Prof Alexander Kigunzu Kahi is a leading expert in animal breeding and genomics and the newly appointed Deputy Vice-Chancellor in-charge of Academic Affairs at Egerton University. He spoke to FRANCIS MUREITHI on how the livestock industry can be turned into a vibrant economic sector.
In Kenya, less than 2 per cent of animals are registered making it hard to make good breeding decisions. Many farmers are spending a fortune importing semen from Europe and other countries, do we have quality semen here?
Semen from Europe is produced by bulls that have been subjected to a lot of genetic evaluation. They are selected based on a large number of ‘daughters’ they have produced with detailed information such as milk production, which is accurate.
The bulls are picked so that they can be a parent for the future generation. In Kenya, we don’t have that advantage of bulls that have large number of daughters.
Currently, what we are utilising is semen from bulls that are simply sons of bulls that are bred in Europe and that is why we end up with a bull that is not really 100 per cent proven.
An animal performing well in Europe will not necessary perform well in Kenya. We need to invest heavily in local genetic improvement programme.
What is the difference between sexed-semen and normal semen? And which one would you advice a farmer to go for?
The only difference is that normal semen contains sperm cells that carry both chromosomes XX that forms the female calf. Chances of getting a male or a female calf when using a normal semen is 50-50.
The probability of getting a heifer after using sexed-semen is approximately 95 per cent. I would advise farmers to go for both depending on the financial capability.
Sexed-semen goes for Sh6,000 per dose and with three inseminations, it means a farmer will spend Sh18,000. Normal semen even from the well-known bulls is cheaper than sexed-semen.
If one is to go for normal semen, they should pick from a high quality bull.
Is Kenya on the right path as far as breeding of quality animals is concerned?
The re-organisation of government systems at the Kenya Animal Genetic Resources Centre in Lower Kabete in Kiambu County where semen is stored is encouraging.
The construction of nitrogen manufacturing factories is improving artificial insemination services as semen is stored in a good place.
Liberalisation has helped acquire daughters of bulls that were born in Netherlands, Canada, US, Israel, New Zealand and this has helped create a genetic variation that has led to quality animals.
We are getting orders from as far as Ghana for heifers. The demand is huge.
What can take local breeding to the highest level?
We need records, without them there is no breeding. If you have a cow, you must know its father, mother, grandfather and grandmother just like human beings who know their parents and grandparents.
We need to register our animals and issue them with ID cards. After we have identified all the animals, then we need to look at their performance in terms of milk production and then make breeding decisions.
In Kenya, the number of animals that are recorded is less than 2 per cent and with this type of data, it is very difficult to make breeding decisions.
What are our farmers not doing right to get pedigree animals?
Human beings are pedigreed by the fact that there are systems that ensures that when a child is born, it is registered.
In most countries where we get sexed-semen, animals are considered citizens because there is data. If we don’t have such records, it will be wrong to pride ourselves as having pedigreed animals.
We need to sensitise our farmers on the advantages of keeping records of their animals not only for breeding purposes but also for fetching more money.
Livestock diseases like anthrax are still killing thousands of animals in Kenya. How can we overcome this problem?
We need proper surveillance and we must treat our livestock the same way we treat human beings. We should mobilise resources when there is an outbreak of a disease.
Without livestock, we don’t have human beings. We lack surveillance because of the fact that our extension services are limping.
However, with agriculture being a devolved function, things should change for the better and people should passionately talk about the health of their animals just the same way they talk about theirs.
Do you think this country is producing competent vets to help dairy farmers?
The training of our veterinary officers at the University of Nairobi and at Egerton University is up-to-date.
When you look at the curriculum, it is one of the best in the world as it strictly adheres to the international standards.
We are churning out well-grounded and competent officers to handle any type of animal diseases anywhere in the world. The problem is that we are producing good officers but they are not absorbed by the government.
Our vets are among the most-sought-after in Europe, America and South Africa, among other countries.
Besides poor breeding, what is pulling down the livestock industry?
Some of the major constraints include lack of accessibility to local and export markets, low research funding, diseases, drought, bad infrastructure, cattle rustling and poor policies governing the sector.
The government land policies in arid and semi-arid lands must be changed to favour production.
Further, Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Organisation should not be the only body mandated to carry out research work.
Scientist at the universities should also get direct funding from the government instead of depending on the donors. Money from donors is targeted and we do what the donors want and not what our people want.
That said, the livestock industry is one of the major income earners. The nitrogen plants being set up by the government are the right move.
We have our own semen centre that is linking up with some organisation in Netherlands and with this type of linkage, we shall improve on the quality of semen.
The revival of Kenya Meat Commission, New Kenya Cooperative Creameries and creating of disease free-zones in Taita Taveta is a clear indication that all is not lost and the future is bright.