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Save the national herd

Dr Jonathan Mufandaendza.

The looming drought comes at a heavy cost to the local farming community whose livelihoods heavily rely on livestock.
Thousands of cattle have already succumbed to the erratic weather conditions and the situation is getting worse by each passing day.
Certainly, there is urgent need to implement innovative and sustainable technological interventions in order to save the national herd.
One such technology is animal biotechnology.
A vast array of biotechnological techniques that include artificial breeding, disease diagnosis and treatment and microbial mediated stock feed production can be exploited.
Artificial insemination (AI) is the process of collecting sperm cells from a male animal and manually depositing them into the reproductive tract of a female to induce pregnancy.
Artificial insemination provides a simple route for conferring multiple desirable traits, including drought tolerance to the resultant offspring.
For example, if indigenous livestock is bred with foreign cattle breeds that are accustomed to hot weather, the resultant offspring will have a better chance of surviving in drought conditions.
In 2013, research scientists in US successfully used artificial insemination to cross breed their local livestock with Indian and African cattle breeds which are more tolerant to drought conditions. The project was a success.
Currently in Zimbabwe, there is feed and water shortages. Potential migratory strategies include drilling boreholes, wells and construction of waterholes.
Feed production through biotechnological processes such as microbial mediated fermentation can go a long way in ensuring the provision of quality feed of high nutritional value and palatability to the affected herds.
In line with the Zim-Asset value addition and beneficiation agenda, fermentation can be used to add value to the otherwise problematic industrial waste produced by the food manufacturing and processing industry, thereby deriving maximum benefits and spurring livestock production.
Waste such as spent brewer’s yeast which contains high levels of protein and rumen content from abattoirs can be fermented to unlock valuable nutrients and produce stock feed supplements of exceptional quality.
In addition, the application of biotechnology, specifically genetic engineering, has resulted in the development of recombinant bacteria.
These bacteria are capable of producing specific enzymes and hormones that improve nutrient utilisation which can increase productivity (eg somatotropin) and or decrease environmental impact (eg phytase).
Fiber-degrading enzymes have also been used to increase feed digestion and metabolism in animals.
During droughts, livestock health is compromised and the susceptibility of herds to contract diseases is high.
The latter can be attributed to the high temperatures being experienced, which can lead to accelerated activation of dormant pathogens that may be present in the environment.
Also due to the increased movement of livestock in search of pasture and water over large distances, the chances of livestock contracting diseases such as the deadly foot and mouth and anthrax from neighbouring affected zones is a disturbing reality.
Two major challenges arise from the outbreak of such diseases — the need for rapid diagnosis and effective treatment.
However, biotechnological diagnostic techniques would be applied in order to increase the precision of disease detection as well as disease control and treatment.
Reliable rapid diagnosis can be accomplished by the use of advanced molecular techniques such as the used of mono-clonal antibodies, enzyme-linked immunosorbent assays and radio-immunoassays.
Treatment can be administered in the form of vaccines developed through biotechnological means.
Vaccination is an indispensable method for maintaining animal health and recombinant vaccines which offer potential advantages over traditional vaccines in terms of specificity, stability and safety are better options.
Vaccination has been widely used as a cost-effective measure to control infectious diseases, as exemplified by the soon-to-be-confirmed eradication of rinderpest.
However, few recombinant vaccines are being produced commercially and their use in developing countries is negligible.
It is vital to note that where technologies are used, the observation of key bio-safety regulatory requirements becomes a prerequisite.
It is imperative to note that biotechnology in combination with other drought management strategies can provide a lasting solution to the impending disaster. Such a holistic approach will go a long way in saving our national herd.

Dr Jonathan Mufandaedza is the registrar and chief executive officer of the National Biotechnology Authority of Zimbabwe.

Last modified on 10 February 2016

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