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An evolutionary jolt helped cattle to spread across Africa



OLIVIER HANOTTE | African cattle breeds are astonishingly diverse, and often quite beautiful. They range from the dark-red Ankole of southern Uganda, with their massive heat-dissipating horns, to the Boran which thrive in the dusty plains of northern Kenya, to Ethiopia’s sturdy Mursi cattle, with their prominent shoulder humps and hanging dewlaps. The Kuri that graze on the grasses of Lake Chad are adept swimmers; the Red Fulani can trudge vast distances along the margins of the Sahara; and the famously disease-resistant Sheko inhabit tsetse fly-infested forests of southwest Ethiopia.

All billion or so cattle today descend from ancient aurochs, an extinct species of wild cattle that once inhabited large swaths of Eurasia. These cattle were domesticated on at least two distinct occasions approximately 10,000 years ago during the Neolithic era: once in south Asia – leading to the zebu or humped cattle – and the other in the Middle East – leading to the taurine or humpless cattle.

In Africa, the oldest archaeological evidence of domestic cattle dates back to between 6000 and 5000 BC in western Egypt. These taurine cattle, initially confined to the Saharan-Sahelian belt, eventually reached isolated pockets of land in West and East Africa.

Africa’s cattle today have adapted to the climate, forage conditions, diseases and pests prevalent in their habitat. The individuals best adapted to their environments were more likely to survive and reproduce. They were also more favoured by people. Over time this led to different breeds and species.

Today there are an estimated 800 million livestock keepers across the continent. Cattle provide nutritious, calorie-dense food, much-needed income, and nitrogen-rich manure for replenishing soils. There are few regions of Africa where cattle do not play a central role, both economically and culturally.

But it was not always this way. My colleagues and I from the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) recently published a paper detailing how African cattle acquired their adaptive capacities.

Sifting through the DNA of 16 indigenous African breeds, we discovered a thousand-year-old event in which the world’s two main subspecies of cattle – namely taurine and zebus – mixed. This allowed African cattle – after spending thousands of years confined to certain regions in Africa – to diversify and spread across the continent.

Our findings help to explain how African cattle spread throughout the continent. But since they were selected and bred for resilience, African cattle never became as productive, in terms of meat or milk, as breeds in more temperate climates. Our hope is that, by studying the history hidden in indigenous cattle genomes, we can help guide efforts to breed for productivity without losing the breeds’ native resilience and sustainability.

An evolutionary jolt

Our new genome sequencing work revealed that, about a thousand years ago, pastoralist herders in the Horn of Africa began breeding the Asian zebu cattle with local taurine breeds.

The zebu offered traits that allowed cattle to survive in hot, dry climates. The taurine traits provided cattle with the ability to endure humid climates, where vector-borne diseases that affect cattle, like trypanosomiasis (or “sleeping sickness”) are common.

This event, which we dubbed an “evolutionary jolt”, allowed African cattle – after spending thousands of years confined to a shifting patchwork of sub-regions in Africa – to spread across the continent and flourish into the breeds we see today.

But this resilience came at a cost. African cattle are often not as productive – in terms of growth rates, meat or milk – as their European and American cousins. Canadian Holsteins, for example, can deliver 30 litres of milk per day, several times what most African breeds are capable of. Traditional Ethiopian Boran, for example, produced only four to six litres of milk per day.

More productive

Today scientists at ILRI, in partnership with governmental institutions in Tanzania and Ethiopia, are again trying to deliver an evolutionary jolt to Africa’s cattle. This time, however, they want to speed up the evolutionary clock by identifying genetic markers that signal both adaptability and productivity. Screening embryos for these markers could help scientists replicate in the lab the slow work of evolution by favouring the traits that most benefit farmers.

Earlier efforts to improve cattle productivity on the continent focused on importing cattle breeds from elsewhere, without adequately recognising African breeds’ unique resilience. Nearly, all these attempts have failed or resulted in crossbreeds with both adaptability and productivity diluted.

This time, we are focusing on sustainable productivity–productivity that builds on rather than disregards the resilience of indigenous African breeds.

