The basics of livestock breeding

16 July 2021 | Agriculture

Windhoek • Erastus Ngaruka

Namibia is predominantly a meat (cattle, sheep, goat) producing country, and many farmers are working hard to improve the genetics and performance of their livestock. This is a challenging undertaking especially for emerging farmers who may lack the necessary skills and financial resources to acquire breeding materials and manage successful breeding programs. Moreover, some of the challenges include the unaffordability of improved breeding stock (e.g. bulls, rams, bucks), unfavourable environmental conditions that compromise adaptability and performance, uncontrolled breeding activities, and lack of breeding information due to the absence of records.
The main source of breeding materials are mainly farmers who specialize in stud breeding operations with a series of strict selection criteria for superior genetics in both large and smallstock. These breeding activities involve the use of animals of the same breed or use a combination of two or more different breeds to produce an offspring with desired traits or characteristics. These breeding systems in livestock production are known as Straightbreeding (pure breeding) and Crossbreeding systems.
Straight breeding is a practice of mating two parent animals of the same breed (e.g. Nguni x Nguni), whereas Crossbreeding involves mating parents from two different breeds (e.g. Nguni x Brahman). Straight breeding ensures continuity and uniformity of the characteristics of the breed. In addition, replacement breeding stock can be maintained within one herd or a flock. On the other hand, crossbreeding strives for breed-complementarity by combining the desired traits or qualities from different breeds to achieve heterosis or hybrid vigor (enhanced performance in offspring).

Creating pure breeds
Furthermore, crossbreeding can produce pure breeds, known as composite or synthetic breeds. For example, a sheep breed such as the Meatmaster (Damara x Dorper), and cattle breeds such as the Bonsmara (Afrikaner x Hereford x Shorthorn) and Simbra (Brahman x Simmental) amongst others are composite breeds developed from crossbreeding systems. These breeding systems have sub-systems that some farmers adopt based on their breeding objectives, for example, inbreeding and linebreeding amongst others. These breeding practices can purposefully be used to mate closely or distantly related animals to retain specific traits within the herd or flock.
However, mating closely related animals continuously poses a higher risk of or the probability of unveiling the least desirable traits in the offspring. For example, inbreeding in some cases is believed to result in stunted growths or abnormalities in progenies (offspring). In conclusion, livestock breeding systems have their advantages and disadvantages, however, the choice of any of the systems should be guided by the owner’s livestock improvement objectives, management abilities, and market or consumer demands. It is therefore advisable for farmers to identify traits that are of economic importance, identify genetic weaknesses in their herds or flocks that needs improvement, and thus, introduce breeding animals that can potentially correct their herd’s or flock’s genetics.
Set your objectives, develop a breeding program and a selection process to maximize production.
*Erastus Ngaruka is a Technical Advisor at Agribank.

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