Breeding, an important step in dairy farming

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When a farmer does not know which bull served their cow, there are high chances of the farmer serving the cow’s daughter with the semen from the father. This is called inbreeding.

Breeding is an important aspect of modern dairy farming anywhere in the world. However, small-scale farmers lack even the most basic skills in dairy cow breeding which is a big problem to the development of the livestock industry in the country. Selection of the right animals to breed is crucial for any profitable dairy farming enterprise. Before inseminating their cows, farmers should at all times know which bulls have desirable qualities so that they can pass the characteristics into their dairy or beef cows.

More than 3.3 million (99% of dairy farmers) in the country use Artificial Insemination (AI) services. Unfortunately, most farmers do not know how to select semen from high quality bulls. They do not keep records to show which bulls were used to serve their dairy cows. When a farmer does not know which bull served a particular cow, there are chances of the farmer serving the cow’s daughter with the semen from the father, which would cause inbreeding. Inbreeding is the process of mating closely related animals and should be discouraged.

Research shows that less than 5 percent of farmers in Kenya keep their dairy cow records. This means that 95 per cent of dairy farmers do not keep any records that could help them avoid inbreeding and upgrade their dairy cows to their full potential in milk production. Research also shows that 75 per cent of farmers in the country are exposed to inbreeding due to lack of proper animal records.

What is inbreeding?

To understand what is meant by inbreeding, let us revisit the relationship between animals and how inbreeding affects their health and productivity.

All animals carry genes that determine certain characteristic such as the height of the animal, colour, shape, milk yield and fertility. Although all cattle have good genes, some have bad genes that remain hidden if their young ones are born of parents which are not related. Animals from the same family carry the same genes or traits including bad ones - when such animals are mated, the young ones of these animals will inherit these bad genes or traits from both parents.  Such animals often develop many problems including complications that lead to still births (giving birth to dead calves) stunted calves, poor fertility, frequent diseases and even deformities. 

In order to avoid such traits, scientists recommend that animals sharing great grandparents, grandparents or parents should not be mated. This means that family records of the bulls and cows should be checked before any mating is done so as to make the correct choices of bulls and cows.

Why is inbreeding common in Kenya’s AI services?

Before 1990s, the Kenya National Insemination Service, now renamed Kenya Animal Genetic Resource Centre (KAGRC) managed to control inbreeding through a number of measures:

1. Bull semen was rotated between regions after every 2 years.

2. All farmers using AI services were issued with a red file which had the cow index cards; each cow’s index or identification number was made to give it a unique identity. The AI service agent had to carry a minimum of two bulls’ semen of the same breed - he would check on breeding information in the file before carrying out an insemination to avoid serving the target animal with semen from a related bull.

3. AI officers maintained farm records with details of each cow for supervision and even follow-ups. 4. Periodically, a team of veterinary officers from veterinary headquarters would also make follow-up visits on selected farms to ensure the system was observed. Nowadays, most dairy farmers do not keep any records. They only have mental records of milk production and cow offspring relationships. Some farmers with records do not have any entries in them while many others cannot show even the most recent insemination records or could not remember where they kept them.

What farmers can do to avoid inbreeding

The following are simple rules or measures that farmers can take to upgrade their animals to improve productivity of their dairy herds and reduce the danger of inbreeding:

•           Always maintain records of each animal such as date of birth, AI records such as the name of the bull that sired it (whose semen was used to serve your cow), date and age at service, number of times that the animal has been inseminated, calvings and serving intervals.

•           Avoid using village or neighbours' bulls to serve your cow to stop transmission of venereal diseases or even brucellosis. If you have bulls, separate them from the cows at all times to avoid inbreeding.

•           Try and register all your animals with the Kenya Stud Book (KSB). An animal registered with KSB fetches a higher price in the market than those that are not registered.

•           Do not throw away the semen  straw when your cow is served through AI service for future reference. All straws are labelled with the name of the bull to avoid serving the daughter with the same bull (this causes inbreeding).

•           Always use semen from high quality bulls whose potential or characteristics are known.

•           Always use semen  from known service providers recognized by KAGRC to upgrade your cows, improve their milk production, health and speed up their growth rate.

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