy cattle genetic improvement in Ethiopia: ADGG approaches, experiences, and prospects. Proceedings of the 29th Ethiopian Society of Animal Production (ESAP) Conference, Addis Ababa, 28–30 October 2021.
- ILRI. 2020. Guide for the selection of genetically superior bulls and cows from the genomic evaluation using Ethiopian data. Nairobi, Kenya: ILRI.
- ILRI. 2021. Bulls and cows directory in Ethiopia. Nairobi, Kenya: ILRI.
- Meseret, S., Gebreyohanes, G., Mrode, R.A., Ojango, J.K., Chinyere, E., Hassen, A., Tera, A., Jufare, B., Kahumbu, S., Negussie, E., and Okeyo, A.M. 2022. The pathway to genetic gains in Ethiopian dairy Cattle: Lessons learned from African Dairy Genetic Gains Program and tips to ensure sustainability. Paper presented at the 30th Annual Conference of Ethiopian society of animal production (ESAP), Hawassa, Ethiopia, 15–17 September 2022.