Indigenous farm animals in Malawi are raised predominantly by smallholder farmers. Some of the constraints in livestock development are a lack of adequately defined breeding goals and insufficient description of the animal populations regarding their phenotypic and genetic performance in production, reproduction and adaptation. Despite the fact that some on-station performance testing has been carried out in the past, it has been limited and discontinuous. Regular performance recording under field conditions is rare, but it is essential for improving and preserving farm animal genetic resources, which are important components of the prevailing crop-livestock production system in Malawi.
This apparent lack of breeding goals and strategies threatens not only the indigenous animal population, but also the diversity of animal genetic resources. The objective of this paper is to outline a participatory and interactive system that would result in efficient utilization and conservation of indigenous farm animal genetic resources. A group breeding scheme is proposed for the interactive conservation of farm animal genetic resources in Malawi. Such a programme would only work well with the full participation of the farmers and all institutions involved in animal production.
The main methods of genetic improvement are selection, cross-breeding and migration. When a gene is subjected to selection, its frequency in the offspring is not the same as in the parents, since parents of different genotypes pass on their genes unequally to the next generation (Falconer, 1989). Although selection within a local population and dissemination of superior genes to the national herd may be slow, within-breed selection could utilize the huge genetic variation and valuable genes of indigenous breeds economically. Within-breed selection and exploitation of local breeds might also result in a long-term improvement of functional efficiency. In Malawi, indigenous animals are raised predominately by smallholder farmers. For example, Nakhumwa et al. (2000) indicated that in the northern region of Malawi, a large proportion of smallholder livestock farmers (41.4 percent) kept cattle, while a smaller proportion kept poultry (32.8 percent) and 7.2 percent kept goats. Very few only kept guinea fowl (1.6 percent) or sheep (1.0 percent). Of those who kept livestock, 28.6 percent indicated that they used dairy and beef production as a source of income, while 6.3 percent used goats for the same purpose. Probably as a result of numerous technical interventions through development projects and lack of breeding goals (and consequently breeding strategies), targeted indigenous farmers show interest in cross-breeding. In general, cross-breeding, when not controlled, poses a threat to the existing indigenous farm animal populations. Genotype-environment interaction was observed on large farms that imported exotic Holstein Friesians for milk production (Chagunda, 2000). Mwale et al. (1999) found dependencies between genotype and management level under smallholder conditions for cattle-raising in Malawi. When no labour costs are included in a gross margin analysis, the Malawi Zebu cow was the most efficient genotype for local milk production in a low-input, low-output system. The authors concluded that under the given production environment, the indigenous Malawi Zebu should be maintained and utilized as a genetic resource for within breed selection programmes but also for controlled cross-breeding. This conclusion concurs with that of Smith (1988), who pointed out that if genotype ´ environment interactions are important across countries, an independent domestic genetic improvement programme would be needed. However, duplication of expensive breeding efforts carried out in other countries, and from which developing countries could benefit at little cost, should be avoided. The challenge is to develop a participatory and interactive system, resulting in efficient utilization and conservation of locally available or indigenous farm animal genetic resources.
Interactive processes and technologies to conserve the indigenous animals of Malawi
Socio-economic, rather than genetic, reasons seem to determine the genotype raised by the smallholder farmers, hence the breeding decisions for those genotypes. From the study by Nakhumwa et al. (2000), some of the reasons why smallholder farmers choose to raise particular livestock species are profitability (39.5 percent), ease of management (23.7 percent) and the dual-purpose use of some livestock (5.3 percent). Some farmers are more likely to inherit animals than others. Many Malawi Zebu cattle farmers indicated that they had inherited their animals. Since these socio-economic reasons are chiefly related to the production environment, there is considerable scope to improve the management of indigenous farm animal genetic resources in Malawi, which may, under the prevailing subsistence mode of production, prove more beneficial than cross-bred or exotic animals.
For the smallholder sector in southern African countries, Wollny (1995) discusses an approach based on an open-nucleus scheme. A dispersed breeding scheme may be appropriate for the sustainable utilization of indigenous farm animal genetic resources in Malawi.
