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.
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
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
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
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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