Caribbean Agriculture: 100 years of Livestock Development in Jamaica

This year marks 100 years of livestock development in Jamaica. But 60 years after Jamaica gave the Western Hemisphere its first breed of cattle, the achievements of local animal scientists are under threat because of declines in the beef and milk sectors.

Henry Rainford, managing director of the Jamaica Livestock Association is supporting the idea that the reduction in the numbers and the quality of the Jamaica Hope breed is directly linked to the crises in the local beef and dairy farming industries. Farmers now say the survival of the four local breeds of cattle and particularly the Jamaica Hope, the backbone of the local dairy industry are at risk.

“In the last five years there has been a distinct decline (of the Jamaica Hope) and it is has been a reflection of the dairy sector,” veteran dairy farmer and president of the Jamaica Hope Breed Society Betty Wates said. Some farmers have slaughtered their animals simply to pay the bills, she said because “increases in the farm gate price of milk are outpaced by the cost of production”.

Livestock development has its geneses in 1881, when government purchased 200 acres of Hope Estate to establish an experimental garden. In 1910, work that would lead to the development of the Jamaica Hope began with the testing of several European breeds of cattle to find one suited to local conditions. It was not until 1951, however, that a local scientist named Thomas P. Lecky, was able to find the right blend of species to develop the Jamaica Hope, a tropical milk animal. By 1952, the Jamaica Hope and the Jamaica Brahman from which the Jamaica Red was later developed had achieved breed status and international acclaim. The Jamaica Black was developed for the cooler areas of the island.

The development local cattle breeds not only revolutionised dairy farming in Jamaica, but also made it possible for hillside farmers to own cattle and produce milk and beef. The preservation of the breed is important as the Hope, the Jamaica Red, the Jamaica Black and the Jamaica Brahman are specially developed for the tropics.

Preservation and development of local breeds are the responsibilities of breed societies, however, while accepting the charge, Wates is calling for more government investment to protect Lecky’s legacy because of the “extent to which the herd is being watered down” because of poor breeding and record keeping and the lack registration.

“A lot of us do not keep good records therefore you get cows that are not good quality. Cows that look like but are not Jamaica Hope… Some of us, me included have used jersey semen to improve the udder size,” she said.

Concerned that more needs to be done to preserve the qualities that make it suitable for the local environment, Wates pointed to the need for significant government investment to for continued improvement of the Jamaica Hope. Despite highly qualified staff the cattle research facility at the Bodles Agricultural Research Station, Wates said, the facility is unable to meet the research needs of the breeds. Bodles holds the nucleus herd of the Jamaica Hope.

Deputy director of livestock at Bodles Jasmine Holness acknowledged the need for development but noted, it is the role of the breed societies. She is concerned by the lack of recent appraisals of Jamaica Hope animals despite continued breeding. Appraisals allow cattle experts to keep track of the herds and the breed by selecting the best animals for reproduction purposes.

Appraisals are dependent the register of animals and both attract fees.

“Bodles continues to maintain the integrity of the breed through selective breeding and the sale of high quality Jamaica Hope animals and semen to farmers,” Holness said.

Also known as the Jersey-Zebu, Montgomery-Jersey, the Jamaica Hope is a complex mix of 12 or so breeds creating a breed of dairy cattle that was suitable for the local climate. It signaled “hope” for the local population as its smaller frame, its high resistance to ticks and tick borne diseases and its ability to produce large quantities of milk, even in times of drought or in poor pasture conditions, made it suitable for small farmers who cultivated the hillsides.

In addition to farmer experiments, the Jamaica Hope Breed Society has revived the use of embryo transfer as a way to improve the Hope Breeds. The Agriculture faculty of the University of the West Indies in Trinidad and Tobago is also engaged in work that includes the Jamaica Hope breed.

“We learnt a lot, Wates said of the embryo transfers, noting that the age of the heifer and the quality of the seamen is important for success. What is also important, she said is the fact locals are now able to carry out the procedure. Zadie Neufville

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