We get 12 calves per cow every year, Success of Makongi farm in Eldoret
Makongi, North West of Eldoret town, is an expansive farm nested in Cherangany escarpment, with hundreds of exotic (Ayrshire) and indigenous (Boran) cows.
As one enters the compound, he is met by tens of cows strolling around.
“This helps to curb the spread of diseases such as foot and mouth,” says Timothy Chesire, one of the owners of the farm, as he hands me a plastic material to cover my feet.
Chesire then leads me to a metallic crush where an animal is confined. A man in a blue overall picks a plastic machine that is attached to a computer via a cord as Chesire explains that the in-vitro fertilisation process is about to start.
The process involves monitoring and stimulating a cow’s ovulatory process, then removing an egg or eggs from its ovaries and fertilising them in a laboratory. The fertilised egg (zygote) is then implanted in the same or another cow to carry the pregnancy to full-term.
Normally, the egg is harvested from a superior breed animal, fertilised and implanted in an animal not necessarily of a high-quality breed.
Makongi Farm thrives on in-vitro fertilisation and embryo transfer technology to breed quality cows for sale.
Embryo transfer involves retrieval of an embryo from a genetically superior cow and placing it in a surrogate cow, to develop into a foetus.
“That device that looks like a computer is the ultra-sound machine and the plastic gadget is the ovum picker, which is designed with a needle that pops out when a baton is slightly pressed,” says Greg Onyango, an embryo transfer specialist, who does the work.
“The ultra-sound machine helps one to monitor the dark spots that contain the oocytes or the unfertilised eggs from the superior breeds.”
As the harvesting is conducted, the eggs are pumped into tubes with help of a vacuum gadget that sucks them.
“We later take them to the laboratory in tubes where they are fertilised with the sexed semen or conventional ones. It takes seven days before we transfer an egg to the cow,” he says.
In the laboratory that stands in the middle of the farm, oocytes are selected and the viable ones are fertilised with sexed semen.
But the process must be in tandem with the synchronisation of the heat in the surrogate cow to ensure the procedure is a success.
“The recipient cow, which on our farm is Boran, is synchronised before the transfer is conducted. Only cows with a structure in ovaries known as corpus luteum are synchronised,” says Onyango, noting the farm hosts 300 Ayrshire animals that are the donors of the unfertilised eggs and about 300 Boran cows, which are the recipients or surrogates.
The cuprous lutein is what forms in the ovaries when the cow is on heat.
“Once fertilised, the egg is transferred to the recipient animal, a pregnancy diagnosis is done after 30 days using the ultra-sound machine to know whether conception happened. In a month, we harvest four to five eggs from a single cow meaning you can get between 40-50 calves annually,” he explains.
The traditional breeds are preferred as surrogate mothers because they are hardy and can withstand harsh climatic conditions.
But one has to pay attention to the age of the livestock and also the time frame under which you can harvest the unfertilised eggs from a particular cow.
“One can only harvest when the cow has attained eight months but in this farm, we do when the cow is one year old. We also give a cow a three-week break,” says Dr Onyango.
He adds that with in-vitro fertilisation, one can improve their breeds in a shorter time compared to the use of artificial insemination or bulls.
“One of the advantages is that you can get a superior cow and a bull in a short time. For instance, from Holsten Friesian, you can get as many as 20 viable offspring through embryo transfer or in-vitro fertilisation as opposed to cross-mating, ” says the expert, noting they charge Sh50,000 for a confirmed pregnancy done under the in-vitro fertilisation.