NAIROBI – Kenya has one of the largest dairy industries in sub-Saharan Africa with an estimated 3.8 million dairy cattle.
It is also one of the few African countries that produce enough milk for domestic consumption with the occasional surplus for export.
Between 80 and 85 per cent of milk in Kenya is produced by small- scale farmers. Kenyans are also some of the highest consumers of milk on the continent.
It is estimated at a per capita consumption of 145 litres per year, but in the recent past high milk prices have threatened to change the status quo.
Many consumers are now shunning milk for coffee due to the prohibitive prices that have been going up.
But if a new technology aimed at assisting livestock farmers produce up to 10 calves a year or get a milking cow in two years from the traditional 15 is anything to go by then Kenyans don’t have to worry about the price of their favourite drink.
The technology spells a near end to livestock fertilisation woes that have been responsible for low quality cows, which have had a poor milk and meat production effect.
Dubbed embryo transfer, the technology involves transfer of a fertilised embryo from a high yielding cow donor to the recipient which then carries it to the end of the pregnancy.
Embryo transfer allow use of local breeds, which are usually of low quality, and known as ‘surrogate’ mother cows by implanting embryos from high-yielding ones. Scientists prefer Borana and Zebu as surrogates due to their physical shape and good mothering abilities.
“The concept here is simple, any low-quality can give birth to many high quality offsprings in just an year, a huge departure from what we have been seeing with bull servicing or artificial insemination. Again, the process is not surgical,” says Dr. Maurice Cherogony from the East Africa Semen and Embryo Transfer Association.
The process starts with a donor being subjected to hormonal treatment known in veterinary science as super ovulation to trigger release of many eggs. The embryos are then harvested after seven days and are screened to test whether they are normal and later implanted into surrogate cows. The number of calves produced per super ovulation is between three and four.
“It is possible to induce a cow to super ovulate four to five times a year. Ten calves can be produced per cow per year,” he says. Farmers interested in the technology are advised on the procedures and a programme tailor-made for them is developed, complete with financing options. The project is supported by the regional World Bank East African Agricultural Productivity Project.
However, the prohibitive cost of the transfer has stood in the way of the farmers. A minimum package for embryo transfer is Ksh200,000, which enables the harvesting of embryos from three donors and a transfer to a minimum of five surrogates.
The association is, however, encouraging farmers to partner in groups or work with co-operatives to assist them meet the financial requirements.
The cost of producing embryos is between Ksh5,000 and Ksh7,000 per embryo which would not cost less than Ksh20,000 to buy or sell. A well selected embryo transfer calf costs Ksh150,000 at birth.