AMES, Iowa – Five years ago, Curtis Youngs was in Ethiopia training researchers on bovine embryo transfers. Talking to the father of an Ethiopian colleague, Youngs mentioned there are dairy cows in the U.S. that can produce 60 liters (about 16 gallons) of milk per day at peak lactation.
“I don’t believe it,” the man said. “Bring me one of those cows so I can see it myself.”
Inspired by that conversation, Youngs expanded an existing collaboration with the skeptic’s son, Tamrat Degefa Geleto, lead researcher at Debre Zeit Agricultural Research Center in Bishoftu, Ethiopia. Their joint efforts to breed better Ethiopian dairy cattle have taken off. Some cows are now producing nearly 30 liters of milk a day, a drastic increase from the 1 or 2 liters typical in Ethiopia. The production gains are pronounced enough to draw widespread interest from area dairy farmers and additional investment from the national government.
“When I was there last summer, we stopped to visit some farmers. Everyone was smiling from ear to ear and profusely thankful. But they also were saying, ‘We want more!’” said Youngs, Morrill Professor of animal science and M.E. Ensminger Chair of International Animal Agriculture at Iowa State University. “The project has gained a lot of attention, which is amplifying its impact.”
Youngs’ impact is getting attention, too. This summer the institute recognized his role in the burgeoning boost to Ethiopian dairy genetics by naming one of their research facilities the Professor Curtis R. Youngs Assisted Reproductive Technologies Laboratory. The lab in Bishoftu, a city of about 200,000 people in central Ethiopia, is a major component of the federally funded Ethiopian Institute of Agricultural Research.
“It’s a wonderful honor to be appreciated to that level, but it’s a bit humbling. I just showed up here and there. It was the team on the ground in country doing all the work,” Youngs said.
Geleto said the acknowledgment is well-deserved, as Youngs’ contributions have been pivotal in introducing modern dairy-breeding methods in Ethiopia. On a personal level, he’s also been an influential mentor, he said.
“Curtis is a genuine professional with high-caliber knowledge and skill, and a very kind heart to help anybody in need. I learned patience, kindness and persistence from him,” he said.
A place to make a difference
Youngs began working with Geleto in 2012 through the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Borlaug Fellowship Program, which connects U.S. scientists with counterparts from developing nations for training and research to promote food security and economic growth. In the past two decades, Youngs has mentored four Borlaug fellows, including Geleto and researchers from Peru, Algeria and Kosovo.
Collaborating with an Ethiopian dairy scientist was appealing to Youngs because of the nation’s substantial potential and pressing need for improvement, he said. Ethiopia has Africa’s largest livestock population and ample grazing land, but the indigenous cattle are not strong milk producers, which helps explain why Ethiopians on average only consume about 10% of the milk recommended by the World Health Organization.
“The lack of milk is particularly hard on young children and pregnant women,” Youngs said. “This was a logical place to make a big difference.”
Youngs at first worked with Geleto on embryo transfer techniques, an increasingly common breeding method for quickly spreading preferred genetics in dairy and beef cattle. The collaboration included 10 weeks of training for Geleto at Iowa State, an additional USDA grant and four trips by Youngs to Ethiopia.
After Geleto’s father asked to see American dairy production in action, Youngs and Geleto decided to pursue a project crossbreeding Ethiopian Boran cows with Holstein bulls. The Boran breed is native to Africa and well-adapted to conditions there, while Holsteins are the mainstay of U.S. dairy herds. Geleto recruited farmers and led insemination efforts. Youngs secured the needed supplies through corporate donations, including “sexed” semen from bulls prone to siring high-production daughters. Sexed semen, another technological advance widely used in U.S. cattle breeding, increases the chances of female offspring from 50-50 to roughly 90%.
“In the dairy world, everything is about pregnancy,” Youngs said.
Prior attempts at sex-selected insemination had presented challenges in Ethiopia, so Youngs advised Geleto and his team to carefully select healthy cows owned by farmers committed to their ongoing care. The crossbreeding is concentrated in three communities they call “model dairy villages,” where word about the project spreads among neighbors.
“The best way to sell a technology is to have farmers tell their success stories to other farmers,” Youngs said.
Since the initiative launched in 2019, more than 360 calves have been born and the first generation is actively producing milk. Youngs anticipated that the first crossbred cows would yield 10-12 liters of milk daily (about 3 gallons), a target the program’s most productive cows are more than doubling. Inseminations with sexed semen in the model dairy village project have a pregnancy rate of nearly 70%, twice the average for a typical U.S. dairy herd.
Foundation for growth
Genetic improvement is a more extended process in animal agriculture than in growing crops, but there’s an encouraging foundation to build on in Ethiopia, Youngs said. A grant from an Ethiopian federal biotechnology institute will fund nine additional model dairy villages. Geleto said farmers involved in the project have been featured in national TV and radio reports.
Youngs said some colleagues have asked why the model dairy villages work so well. He attributes their success to rigorous screening and training, as well as the unwavering dedication of participating farmers. In 2022, on the sixth of his seven total visits to Ethiopia, Youngs toured a model dairy village near Denkaka. He wasn’t sure what was happening when a woman saw him and immediately ran inside her house. She quickly returned outside carrying one of her calves, eager to show it off.
“She was keeping the calf in her house. That’s a testament to how excited and proud farmers are about these calves,” Youngs said.
They have reason to be excited. More successful pregnancies producing more females who are more productive all translates directly to more milk. That brings economic advantages for dairy farmers and nutritional benefits for the local community. Over time, a boost in milk yields could lead to a new industry.
“If everyone has excess milk, farmers could buy a cooler tank and keep it until a processer comes to pick it up. They are years and years from having that built up, but I’m an optimist and you have to take baby steps,” Youngs said.
There’s also some environmental upside. Farmers with more productive cattle can maintain smaller herds, reducing resource consumption and greenhouse gas emissions. As part of the World Food Prize Foundation’s 2023 Borlaug Dialogue, Youngs will moderate an Oct. 25 panel on sustainable livestock production’s role in increasing global food security. It’s a subject he’s passionate about.
“This is what I need to spend my remaining years on Earth doing, helping people use the power of education and technology to feed themselves,” he said.