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Improving Cattle Productivity on the Continent

African cattle breeds are astonishingly diverse, and often quite beautiful. They range from the dark-red Ankole of southern Uganda, with their massive heat-dissipating horns, to the Boran which thrive in the dusty plains of northern Kenya, to Ethiopia’s sturdy Mursi cattle, with their prominent shoulder humps and hanging dewlaps. The Kuri that graze on the grasses of Lake Chad are adept swimmers; the Red Fulani can trudge vast distances along the margins of the Sahara; and the famously disease-resistant Sheko inhabit tsetse fly-infested forests of southwest Ethiopia. Sifting through the DNA of 16 indigenous African breeds, researchers have discovered a thousand-year-old event in which the world’s two main subspecies of cattle – namely taurine and zebus – mixed. This allowed African cattle – after spending thousands of years confined to certain regions in Africa – to diversify and spread across the continent. The findings help to explain how African cattle spread throughout the continent. But since they were selected and bred for resilience, African cattle never became as productive, in terms of meat or milk, as breeds in more temperate climates. Researchers hope that, by studying the history hidden in indigenous cattle genomes, we can help guide efforts to breed for productivity without losing the breeds’ native resilience and sustainability.