The Cumbria vet whose science is helping to feed people in Africa

A vet has flown to Africa to meet the first calf born through a ground breaking project to improve food security and increase milk production.

Mark Boland travelled to Zimbabwe to further the project started two and a half years ago and to see Poshi, the first calf born as a result of the initial embryos implanted by Paragon Vets, which took cutting-edge genetics from Cumbria to Zimbabwe.

Mr Boland, lead embryo transfer technician with Paragon Veterinary Group based in Dalston, said the scheme focussed on addressing the problem of low milk production in the southern African country.

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He explained: “The dairy industry is reasonably modernised now but nowhere near meets the demand for milk. So a lot of milk powder and milk is imported from neighbouring nations.

“Obviously, they need to improve that situation and there are two ways of doing it. The first is to buy or breed more cows and produce more milk that way, which is easier said than done.

“The quality and availability of good cows in that part of the world isn’t fantastic. Also the infrastructure required to milk the additional number of cows that would be needed to step up the milk production isn’t going to happen overnight.”

The other way, he said, was through improved genetics, but that brings its own challenges.

Poshi, the first calf born as a result of the initial embryos implanted by Paragon Vets
Poshi, the first calf born as a result of the initial embryos implanted by Paragon Vets

“We can’t take out high genetic animals to Zimbabwe. It’s been tried before in Africa and it just doesn’t work. The imported cattle thrive for a few months, but then start to struggle due to heat stress and native diseases.

“Its not a comfortable environment for imported cattle that are used to a temperate climate. So we need to think of another way to introduce the genetics whereby they’ll survive in the different conditions out there.”

The solution has been to produce embryos in Paragon’s laboratories by their IVF and Embryo Transfer teams, using genomics to select the optimum traits from donor animals, and implant them in Zimbabwean cows, thereby combining the best of both worlds.

Mr Boland said: “Those local animals will carry these embryos for the nine months that it takes for the pregnancy. When the calf is born it gains natural immunity to disease from its recipient mother, and also starts life in the conditions it is going to experience for the rest of its days.

“So it acclimatises well, it has a resistance to native diseases and is a very quick way of introducing high-quality genetics into a foreign country.”

The project took cutting-edge genetics from Cumbria to Zimbabwe.
The project took cutting-edge genetics from Cumbria to Zimbabwe.

He added: “We selected the donor animals alongside our colleagues in this project in Zimbabwe, using genomics to find the traits that we believe would be best for dairy production in the country.

“But the most important trait for them was obviously the ability to transmit enhanced milk production. A lot of the resultant calves that will be born have the potential to produce at least double the amount of milk that the local cows were producing. This is very exciting for the guys in Zimbabwe.”

Mr Boland emphasised that the project had been very much a team effort between Paragon, Nottingham University, the farm in Zimbabwe belonging to project partners, Dendairy, and assisted by Nurture, a local finance/genetics company. The project was supported by the UK Government body Innovate.

Their work, however, was impacted by the pandemic which shut down travel to Africa. Having first met Poshi shortly after her birth in March 2020, Mr Boland was finally able to see her again after restrictions were lifted in the autumn.

“Poshi means the first in Shona, the local language. She was the first embryo calf to be born in Zimbabwe from the very first implant. So she is special to them and special to us.

“When I visited in November she was 18-20 months of age and they had already bred her. She’s now happily in calf and due to calf around March next year. We’re eagerly awaiting to see what she produces.”

He added: “The project has been a success to the point where we’ve managed to take the embryos out to Zimbabwe, we’ve managed to implant them successfully into surrogate mothers, the calves have been born and they’re doing very nicely.

“We haven’t quite been able to finish what we wanted, basically due to Covid. But we’ve learnt an awful lot within the project.

“It’s been a real team effort from a lot of people and that’s why it has been so successful.”

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