Breeding Cattle Sustainably

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In Olomayiana village, cattle have long been a symbol of wealth and pride, “I hope your cattle are well” is the most common greeting among friends and neighbours. To own livestock is not only a cultural thing, but (also) a status symbol among pastoralists.
But raising large herds, the tradition in this region, is becoming more difficult. In 2017, Joel Ngengi lost most of his cattle herd as prolonged drought dried up access to grass.
He is now trying a new – and contentious – approach advocated by government officials and some non-governmental organisations: Keeping far fewer, but more productive, dairy cattle. Though the hybrid animals have countless benefits they also come with an equal measure of challenges. For one, they require lots of care, plenty of clean water, lots of green fodder, silage and concentrates.
Pastoralists have long kept large herds not only out of pride and as the basis of their economy but also to act as insurance against diseases and pests. With large herds, even large losses usually leave at least some animals behind to rebuild a new herd.
In Isiolo, Kenya, Asma Mohamed broadcasts her daily radio show. For the past five years, station manager Mohamed has been using her show on non-profit community radio channel Baliti FM to discuss everything from good governance and livestock breeding to children’s rights and challenging gender roles. But she gets the biggest response from her listeners in Isiolo County when she talks about insuring their animals.
As a warming climate spurs more extreme weather, herders in Kenya’s arid and semi-arid northern parts can lose up to 10 percent of their livestock when drought hits, according to the Pastoralist Capacity Development Programme, a local non-profit.
Pastoralists think of their animals as their ‘banks’, out of an estimated six million Kenyans who depend on animals for their income, only a fraction have any kind of insurance for their herds.
The largest case against large numbers of cattle is that not only do they need more land than would be needed to feed humans if that land was used for food planting, but the methane that they produce. A cow can produce 100kg of methane a year – a green house gas contributing to warming temperatures.
Researchers have pointed out that many cattle, especially in the tropics, graze on former forest land. In places such as the Brazilian Amazon, clearing trees for cattle exacerbates the problem, causing massive greenhouse gas emissions.
In Aberdeen, researcher John Wallace is working on eliminating the worst offenders by studying gut microbiome in cattle to find solutions which could cut methane by 50 per cent.
Using hereditary markers and selective breeding could take decades and we need to reduce emissions much faster. A potentially quicker approach could be to see if specific genes are responsible and knock them out if it could be done without harm. A simpler, short-term idea is a probiotic for young cattle to alter their microbiome to cut emissions, says Wallace. “That sort of inoculation for young animals is not as difficult as you might think.”


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