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Embryo Transfer Technology Taking Root In Uganda

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Albert Mayomba, a farmer at Gavu village in Kasawo sub-county, Mukono district, says he has three milking cows, but gets a maximum of 10 litres a day from all of them.

“Milking 5 litres from my three cows is a miracle. This has proved to be expensive and unprofitable for me because the revenue I get from my cows can even cater for the animals’ expenses. This means I have always to dip into my pockets for the bills like medication and feeding, among others,” he says.

Mayomba says even when he feeds his cows well, the milk yields do not increase.

He says good dairy breeds are costly, each going costing sh6m to sh8m, and that is why farmers like him are ‘suffering’ with averagely milking cows.

Yhe good news though is, there is hope for low-income farmers like Mayomba with the populairisng of in-vitro fertilisation. Experts in the breeding sector are now amplifying the use of embryo transfer for farmers to get good breeds at an affordable cost. The practice may prove to be the answer to the challenge of farmers purchasing high milking breeds which are expensive in both price and maintenance.

As an answer to farmers’ outcry, the Government through National Livestock Resources Research Institute (NaLIRRI) under the National Agricultural Research Organisation (NARO), is promoting in-vitro fertilisation of embryos to boost milk production in Uganda.

“The implementation is under the Chase Hunger and Poverty project under the Uganda government’s Development Initiative for Northern Uganda (DINU) programme supported by the European Union and supervised by the office of the prime minister but still will be beneficial for the whole country,” Abasi Kigozi, the project co-ordinator at NARO, explains.

Dr Kasule examining the already fertilized embryos in the incubator

Embryology technology

Due to the cost involved, embryo transfer is mainly used by seed stock producers to accelerate genetic gain. Embryo transfer allows a superior female to have many more offspring than she would have naturally.

Dr Timothy Kasule, an embryologist with NaLIRRI based at Nakyesasa in Wakiso district, explains that the technology involves harvesting many eggs from the mother cow to produce many calves from one mother cow a year compared to one calf per a year under normal delivery cycle.

“Under the DINU programme, we have built a cow shed that will house 500 cows from which eggs will be harvested, where each cow can produce up to 60 eggs. We are also constructing a bull stand that will house 50 high quality bulls. The institute already has 20 bulls. These animals that are going to be the parent stock, will be pure Jersey breeds,” Kasule explains.

Why jersey breed?

Kasule explains that because the main aim of the programme is to enhance productivity in the dairy sector, they have chosen the jersey breed because a milking cow can produce 20-35 litres daily and its milk is richer in nutrients compared to other milking breeds.

The milk contains many vitamins and nutrients that play important roles in promoting good muscle health in humans. These include vitamin A, E and D, as well as magnesium and potassium which help to regulate muscle contractions.

Because the animals are small in size, they eat little feed and the traits from the local mother will make them resistant to diseases and pests.

“Jersey are naturally small animals and for that even the local small local animals of the two sub-regions will be able to deliver the calf placed in her womb. Because the project aims at increasing milk, sexed semen will be used,” Kasule adds.

The breed is early maturing, where a farmer will get the first calf at 17 months because it can conceive at 8 months compared the local breeds that will have the first calving at two years.

Jersey cattle display superior heat tolerance, through their ability to maintain feed intake, milk production and reproduction under warm temperatures.

“This breed also provides animal welfare advantages in the form of longer cow life expectancy through reducing feet and leg problem, fewer collapsed udders, less mastitis, less calving difficulties and significantly lower empty rates due to superior fertility,” Kigozi says.

How it works

Oocytes (immature eggs) are sensitive to temperature shocks. So, it is important to monitor carefully the collection procedure temperatures as fluctuations can easily occur. During collection the oocytes are maintained in Dulbecoo’s PBS or in TCM199 (Hepes buffered).

They are then taken to a laboratory under specific conditions and after 20-24 hours of incubation, the oocytes attain completely maturation with the extrusion of the first polar body and are ready to be fertilised.

“The process must be handled carefully starting with preparing the donor parents where the donor cow must be under 27-32oc at the time of collecting the oocytes and only 10 oocytes can be collected at each time,” he says.

