Dairy farmers know that good dairy businesses rely on producing both high quality milk as well as high volumes. The quality of milk depends on management, but the quantity of milk depends largely on genetics.
Genetic improvement is one of the pillars of NCBA CLUSA’s USDA-funded Safe Agriculture | Food Export Project (SAFE) in the Dominican Republic, known locally as Progana. One of the project’s partners, GENEX Cooperative, recently visited to follow-up with the project’s initiatives and activities that support the genetic improvement of cattle in Dominican Republic. We sat down with Kasey Dix, International Sales Regional Manager, and Dennis Jahnke, Artificial Insemination Specialist, to speak about the progress of improved cattle genetics in Dominican Republic.
GENEX is a cooperative, owned by beef and dairy producers, that specializes as a world-class provider of reproductive solutions, known for its ability to adapt their services to the needs of local environments. Traditionally, cattle ranchers would improve their herds through natural mating and cross breeding. But with the emergence of artificial insemination, many farmers have found a more cost-effective and reliable way to improve herd genetics. However, for artificial insemination to work properly, many other basic factors have to be in place.
In the Dominican Republic, less than 2 percent of cattle farms use artificial insemination, failing to maximize their potential. Equipment, trained personnel and a few other pieces have to be in place for artificial insemination to work for the pocket of the cattle rancher.
The benefits of artificial insemination
Artificial insemination is an important tool for livestock improvement. It provides a way for superior bulls to be used on the farm without needing them to physically be on the farm. There is no need to maintain a breeding bull for a herd, which saves on the feed and maintenance costs from the extra bull. Additionally, studies have shown that artificial insemination increases the rate of conception while considerably reducing both genital and non-genital diseases in cattle.
Cattle farming innovations
GENEX works all over the world, wherever there is livestock. The company exports their products to 60 countries, with new ones added every year. In Latin America, GENEX works in almost every country, with the exception of Mexico and Brazil.
The USDA SAFE Project and GENEX Co-op have been partnering on training, management and supporting farmers to apply improved technologies to increase their income. GENEX is designing a manual for Dominican Republic called “The Importance of Artificial Insemination” on how to establish and sustainably manage “insemination routes” that serve farmers.
“Before, I was here teaching extension workers and also breeders in the technique of insemination, in addition to bull selection and the economics of insemination in comparison with natural breeding,” Jahnke said.
The work of SAFE’s partnership with GENEX is already yielding results. In September 2018, GENEX visited the Dominican Republic and held insemination demonstrations throughout the country. At that time, there were no economically viable insemination programs operating in the country. Now, less than 6 months later, SAFE and GENEX have assisted with the establishment of two new programs, one in the eastern province of Hato Mayor and the other in the southwestern province of San Juan.
“You have to have small-scale projects that allow you to have more control… When these areas are successful, then, the neighboring farmers will see what has happened and from there it will spread throughout the country,” Jahnke said.
Ensuring cattle nutrition
In order for artificial insemination to work, other factors in the value chain must also be in place. In particular, the GENEX specialists stressed that in order for a cow to maintain a certain level of production throughout the year, the farmer has to be able to guarantee food year-round. This is especially true considering that the Dominican Republic has been affected by climate change, bringing more severe drought seasons every year.
Corn and soy as animal feed are not great options in the Dominican Republic due to the weather. So, farmers have to look for creative and local solutions for their feed.
“In Wisconsin, where I live, in winter everything is covered in snow and everything dies, so one has to store food for the cows. And that’s like here, they have rainy seasons and drought seasons. So, that’s one thing they have to put a lot of pressure on, because a cow that gives birth in September when there’s a lot of rain, the next year in June, if there is not enough food, is going to dry out… You have to have food for that cow to maintain a level of production throughout the year, because if the production lowers too much, the farmer does not have money in his pocket,” Jahnke said.
Keeping cows healthy
Another barrier identified by GENEX for successful artificial insemination in Dominican Republic is the weak state of cattle health. The country is still facing outbreaks of brucellosis, tuberculosis and leptospirosis among cattle, minimizing the productivity and livelihood of the animal. In the U.S., these diseases were virtually eradicated over 50 years ago after cattle ranchers worked with the government to make calf vaccinations mandatory. Jahnke says that this was only done with pressure from the cattle ranchers’ associations and that Dominican associations should look to that example for similar ways to tackle their problems, taking advantage of their growing strength.
“Now, the associations are pretty strong here, I’m glad to see that. I lived here 43 years ago, as a volunteer for the Peace Corps. At that time, they were carrying milk from the village on a donkey and now they have associations with milk tanks, and you have associations that are already involved in artificial insemination. There has been a lot of progress,” Jahnke said.
Along with trainings, GENEX also visits the Dominican Republic to research the best solutions for the different scenarios in cattle farms around the country to ensure that those interested in artificial insemination in the future have a reliable supplier that adjusts to their needs.
“I’m already looking at what the situation really is like and taking into account how we can bring quality products here. Then, the idea is that I ensure that products are available such as nitrogen tanks for chilling semen from different bulls… that will really be a benefit for farmers in the future,” Dix said.
She says that GENEX will measure their success by the farmers’ willingness to multiply the seeds planted by the USDA SAFE Project in other parts of the country.
“Having success means others want the same. Just like in the U.S., those who started with artificial insemination or anything—a new tractor, a new car—if they do well, the neighbors will want it. If they can see that one person has more money in his pocket, they say ‘I want that too,'” Dix said.
“So, the program, if successful, will grow, and I think it will grow fast because people learn especially when they see (the monetary benefit). And for the people who live off of cattle ranching, that’s the important thing: they want to continue making their living from livestock,” she added.