But while we have new tools and shortcuts which enables scientists to analyse vast swaths of genetic data and decide which breeds could work well together, there are some lessons we should still draw from the first evolutionary jolt.

The first is that we shouldn’t be overly concerned about crossbreeding. Because of a sense of national pride and wanting to conserve indigenous African cattle breeds, there is at times a tendency on the part of some to treat them as iconic, untouchable manuscripts.

This ignores the long tradition of crossbreeding practised by African livestock farmers and pastoralists – they were (and still are) constantly mixing and matching breeds to select the animals best suited to their needs.

Another lesson is that, as scientists experiment and cross-breed, it is vitally important to remember that the local breeds have adaptations – not all of them immediately obvious (a tolerance for episodic drought, for example) – that have enabled their success. It is important that we do not lose those adaptive traits in the randomness of crossbreeding.

This will take innovative crossbreeding programs that incorporate scientists, government ministries, private partners and farmers to ensure the conservation of genetic information across the long life cycle of cattle generations.

And finally, it’s essential to include the practical, accumulated experience of pastoralists in these processes.


Olivier Hanotte is Principal Scientist, Professor of Genetics, University of Nottingham, UK, International Livestock Research Institute. David Aronson, Senior Communications Advisor with ILRI, contributed to the writing of this article.


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Lack of Agronomists worries grape farmers in Mbarara



Grape farmers in Mbarara are concerned that they are earning less from the crop due to the absence of an agronomist to offer expertise on the processes for growing and harvesting the crop.

There are more than 200 grape farmers in Ibaare, Nyamatojo and Nyakayojo, all in the South Division of Mbarara City, where more than three hills are fully covered with the crop. They are mainly planting Muscat and Karmen, which thrive well in semi-arid areas.

But the farmers said that they are growing the crop without clear information on the ideal varieties of grapes grown in Uganda, and knowledge of soil management, site preparation, planting, pruning, pest and disease control, fertilizer application as well as harvesting.

By nature of their work, agronomists work with farmers to help them grow the best possible crops, based on their extensive knowledge of chemistry, biology, economics, earth science, ecology, and genetics. They usually conduct experiments to develop the best methods for increasing the quality and production of crops and develop methods for protecting crops from weeds, pests, and harsh climates.

Alex Asiimwe, the Chairperson of Mbarara Grape Farmers Cooperative Limited said that without a specialist in the region, many of them are left to gamble with the crop. Often, he says, they struggle to manage the spread of pests in grape plantations.

James Mugabi, a grape farmer said he once lost more than 25 tons of grapes to fungus, which he didn’t know and failed to get the best drug. He narrates that once the crop has been attacked by either a pest or disease, the entire plantation is destroyed.

Allan Namanya, a grapes farmer from Katojo said the absence of an agronomist is costing them a lot since grapes are considered the most lucrative crop at the moment. He says that a kilogram of grapes costs between 2,500 and 3,000 Shillings and a bottle of wine costs 20,000, yet it can even cost much higher than this if they are advised on the right farming practices.

Mbarara city Agricultural Officer, Vincent Mugabi, said that the department also has a shortage of personnel knowledgeable about the relatively new crop for the area. He wants the government to consider taking them for training to acquire knowledge.

Grapes are harvested twice a year, in April/May and November/December seasons. They were introduced in Mbarara at Nyamitanga hill the Catholic seat by missionaries in the 1960s.

Original Source: URA via The Independent

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Farmers in Napak want security forces deployed in gardens



A section of farmers in Napak District is demanding for the deployment of security personnel in gardens to prevent attacks by suspected Karamojong warriors.

This follows a message that was sent to one of the phones belonging to the community member in Nabwal sub county threatening people to stop cultivation or else their cattle will be stolen. Suspected warriors have also been dropping leaflets in the villages warning farmers of possible attacks in case they risk going to cultivate in their gardens.

Robert Koryang, a resident of Lotome trading center, says that they are worried of going to their farm gardens which are far away from their home because of threats from the cattle raiders.

Koryang said the warriors are still hunting for cattle and they see the farming season as an opportunity to target farmers who use oxen for ploughing.