Kasule says the fertilised embryo is frozen and can be kept for a year in liquid nitrogen awaiting transferring to surrogate mother-cows as and when demand arises from farmers.

A farmer selects their preferred local cow for surrogate mother that is assessed by scientists for suitability and prepared for pregnancy. This includes inducing them with hormones to make them come on heat. “The embryo is then implanted to the surrogate mother within 7-9 days depending on the days it was frozen before being stores into liquid nitrogen that can stay for five years,” Kasule adds.

The Jersey cows at Nakyesasa that are going to be used for harvesting oocytes

Selection of the recipient cow

The selection of suitable recipient is of utmost importance for successful embryo transfer programme. The criteria for selecting recipient animals are normal physical and health status of the animal, good reproductive condition, lack of any reproductive disorders, compatibility to the donor and respect to the size of the foetus and easy to synchronise the oestrus.

The oestrus of the donor and recipient should be synchronised within 24 hours; otherwise, pregnancy will be considerably lower because highest conception is achieved when an embryo is transplanted to a uterine environment that closely resemble that the embryo originated from.

How a farmer will benefit?

Kasule explains that the NaLIRRI laboratory will not only produce for the DINU programme, but also all the farmers who will need the service because for now it can produce 40,000 embryos a week, which is sufficient enough to supply individual farmers.

He says through is technology, a farmer will be able to get a pure fersey heifer at shs1.5m per pregnancy as opposed to $3,000 (over Uganda sh10m) at importation of a live animal.  However, if one wants semen for artificial insemination, they will pay sh155,000 per conception.

In addition, the heifer produced is born with the local mother’s immunity traits.  During the last three months of pregnancy, the surrogate mother’s body detects all the diseases in the locality and starts making antibodies that she sends to the baby in her womb to give it nature immunity towards such diseases.

“Therefore, a farmer will get a pure jersey cow that has a local mothers’ disease immunity and resistance to disease. This implies that, the cost for treatment, feeding and others will be lower since it will have local traits,” Kasule explains.

Here, a dairy farmer will increase milk production and revenue from their farms that will in turn improve their living conditions.

It makes it easier and a more rapid exchange of genetic material between countries because it is less costly compared to that of live animals with less storage. It also reduces the risk of disease transmission as well as expansion of rare genetic stock.

Things to give special consideration

Kasule says this is advanced scientific technology that can only be done by specialised veterinary personnel. As such, more medication is needed in the procedure, yet the medicine is more expensive during the first few months of pregnancy.

Dr Kasule showing the semen sticks in the nitrogen cylinders which are also used to store the fertilized embryos. All photos by Herbert Musoke

The DINU project

Enhancing milk production is part of the activities under the Chase Hunger and Poverty project to be implemented by the National Agricultural Research Organisation (NARO) and her eight partners through the Uganda government’s Development Initiative for Northern Uganda (DINU) programme supported by the European Union and supervised by the Office of the Prime Minister.

Abasi Kigozi, the co-ordinator at NARO, says the project is to be implemented by in the Acholi and Lango sub-regions to diversify food systems for poverty reduction, food, nutrition security and inclusive development in northern Uganda as well as fighting maternal and children health.

“We all know that health benefits of milk. Therefore, increasing milk production in the region will help to fight and reduce malnutrition among infants and pregnant mothers in addition to increasing incomes for farmers given the fact that the demand for milk is still higher than supply,” Kigozi says.

He says there are already activities being done to implement the project such as training veterinary technicians and equip them with storage and cylinders used in carrying the embryos in order to perform the process of inserting the fertilised embryos to the surrogate animals.

The ready embryos will be transported to the Ngetta Zonal Agricultural Research and Development Institute in Lira, where farmers in the region will be in position to access the service.

For sustainability, the project will facilitate construction of cow shed that can house 10 animals, plus planting one acre of pasture for 24 selected farmers that will be used as demonstration farmers where other farmers will visit to get the training on how a standard cow-shed should be constructed and all the dairy best agronomical practices.

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