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Myanmar's Dairy Farmers Benefit from Cattle Breeding Programme Using Nuclear-based Techniques


Zaw Oo, a dairy farmer in Myanmar, has seen his income increase and costs fall as a result of switching to artificial insemination of his cows. (Photo: M. Gaspar/IAEA) 

Lay Htaung Kan Village, Myanmar – Small scale dairy farmer Zaw Oo from this village in southern Myanmar may seem an unlikely beneficiary of nuclear science. But an isotopic technique used to breed more productive dairy cows at lower costs has enabled him to escape poverty and build a better future for his three children.

His life changed in 2014, thanks to Oo’s participation in an artificial insemination scheme, sponsored by the local dairy company that buys his milk. Switching to the use of artificial semen to fertilize his cows has allowed Oo to sell his bulls and save 600,000 kyat (US $500) a month in fodder costs as a result. It has also freed up space in his tiny farmstead for more cows. Having invested his savings in additional cows, Oo has moved from subsistence farming to building a small business.

“I have no expertise in any other line of business than dairy farming,” he said. “Thanks to this improvement, I can now build a future for my family.”

Tin Win, owner of Silvery Pearl Dairy, has seen his business boom after swithching to artificial insemination using the semen of superior breeds. (Photo: M. Gaspar/IAEA)

Read more here on how nuclear and isotopic techniques contribute to the production of high quality semen worldwide, including in many developing countries. Nuclear and nuclear derived technologies have also been used to detect viruses like foot and mouth disease, and the IAEA, the FAO and their partners have helped Myanmar’s veterinary laboratory buy materials and acquire expertise (see Fighting foot and mouth disease using nuclear techniques).

Cows borne through artificial insemination with the semen of superior breeds produce more milk and better calves, yielding further benefits, said Tin Win, owner of the Silvery Pearl Dairy, the local company that buys Oo’s milk. Silvery Pearl switched to artificial insemination of its own cows back in 2008, and has seen yields increase from around 6.5 litres of milk per cow per day to close to nine litres.

Improving native cattle breeds through genetic selection in such a way that they produce more milk but still retain their adaptability to the local environment and their tolerance to local diseases is crucial in sustainably increasing their productivity. Various nuclear and nuclear-derived technologies exist to support such genetic selection procedures. The IAEA and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) have jointly supported Myanmar’s Livestock Breeding and Veterinary Department in perfecting and rolling out these techniques across the country.

More milk, please

Cows in Silvery Pearl Dairy born as a result of artificial insemination produce 45% more milk. (Photo: M. Gaspar/IAEA) 

The increased purchasing power of Myanmar’s population, thanks to the country’s economic boom over the last few years, has led to increased demand for animal products, including dairy. The country’s government has prioritized the support of dairy farming and would like to see the number of dairy cows increase significantly from just 500,000 today, said Ok Kar Soe, Head of the Animal Genetic Upgrading and Research Centre. The lab has benefited from equipment, training and hands-on advice from IAEA and FAO experts, he said.

“Our lab has mastered various nuclear and molecular techniques for the genetic characterization of domestic cattle and for the production of semen that will result in cows with superior characteristics,” Soe said. This is important not only for food security and supply but also for providing a livelihood to villagers like Oo and the 65 other small scale farmers Silvery Pearl buys milk from.

Historically, cattle in Myanmar were used as a source of power in agriculture for ploughing the fertile fields of the country’s river valleys. Most of the indigenous cattle are draught animals that can work long hours tilling fields and pulling carts. But they are not particularly productive when it comes to milk production. The genetics laboratory has characterized these local varieties and developed a programme to breed cows that are able to produce more milk, Soe explained. As a result of support from the IAEA and FAO, the lab’s capacity to produce frozen semen has increased more than five-fold and now provides for 32,000 artificial inseminations every year. It has also developed a gene bank with a large repository of frozen semen.

Without such modern techniques, dairy farming would not be a profitable business, said Tin Win, who established his farm in 1999 to supplement his income as a government official. Following his retirement in 2006, he has focused solely on running Silvery Pearl Dairy, which now provides the livelihood for 100 employees and another 300 people through contractual relationships with farmers like Oo. Thanks to the presence of Silvery Pearl, a mid-sized business, the village now receives reliable electricity and many of its roads have been paved. “The changes here have led to a virtuous cycle,” Win said.

The next step is to roll out the programme to regions of the country further away from the urban centres of Yangon and Mandalay with Livestock Breeding and Veterinary Department labs, Soe said. The processing of frozen semen requires liquid nitrogen, and very low temperatures, not currently possible elsewhere.

As for Oo and his children, their mind is elsewhere. “I need to think of improving my business further,” he said. “Perhaps my children will eventually be interested in taking it on.”

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