He observed that the persistent insecurity in the region frustrated their efforts to cultivate last year leading to a hunger crisis.

Judith Anyakun, another farmer recalls that early last year a suspected raider chased them out of their farms before making off with four oxen that were used for ploughing.

She suggested that the security forces should be deployed in their settlements nearer to the fields so that they are able to respond to any attack that may occur during farm activities.

John Paul Kodet, the LCV Chairperson for Napak, says that they are taking the threats seriously because the warriors have been issuing warnings to the communities before attacking.

Kodet said they have distributed seeds to the farmers but he is skeptical if communities shall be able to cultivate due to threats from suspected warriors.

He noted that some villages in the sub-counties of Lopei, Lokopo, and Lotome are very distant from the military installations and this puts them at high risk of being attacked.

Kodet appealed to the government to tighten security in the targeted areas such that people will be able to cultivate without fear.

Denis Okori, the Napak Resident District Commissioner said that the security forces already have the intelligence about the planned attacks and measures have been put in place to protect the communities.

Okori said they have designed strategic plans on how the deployment will be conducted and therefore farmers should not get worried because the government is trying everything possible to ensure there is peace.

He also confirmed receipt of the phone used for sending threats and it has been taken to the Internal Security Organization for tracking.

Okori urged the communities not to worry but instead clear the gardens for farming in order to fight hunger in the families as security does its part to protect them.

Last year, the residents of Napak district suspended the use of oxen for ploughing over fears of being attacked by suspected warriors. The cattle were only kept from the confined kraals and only released during the day for grazing, and returned in the evening when the army took responsibility for keeping them.

Original Source: URN via The Independent

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Mbarara struggling to contain Rift Valley Fever, no livestock quarantine yet



The government is reluctant at imposing the livestock quarantine on Mbarara despite registering five confirmed cases of death among humans resulting from Rift Valley Fever, the Resident District Commissioner, Emmy Turyabagyenyi Kateera has revealed.

According to Kateera , when they informed the Ministry of Agriculture, Animal Industry and Fisheries about the outbreak, they deployed a team on the ground to manage the situation. Mbarara District Veterinary Officer, Andrew Bakashaba, says that registered fifty cows infected by Rift Valley Fever in Rwanyamahembe Sub County on different farms.

He, however, says that they are currently managing the situation through sensitization. Bakashaba has warned residents against eating meat from animals that have died on their own, noting that Rift Valley Fever is only transmitted from animals to humans through infected meat.

He has also asked people to always watch out for meat that has a veterinary medical stamp as proof that it’s been tested and found to be clean. Turyabagyenyi said that they have directed extension workers to hold engagement and sensitization meetings with farmers and livestock traders on how to do self-preservation on their farms and the movement of animals.

PHOTO: The Jenner Institute

He said they asked the Ministry of Agriculture to hold on imposing a quarantine as they monitor the situation on the ground noting that if the situation goes out of hand they would be left without any choice but to announce the quarantine.

He says they have deployed veterinary doctors at all known slaughter slabs and asked them to double-check the meat before and after it is delivered to butchers.  Dr. Richard Atuhairwe, the in-charge of Bwizibwera Health Centre IV, says that the disease was detected among 30 people, and results from Uganda Virus Research Institute returned positive.  He says that five of the thirty have since died.

Rift Valley Fever is an acute viral hemorrhagic fever that is most commonly seen in domesticated animals such as cattle, sheep, and goats and can also cause illness in people. It is caused by the Rift Valley Virus. Meanwhile, a Quarantine has been imposed on Byembogo Village in Nyabisirira Town Council after a case of foot and mouth disease was confirmed on one farm.

Turyabagyenyi says a farm belonging to one Mr. Mungonya with over 1500 cattle had been stopped from sending out cattle and animal products like milk from the farm. He says that they have also temporarily closed the Kyeshema livestock market that is shared between Kiruhura and Mbarara districts noting that Kiruhura had last week closed its side.

He says they are now moving to vaccinate all animals in the village as they monitor the situation.

Original Source: URN via  The independent

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