By James Murimi
To the doubting Thomas, who still questions the quality of our beef, this is for you: Kenya holds a special place among livestock breeders in the world.
Thanks to the Boran cattle, revered as the hardiest on the continent, the nation is at the centre of global research aimed at boosting animal products.
Steeped in history, the Kenyan Boran possesses pivotal survival characteristics, which include the capacity to stay for long periods without water and feed.
The Animal Genetics Training Resource (AGTR) says Boran cattle thrive well in dry and low rainfall areas because they can withstand high temperatures.
“Boran cattle are versatile, and adapt well to various environments. They are very efficient converters of pasture forage into body fat deposits, which are later, mobilized during periods of feed scarcity and lactation. The cows therefore hardly lose conditions during lactation or slight droughts,” states AGTR.
Due to these unique traits, livestock farmers across Africa have been trooping to the country for a piece of the Boran beef at the dinner table.
Home of Boran cattle
Due to global warming, erratic weather has inspired research in food science and one conservancy in Kenya is now a top stop for scientists in livestock breeding.
The Sirima Cattle Quarantine Centre at the Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Laikipia plays a crucial role in feeding Africa due to its status as the ‘home of the Boran cattle’.
In Laikipia, livestock rearing accounts for about 80 per cent of the average household income. No wonder, the enhancement of the Boran gene through selective breeding to produce the best rangeland converters in the world takes place here.
Most of the South African Borans have their roots in Kenya. Statistics show that Kenya has the largest pool of Borans, original and improved, from which to choose.
At Sirima, embryo transfer biotechnology has been explored as an alternative mode of exporting bovine Borans to South Africa so as to avert the spread of diseases.
It’s the largest embryo transfer facility in East Africa and has been involved in biotechnology for more than two decades. It also works with Embryo Class, a South African organisation.
Embryo transfer is an advanced reproductive technology of moving an egg from an elite cow to a recipient to complete the gestation period.
The conservancy’s managing director, Richard Vigne, said they have exported over 4,000 embryos. The Boran is in high demand in South Africa because it can live in arid conditions and produce beef quite well.
“Boran is considered by many South African breeders to be superior to what they have. Kenya has been unable to control livestock diseases and so countries that love our type are unwilling to import live cattle from us because of the risk of transmissions,” said Mr Vigne.
“Embryo transfer is an expensive procedure but it is the only option that is open to us if we have to export our type. I don’t have a clear figure of the total cost of embryo transfer but it is a huge investment.
“We engage a consortium of scientists from South Africa and other embryo specialists we have trained locally in our veterinary department. The government should invest in tackling livestock diseases so that live animals can be exported internationally,” he added.
The conservancy has about 7,000 head of Boran cattle, which are usually selectively handpicked for embryo harvest. There is an expansive pre-quarantine paddock where experts monitor the selected cattle for 21 days to ascertain that they do not have reproductive diseases.
Fastest growing beef breed
The supervisor, Eugene Gachie, said they collect samples and test for brucellosis, foot-and-mouth, bovine tuberculosis, contagious bovine pleuropneumonia (CBPP) and any other diseases.
“Once we have made sure that the cattle are healthy, we move them to the quarantine paddock where we commence the process of embryo transfer,” said Mr Gachie.
“We synchronise and super-ovulate the cattle through artificial insemination (AI). After seven days, we harvest the embryos and examine them to ensure they are viable. They are frozen in liquid nitrogen until they are thawed,” he added.
They are then exported to South Africa, where they are preserved in a quarantine centre before being implanted into surrogate mothers. Only 50 per cent of embryos end up developing into calves. During our visit, 100 cattle were set for the procedure.
The Boran is now the fastest-growing beef breed in South Africa. The Rainbow Nation imported its first embryos from Ol Pejeta in 1994 and the animal’s registered population has grown to over 40,000.
Ol Pejeta genes can also be found in Tanzania, Uganda, Zimbabwe and Zambia. “We endeavour to remain a top producer of Boran genetics so as to continue satisfying the global demand,” said Mr Vigne.