by Yoseph Mekasha, Tesfaye Shewage, Solomon Gizaw and Azage Tegegne
Despite being an important component of livestock farming, the productivity of sheep in the Sidama Highlands of southern Ethiopia is generally low and gives minimal income to smallholder farmers. One of the main constraints to sheep farming in this area is the low genetic potential for functional traits of the indigenous animals kept by farmers.
Working with local partners, the Livestock and Irrigation Value Chain for Ethiopian Smallholders (LIVES) Project, is carrying out interventions geared towards improving the genetic potential of indigenous sheep in the region.
Terminal cross-breeding of indigenous sheep with selected Bonga rams is taking place in peri-urban areas of Arbegona district of Sidama zone that have access for markets. In this program, cross-bred males are being sold to the market directly when they reach market age/weight or after value addition through fattening. This approach is expected to minimize the risk of back crossing and contribute to genetic preservation of indigenous stock.
In November 2015, improved Bonga rams were introduced to the Muchucho peasant association in Arbegona District from Kefa zone in southwestern Ethiopia which has a similar agro-ecology. The Bonga indigenous rams were selected for their fast growth, large body size and twining by community sheep breeders in Kefa zone.
In the lead up to the breed improvement initiative, a suitable breeding strategy and business model was agreed with producers and extension staff in Muchucho. The project also organized skill-based training on breeding ram management, ram sharing, improved feeding and housing, cooperative marketing and breeding methods.
A sheep ‘terminal cross-breeding group’ was also established in the peasant association. The breeding group has 5 mating sub-groups based on the number of rams where each has 20-25 breeding ewes. Ram managers were selected by the members and hand mating breeding method is used. Each breeding ram is expected to serve for a year and rotate to other villages during the other years to avoid inbreeding (mating of closely related population). As per the decision of the breeders group, ram managers are expected to charge ETB 3 per mating service to cover primarily medication and feed cost.
The breeders group has developed by-laws on use and management of breeding rams, ram rotation, mating service charge, role and responsibilities of breeders’ group members and ram managers. The LIVES project has coached and mentored this group alongside training offered by the offices of the district cooperative, and livestock and fisheries departments.
Up until the end of May 2016, the number of ewes served by Bonga rams across the 5 mating groups were 135 (on average, about 27 ewes per ram), of which 23 ewes have lambed recently. Further, out of the total number of ewes delivered, 11 lambed twins, leading to a sum of 34 lambs born from 23 ewes.
Although early, initial results show that the twinning rate (47.8%) observed was higher than the 17% reported for local Arsi-Bale breeds. More lambs are expected from the remaining pregnant ewes in this rainy season and mating with Bonga rams has continued in the area. There is an increasing interest in the program by producers who say that cross-bred lambs grow fast and have larger body frames within four weeks after birth compared to local breeds. Consequently, non-member producers have started using the Bonga rams service at higher price than the amount charged by members. The total number of ewes mated by non-member users is 25.
These initial results are encouraging but the average number of ewes served per ram during the last six months (27 ewes/ram) was low. This could be attributed to the shortage of fodder supply since breeding has occurred during the dry season. These results show the importance of matching the sheep mating period with fodder availability to improve the efficiency of rams and conception rates. In future, this will be explored through oestrus synchronization with hormones, which is underway through LIVES and its partners.
The LIVES project is also working with partners on community-based sheep and goat selective breeding in Bensa District of Sidama and Mirababaya District of Gamogofa zones.