By Carol Natukunda
The herdsmen whistled. The cows mowed. It was 4:00pm, milking time. As a child, that signal got Eliaza Ariho on his toes. His job was to get everything ready for the herdsmen; the stools, the buckets and milk cans and sieves.
He would then go along with his siblings to fetch water from the well, which the cows would drink later. Cattle-keeping was a part of his life.
His father owned over 100 head of long horned cattle in Kashasha. And in the neighbouring communities, everyone owned cattle. As he grew older, he knew he had to tend the cattle.
“I loved animals. I started with goats, but later switched to bulls and they increased to over 20 cows,” he says. Seeing them grazing across the lowlands, their long gigantic horns shining from a distance, Ariho felt a sense of pride.
As he grew older, he realised that there was actually not much he was gaining from the traditional Ankole cow. He had a family to feed and school fees to pay.
With globalisation and technology of artificial insemination setting in, he realised that people who had the Friesians were making more money. He slowly switched and today, he has only two Ankole cows left. The rest of his 20 cows are exotic.
He says whereas a good Ankole cow costs sh400,000, an exotic cow costs about sh2.5m or more. A week-old Friesian calf can cost as much as sh300,000.
He notes that the Ankole breeds take longer to mature, reproduce less frequently and produce less milk.
“The best you can milk from a well-fed Ankole cow is five itres,” he says. On the other hand, an exotic cow can give 10-25 litres of milk daily.
He further explains that while the milk of an Ankole cow has higher butter/fat content or is concentrated, the Fresian cow is still better, since its milk production is higher.
A matter or survival
But Ariho is not the only one who has to change his stock. In recent decades, many traditional cattle keepers are changing from Ankole to Friesian cattle.
In 2005, the Food and Agriculture Organisation reported that at least 20% of the world’s estimated 7,600 livestock breeds, among them the Ankole cow, were in danger of extinction. The agency warned of a potential “meltdown” in the indigenous livestock.
“It is about survival. If there is anyone still keeping the Ankole cows it is because of prestige, but not because of milk or commercial benefits,” he says.
Ariho says if it were not for demonstration purposes and nurturing other cattle keepers, he would have sold even the two Ankole cows he is left with.
In 2008, the World Bank published a report saying it was time to place farming at the centre of development.
Highly productive livestock breeds, the World Bank asserts, can alleviate poverty.
“We do not have disease-resistant local breeds,” said Chris Delgado, an agriculture policy adviser at the World Bank. He said this has made people lose interest in local breeds, a trend that is worrying many scientists.
“Unless we have gene banks to conserve the sperm and ovaries of our native animals, we won’t have what to show our future generations,” says Evaristo Barigye, a veterinary doctor in Mbarara district.
Why the Ankole cow still wins
The Ankole long-horned cow is better adapted to semi-arid conditions. According to Carlos Ser, the Director General of the International Livestock Research Institute, the reliance on exotic animal breeds poses a high risk because they cannot cope with unpredictable fluctuations in the environment or disease outbreaks when introduced in some developing countries such as Uganda.
Information available on the website of the Pastoral Environmental Network in the horn of Africa also maintains that the Ankole cows can endure seasonal movement and do not require expensive investments in water points and veterinary care — making it the backbone of the pastoral economy.
In the FAO report, scientists say that during the long drought spells for example, some farmers that keep their hardy Ankole breeds were able to walk the long distances to water sources, while those who had traded the Ankole for imported breeds lost their entire herds.
But a herder like Ariho says the rule of economics applies.
“In economics, you have to put in more to gain more. The Friesian can eat even 100 kilogrammes of grass. It is more expensive to breed, but you know that at the end of the day, it will profit you,” he says.
“If a Fresian is well taken care of, with good feeding and vaccination, it cannot fall sick easily,” he adds.
Ariho says he has been able to buy a car, a house and send his children to school because of his exotic cattle.
Experts not worried
Dr. Nicholas Kauta, the commissioner in charge of livestock in Uganda, argues that the Ankole cattle cannot become instinct.
He argues that even if farmers abandon the local breed, veterinarians will preserve it in a gene bank.
Indeed the Entebbe-based National Animal Genetic Resource Centre and Data Bank has been storing sperms from bulls of the Ankole breed for breeding purposes.
Kauta said Uganda’s cattle population stood at about six million, of which four million were indigenous breeds including Ankole cattle in western Uganda, Zebu cattle in eastern and northern Uganda and Nganda cattle in central Uganda.
“When you consider the percentages of the indigenous and exotic breeds, there is no way our local breeds can become extinct because the gene bank has been set up with a good breeding policy for the present and the future,” Kauta argued.