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[NAIROBI] Dairy farmers in East Africa could soon benefit from superior, affordable cattle breeds through a US$1 million research project.

The Dairy Genetics East Africa (DGEA) initiative aims to help smallholders take full advantage of the region's booming dairy sector and improve their incomes by giving them access to top quality breeds better suited to their local environments.

The International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) will collaborate with the University of New England, Australia, and non-profit consulting firm PICO Eastern Africa (PICOTEAM), to collect information from Kenyan and Ugandan farmers about which breeds they prefer and why, and collect genetic samples from the animals those farmers currently own.

DGEA will also examine environmental factors such as rainfall and water availability, temperature and available feed resources, to match breeds to local ecological zones.

At the end of the three-year project partners hope to develop a business plan in collaboration with the private sector, through which better quality animals will be bred and sold to smallholders at affordable prices.

"This innovative idea seeks to address historical constraints to dairy development in East Africa more broadly," said Ed Rege, a project leader at PICOTEAM.

The majority of smallholders starting dairy farming or wishing to breed or replace their cows do not have access to breeds that best match their production environments, said Okeyo Mwai, the project's coordinator at ILRI.

Many farmers also lack evidence-based knowledge about which breeds are most appropriate for their production systems or where to obtain them, he said. They usually buy new cattle from their neighbours or large commercial farms — but these are often ill-suited to their local conditions, he added.

"This project aims to use on-farm data to assess the performance of the various dairy cattle genotypes, in order to determine how they perform under a range of farm conditions," said Mwai.

Mathew Kibaara, a private veterinary practitioner and Kenya's former deputy director of veterinary services, welcomed the initiative but warned it would take more than the planned three years to produce results.

"Three years is not adequate to carry out a field study on the cows kept and reasons for preferences, conduct genotyping to come up with improved breeds and have them ready for sale," he told SciDev.Net.