In the suggested group breeding scheme, the animals are not physically located in one place and allowance is made for the inflow of foreign germplasm into the system (Lohuis, 1998). Compared with a centralized or closed-nucleus scheme, the system has the following advantages:
The threat of high inbreeding levels is lower because the scheme has no limitations on size.
The environment automatically reflects the production environment, hence there is a very reduced rate (if any) of within-country genotype by environment interaction.
There is increased farmer participation because more farmers have a direct impact on the breeding programme.
Farmers still own and control superior germplasm.
The existing infrastructure is utilized.
Following the principles of a nucleus breeding programme, as schematically presented in Figure 1, sires would be selected from the scheme. Female animals would have to be selected from production farms (large or small scale) to be part of the selected population. These dams would stay in their original herds, where they would continue to produce. The production herds would remain separate and a record-keeping system would be established for them that would be used in testing young animals.
Figure 1. A schematic model of a proposed open-nucleus scheme for dairy cows. (Adapted from Cunningham, 1979)
In a dairy cattle scheme, for example, at least 20 heifers would be selected to join the scheme each year. The National Artificial Insemination Scheme (NAIS) for cattle, which already exists, would be responsible for:
identifying the superior male genotypes, later to be used to sire the next generation of sires. Because, in the early stages, there would be no performance data on either the sisters (half or full sibs) or the female offspring of the sires, their selection would be based on a pedigree index. As the breeding programme progressed, the selection of males would be based on performance parameters such as daily weight gain, feed intake and constitution. At maturity the young males could then start being tested, mostly on the smallholder farms. This would not only facilitate the generation of more daughters per sire, but also the introduction of a more organized record-keeping system within the smallholder dairy sector; and
recruiting superior female genotypes that would be eligible to enter the completion scheme of the testing phase. These superior females would be the dams of sires, which would be selected according to the ranking of their breeding values and scoring of their conformation traits.
All breeding and selection activities would take place within the scheme, which would be the source of all male stock in the system. The scheme would require some restructuring and adjustment of some of the current functions of the National Artificial Insemination Scheme. NAIS is, among other things, involved in the production and distribution of bull semen, and in providing free artificial insemination services to smallholder farms. The proposed changes would fit in with the privatization and commercialization of some government services now taking place in Malawi, as NAIS would offer semen with known breeding values (something that is not done at present) and pedigrees.
The principles of the scheme could be applied to any population of farm animals. Such a programme would only work well with the full participation and long-term commitment of the farmers and all institutions involved in animal production. Such participation and commitment would help pool efforts, existing facilities and technical know-how for the effective and efficient establishment of the programme.
The role of the smallholder farmer
The proposed model is designed as an on-farm development project with the community-based smallholder farmer managing the scheme. Since smallholder farmers are the primary beneficiaries, their involvement would be ensured through consultative meetings, starting at the planning phase. Farmers would contribute by allowing their animals to be utilized as part of the breeding scheme and by selling selected breeding stock to other farmers. The decision-making process, which would preferably be centred on a farmers working committee, would be supported by local extension officers and researchers, who would monitor the programme and collect, process and analyse data. The results would be made available to the farmers to support their management and decision-making system. A functioning record-keeping system that reflects the communitys breeding goal is of fundamental importance in such a scheme. Previous (Mwale et al., 1999; Mulume et al., 1999) and ongoing on-farm projects have demonstrated that farmers are quite willing to collaborate in a record-keeping scheme if no counterproductive interventions take place and information and knowledge is made available to livestock farmers.
The following are the envisaged benefits of this interactive process and technology sharing and transfer whose aim is the conservation of indigenous animal genetic resources in Malawi:
adding value to indigenous animal genetic resources through the estimation of breeding values;
the sustainable utilization of indigenous animal genetic resources through intensified use;
the utilization of indigenous animal breeding knowledge through the incorporation of existing stock-exchange systems or traditional breeding practices; and
the participatory conservation of indigenous farm animal genetic resources through interactive processes among farmers and stakeholders in and outside of the community.
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