Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Hybridizing Cattle Can Help Improve Farmers' Well-being

Summary by Anthony Jilek of his recent trip to Nicaragua and how crossbreeding programs and record keeping can improve livelihoods for small dairy and livestock producers.

Jerry Nolte, Julio Cisne and his herdsman evaluating Julio’s pastures near Matagalpa
Most farmers in Nicaragua follow a very traditional system of dual-purpose livestock production. This means that the cows produce milk and the calves are raised for meat. Modern practices of management are not often followed. No production records are kept on the cows, and yields are simply calculated by dividing the liters of milk sold by the number of cows milked. The managers of slaughter plants have stated the cost to slaughter a 600 kg animal is the same as the cost to slaughter a 450 kg animal. Therefore, the larger animals are preferred. This includes cattle like Holsteins, Brown Swiss, and Brahman, large, late maturing breeds. Most steers are slaughtered at 3 ½ - 4 years of age. Heifers, young females cow without offspring, do not calve until they are that same age. The meat from these mature animals can only be exported as hamburger meat, which receives the lowest price in the market. Furthermore, calving intervals (time between consecutive calves for the same cow) is usually 2 years or more.

For many small cattle farmers in Nicaragua, these factors have led to reduced farm income and quality of life. Unfortunately, many areas of Nicaragua suffer through extended periods with little or no rain (dry season) which can place further stresses on a farmer's herd. The high maintenance and input requirements for these large animals can further reduced income per manzana (the Nicaraguan land measure equal to 1.74 acres). Nicaraguan livestock producers in these tough climatic conditions need access to records on their calving cycles so they can plan according to season. Moreover, there is an impending need to expand and improve artificial insemination as well as the tracking of conception rates, pregnancy rates, and the reproductive efficiency of the cattle herd.

Victor Ivan Diaz Mendez, Norberto Zamora Rivera, Jerry Nolte, Omar, and Tony Jilek discussing individual cow records and their importance to selection and genetic improvement at Victor’s farm at Pantasma
In light of these challenges, the focus of m Nicaragua F2F assignment was to teach farmers and hosts organizations how to keep and utilize individual cow records in a selection program. Selection is one of the methods of making genetic improvement in the herd. Throughout my various visits, I discussed the value of establishing an individual cow record keeping system with weighing the milk from each cow every 28 days or every month. Lactation could be calculated along with production curves from this estimated milk production for the month. During the first two months of lactation, a cow will increase milk production, then plateau for a month or two, only to decrease the daily amount produced. For maximum farm production, it is necessary to maximize the number of those peak points. This is attained by having a 12 month calving interval. It is imperative to include calving dates on the individual cow record from which calving intervals can be calculated. While nutrition plays a large part in calving intervals, selection for the more fertile cows (shorter calving intervals) will improve fertility.

Tony Jilek, Jerry Nolte and Leonardo Castro discussing modern calf raising system at Leonardo’s farm at San Ramon
The second part of the teaching was to encourage farmers to establish a crossbreeding program. Many farmers in Nicragua are using what I would consider a random or haphazard crossbreeding program. They use whatever bull they can find or afford. A crossbreeding program has two major advantages: 1) combining the positive traits of two or three breeds into your production, and 2) heterosis (or hybrid vigor), the improved function of a biological quality in hybrid offspring. Under adverse conditions present in Nicaragua, it is essential that farmers take advantage of these two factors. A three way rotational cross would allow the farmers to combine the positive traits of three breeds and would maintain a high level of heterosis. A simple way to implement this system would be to use artificial insemination. This also removes one animal from the farm and its nutritional maintenance requirements.

Most farmers I had the chance to work with appeared to be very receptive to these recommendations and asked many questions, implying that they were willing to try to incorporate them. However, more specific results will only be available after sufficient time has passed so that we can tell whether they followed through on the implementation of these recommendations. The value of record keeping has been demonstrated in the US close to a century ago; however, the use of computerized systems in the milking parlors in the US is a technology that has not reached the majority of the producers in Nicaragua. About three years ago, I was able to secure hundreds of strands of genes to inseminate cattle in Nicaragua, and the resulting calves should be reaching milking age (heifers) and slaughter age (bulls). The benefits of a systematic crossbreeding program have been demonstrated in many countries around the world and should show similar benefits in Nicaragua.
Link to article: here
Personally, I have been working with Nicaraguan agriculture since 1971 and have had numerous F2F assignments in Nicaragua. The future for milk and meat production in Nicaragua is high quality grass-fed cattle. The production of high quality beef (tender, juicy and flavorful) on pasture requires high quality forages throughout the year so that the animals attain 450-500 kg before 24 months of age. It also requires early maturing breeds that are good grazers and at least one of the breeds should be adapted to the region. Heterosis, from a rotational crossbreeding system, would add to the potential of attaining these animals.

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