Far from home: traditional French mountain cattle breeds help boost milk production in West Africa

Since 2015, Ceva received a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to train vets and boost dairy and poultry production and health in Bangladesh and Burkina Faso. The project in Burkina Faso aims to improve milk production of the local zebu cows by crossbreeding them with a suitable dairy breed, taking advantage of Ceva’s world-beating expertise in the management of cattle breeding.

Burkina Faso, like other West African countries, has lots of cattle but locally produced milk is sufficient to meet only about 10% of local demand. As a result, fresh milk can often be hard to find, prices are high and the country spends around USD 20 million a year on imports of powdered milk and other dairy products.

One solution to Burkina Faso’s national milk deficit is to crossbreed the low-yielding local cows with more productive dairy breeds. The most convenient way of doing this is through artificial insemination (AI), using semen from carefully selected bulls from a suitable breed. 

While crossbreeding has no impact on the milk yield of the inseminated cow, crossbred calves that are born following AI will inherit characteristics from both parents, including for females the potential for higher milk yields.

Since 2016, Ceva has been applying its expertise in managing reproduction in cattle in a project seeking to boost milk production in Burkina Faso. The aim is to produce 1200 female and 1200 male crossbreds. 

The choice of breed for the donor bulls is critical. Perhaps surprisingly, the breeds selected for crossing with the Burkinabe cows in the project are two traditional French breeds, the Tarentaise and Montbéliarde. The Tarentaise was originally bred in the Tarentaise valley in the French Alps, while the Montbéliarde originated in the mountain valleys and foothills of the Franche-Comté region, close to the Swiss border. Although both breeds originated in areas a long way away from Burkina Faso, both have characteristics which make them very well adapted  to the local environment and farming system.

The Ceva team travelled to Burkina Faso in late 2016 to lay the foundations for the ‘Vache du Faso’ project. This involved mobilizing the Fula pastoralists and providing training  for the local AI technicians. 

Building on Ceva’s expertise in the management of reproduction in cattle, the first step was to use Ceva products to synchronise the reproductive cycles of cows selected for the project – the very best local zebus. This meant that all the cows could be inseminated at the same time using imported semen from Tarentaise or Montbéliarde bulls..

The first batch of 400 synchronised cows was inseminated in November 2016; half of those not pregnant were re-inseminated in January 2017, resulting in 210 pregnancies. This conception rate of over 50% is considerably higher than the 30% usually achieved locally. Nine months later, in August 2017, the first crossbred calves were born: 45 singletons and 3 sets of twins amongst the first batch to be born.The female calves will  join milking herds after they themselves have a calf. The males will be fattened and sold for meat.

A further 239 cows were inseminated between May and July, this time in peri-urban farms around Bobo Dioulasso, the country’s second largest city. 

Another batch of 500 cows was inseminated during five hectic days in September 2017 – a very impressive feat achieved under difficult field conditions, only made possible by the strong team spirit that developed throughout the year as well as the training rolled out  the previous year. 

For the Fula herders and their families, a conservative estimate suggests that the crossbred cows in Burkina Faso will generate double the income compared to the local zebus.  Furthermore, in a country with a chronic shortage of fresh milk, there is a market for any surplus milk not consumed by the family. 

Whilst the target of producing 1200 crossbred females is impressive,the real challenge is maintaining the advantages of these superior dairy genes in the future – which is where many previous initiatives in Africa have failed. It is therefore essential that a very clear genetic exit strategy is established before the end of the project and that the necessary training and groundwork has been undertaken to ensure a healthy population of cattle can be maintained in the future, benefiting from the genetic heritage of both the local zebu and exotic dairy breed. 

In 2015, Ceva received a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to roll out three targeted development projects corresponding to Ceva’s area of expertise and the foundation’s strategy to make smallholder livestock more productive, improve nutrition and empower women farmers. 

These projects include initiatives to boost health and production in the poultry and dairy sectors in Burkina Faso and Bangladesh over three years. Ceva is proud to be a beneficiary of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which supports Ceva’s commitment to work together beyond animal health through feeding the world, tackling zoonoses and strengthening the human animal bond.

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