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Dairy development in the Caribbean

by Gerald PROVERBS

Before 1945, the development of agriculture in the English-speaking Caribbean was based on the production of export crops for the UK market. This system saw the introduction of many crops including sugar, cotton, tobacco, cocoa, bananas and coffee as well as lesser known commodities such as spices (nutmeg, clove, etc.) root crops and pimento.

Livestock production up to the 1920s was relatively insignificant except for oxen, mules and water buffalo, which were the beasts of burden ploughing the fields and hauling crops to the factories and export products to the ships. Milk and meat were produced in a haphazard manner. Meat was available when oxen were slaughtered because of age or illness. Similarly, only when excess milk was produced by the cows bred for bullock production was fresh milk available. However, the quantity of fresh milk could never be guaranteed for any length of time.

Relatively little or no money was spent by the various commodity producer associations to further the development of animal agriculture and because of their influence on the colonial administrators there was little or no interest in establishing a policy to assist in the development of food animal agriculture. Then, in 1938, the West India Royal Commission called for greater attention to be paid to the production of milk, meat, eggs and poultry to improve the nutritional status of the population of the West Indies. Agricultural Policy Committees were subsequently set up in individual countries. As a result, concerted efforts were started initially in Antigua, Jamaica, and Trinidad to develop animal agriculture further.

The next major step was the establishment of the Caribbean Research Council by the Anglo-American Caribbean Commission in 1946. The Commission was made up of representatives of the then colonial powers in the Caribbean, including the United States of America. Between 1940 and 1960, many programmes were started, especially in Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago and to a lesser extent in Barbados and Guyana to improve their dairy industries. These efforts were the foundation for the emergence of the progressive dairy industry which saw milk production reach 116 000 tonnes by 1990.

Jamaica and Guyana together produced 63% or 73 000 t of regional production for 1990. Even at this level Caricom is only meeting 47% of its annual consumption. The remainder is met from imported powdered, condensed and evaporated milk. In 1989, the liquid milk equivalent of 248 1 of powdered milk and 13000 t of condensed and evaporated milk was imported into the region. This clearly demonstrates that though the region has made dramatic strides in developing a dairy industry Caricom governments still rely on cheaper subsidised milk products from the developed countries to feed many of their citizens.

Independence for the Caricom countries began in the early to mid 1960s, at which time the responsibility for livestock policy shifted to the individual governments. However, before independence, many of the then colonies, especially the more developed ones, had established policies to put their fledgling dairy industries on a firmer footing in the expectation that, some time in the foreseeable future, the region would produce sufficient milk to meet the demands of its population in large part if not in full. As a result, the individual countries working in concert identified the constraints to building a sound dairy industry and then set about addressing these constraints through a set of discrete research and development activities.

The constraints identified and given high priority status were: the development of a dairy breed suitable for the prevailing tropical environment and technology level; the introduction of artificial insemination to improve existing cow herds while the more long-term breed development project proceeded; and the introduction, evaluation and distribution of improved tropical forages (grasses and legumes) on which a larger percentage of milk could be produced.

Dairy breed development

In the late 1940s, Dr P. Lecky started his historical work on developing the Jamaican Hope, which was declared a dairy breed in 1952. This work was beginning to show success when, in 1955, the Trinidad and Tobago Department of Agriculture invited Dr Lecky to Trinidad to advise on a breeding programme to produce a type of dairy cow that would be adapted to the climate, available forage and management skills. As a result of this consultation, the Department of Agriculture embarked on the dairy-cattle crossbreeding programme based on a FriesianZebu cross.

During the 1950s and 1960s, milk production increased and calving intervals decreased both in Jamaica and in Trinidad and Tobago.

Artificial insemination

While the breeding programmes were going on in Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago, it was decided that an artificial insemination (AI) service would complement the breeding programme. Up to that time, pure-bred bulls were routinely imported from the UK or the USA for natural service. In the early 1950s, an AI service was initiated in Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago; Barbados and Guyana were next to follow, starting their service in the late 1950s. The Al service initially provided fresh extended semen on a daily basis throughout the countries. This programme proved to be extremely successful and the results satisfied all panics concerned. With this success, the policy makers readily adopted a move to using frozen semen.

Consequently, in the 1960s, the Al service began in Jamaica using frozen semen imported from the USA and Canada. Soon after, Barbados and Trinidad and Tobago began importing semen from Canada and the UK. It was only in 1987 that Guyana began using imported semen in its AI programme.

Farmers quickly recognized the improvements they were obtaining in milk production from their upgraded cattle and so the demand for semen from quality Canadian and American Holstein bulls continued to grow. However, before the ecotypes developed by the crossbreeding programme in Trinidad or the Jamaica Hope could be distributed to a larger number of farmers, many of the regional governments decided that it was more appropriate to import pure-bred Holstein cattle from North America.

Improving tropical forages

Between 1920 and 1940, Jamaica looked at evaluating and selecting forages for dairy cattle production. Researchers found that Guinea grass (Panicum maximum) was preferred to Elephant grass (Pennisetum purpureum) for pasture and that Guinea corn (Sorghum valgare) was better suited for silage than corn (Zea mays) or Guinea grass for silage. Then, in the late 1950s, pangola grass (Digitaria decumbens) was introduced to the region. Because of its high palatability and positive response to nitrogen fertiliser pangola became the forage of choice for the region's dairy farmers.

Fertiliser and dairy concentrates were inexpensive then, and farmers tended to ignore recommendations to try other grasses and legumes available from the various Ministries of Agriculture. However, in spite of the farmers' lack of interest in forages, work continued in Jamaica, Barbados, Guyana and Trinidad. When fertiliser and dairy concentrate became considerably more expensive in the 1970s, there were other grasses and legumes available to farmers for use in their forage systems.

It was at this point that the Caribbean Agricultural Research and Development institute (CARDI) and the University of the West Indies (UWI) began to play a significant part in diversifying the forage base for milk production. By 1979, forage seed production and pasture establishment had become the cornerstone of CARDI's Animal Production Programme. This work was in large part funded by IDRC and the EDF under Lome II.

Importation of Holstein Cattle

In an effort to increase milk production at a faster rate, regional governments, with aid from the various donor agencies, imported large numbers of pure-bred Canadian and American Holstein cows and pregnant heifers. Thousands of Holstein cattle arrived in Barbados Guyana, Jamaica and Trinidad, to the delight of Caribbean dairy farmers. Between 1963 and 1973, Jamaica imported 11 000 Holstein dairy cattle and, between 1961 and 1982, Trinidad imported 7 500 dairy cows, most of which were Holsteins. Barbados imported Over 700 Holsteins between 1967 and 1990 and Guyana imported over 1500 Holstein cows in the same period, the last group including 800 pregnant heifers.

Caribbean governments began setting up small dairy units about the same time in their efforts to increase milk production. Most of the cattle imported were destined for these farmers, who were led to believe that they would overnight garner large profits by switching to the imported cattle. This was not to be the case.

Many of the farmers sold their crossbred ecotypes and bought Holsteins. With their arrival, the farmers' problems increased; the cattle immediately showed severe intolerance to the tropical heat and humidity and susceptibility to tick fever, which resulted in deaths, abortions and depressed milk production. Lower nutritional planes suitable to the Jamaica Hope and the other ecotypes prevented the Holsteins from reaching their milk production potential. Difficulties in getting the cows re-bred resulted in extended calving intervals.

The Governments of St Lucia and St Vincent, with donor funding, imported Friesians and Brown Swiss from the UK in the 1970s to establish dairy enterprises in their countries. Problems similar to those described above were experienced and the financial losses were very high.

At no time during this period did any of the other Caricom governments seriously look to Jamaica as a source of a tropical breed of dairy cattle - the Jamaica Hope. It is indeed unfortunate that such vast sums of money have been spent importing large numbers of the many temperate breeds of dairy cattle over the past 25 years. During this time, Caricom dairy farmers could have become more efficient producers with Jamaica Hope cows in their herds. The Jamaica Hope is capable of producing 1700 litres of milk per hectare when fed 0.4 kg concentrate per litre of milk at a stocking rate of five cows per hectare. Such levels of production have never been achieved by any of the temperate breeds even when supported with skilled management and high quality feedstuffs.

What does the future hold?

It has been suggested that Caricom countries should aim to provide a minimum of 570ml of milk per day for each child of school age, as well as each pregnant and nursing mother. If this nutritional target is to be met, dairy farmers should be producing over 412 million litres of fresh milk now. At the present time the region is producing less than 30% of its minimum requirements and continues to look to the industrial countries to provide the remainder.

The current GATT agreements are calling for a reduction in subsidies, which means that world prices of skinned milk powder and butter oil are expected to increase significantly since producer subsidies on milk in the US and EC are in excess of 60%. This creates a major opportunity for the region's deny industries to expand.



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