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What cowboys can teach us about feeding the world

I will be the first person to admit that I’m a city boy. I grew up in Seattle, where my main agricultural experience as a kid was the farmers who sold freshly picked fruits and vegetables at Pike Place Market.

Since then I’ve visited lots of small farms as part of my work with the foundation. But nothing prepared me for where I recently found myself: in the wilds of the Australian outback watching a cattle rancher artificially inseminate a cow. 

It’s a pretty graphic procedure to say the least, but I was impressed by how high tech the whole process was at Wylarah Station (a station is the Australian term for a ranch). The Australian Agricultural Company—or AACo—relies on cutting edge genomics to breed wagyu beef cows, some of the most elite cattle in the world. 

AACo is one of the foremost experts in the developed world on tropical cattle production. Although they use innovation to raise higher quality beef that they can sell for a good price, I was more interested in learning about how their methods could help farmers in low income countries with similar climates.

Farmers across sub-Saharan Africa are already raising cattle—beef and dairy—in massive numbers. Ethiopia, Sudan, and Tanzania are among the world’s top 15 cattle producing countries. While there are legitimate questions about whether the world can meet its appetite for animal products without destroying the environment, it’s a fact that many poor people rely on cattle for both nutrition and income. I believe they should be able to raise cattle as efficiently as farmers in rich countries do.

I’m optimistic that technology can improve the quality of African cattle. A typical dairy cow in the United States produces nearly 30 liters of milk every day. Compare that to your average cow in Ethiopia, which produces just 1.69 liters of milk a day. If you want to increase milk yield, you can’t just take a high-producing Holstein cow from Wisconsin and drop it into the tropical savannah. Unlike indigenous breeds, temperate cattle have no natural resistance to tropical diseases—like trypanosomiasis, or sleeping sickness—and they struggle to get enough nutrition from local food sources.

Instead, you could breed cattle that will flourish in the local climate. That means using artificial insemination—like the process they use at Wylarah Station—to crossbreed a native female cow (with her built-in resilience to tropical heat and diseases) with a bull from a genetic line that produces lots of milk.

Our foundation is already tackling this, but AACo’s technology could make the process much more precise than it is today. One of the things that amazed me most during my visit was how much they know about the ancestry of their cattle. The animals on their ranch have a more detailed family history than most people do. If farmers in Africa were equipped with the same level of knowledge, they could handpick the best possible cow parents and breed a better calf. But that leads us to another problem.

Because they lack adequate storage, most African farmers rely on artificial insemination stations (yes, that’s what they’re really called) to provide sperm samples. Depending on how far a farmer lives from a station, the sample can sometimes heat up too much and effectively die before it is delivered. Many farmers decide not to take the risk. Instead they get their cows pregnant the old-fashioned way, which makes it harder to control genetic integrity and can lead to calves that are less resilient or produce less milk.  

AACo is looking into methods that extend the viability of sperm samples. Similar technology is currently used in Europe to improve the success rate of fertilization, but it hasn’t been tried yet with tropical cattle. If successful, it could double the amount of time a sample can survive outside of storage and make it easier for more farmers across Africa to use artificial insemination.   

The whole operation was a far cry from the John Wayne cowboy movies I used to watch as a kid.
Bill Gates

Beyond breeding, Wylarah Station uses technology to ensure that their herds receive proper nutrition. I was surprised to see their ranch hands use smart watches to track how much the cows are drinking.

In the past someone had to manually inspect all of the water troughs scattered across the ranch, driving hundreds of kilometers every day. Now they receive a notification on their watch when a sensor detects that a tank needs attention. The whole operation was a far cry from the John Wayne cowboy movies I used to watch as a kid. 

Not all of AACo’s innovative approaches could work in the poor world. It’s unlikely that every farmer in Africa will be wearing a smart watch anytime soon (if ever). But as smartphone usage continues to grow across the continent, it’s easy to imagine a future where Africans might use an app to order the perfect bull DNA or make sure their cattle are eating enough—something that an African ICT company called iCow is promoting in Kenya, Ethiopia, and Tanzania with help from our foundation.  

There’s a lot we can learn from Wylarah Ranch about how to more efficiently raise cattle, but I can’t ignore the big question: should we rely on animals for food at all? Eating too much meat contributes to higher levels of obesity and heart disease, and raising animals contributes to climate change. That’s why I’ve invested in companies working on meat substitutes, which could one day eliminate the need to raise and slaughters animals entirely.

Although it might be possible to get people in richer countries to eat less, we can’t expect people in low income countries to follow suit. When I went vegetarian for a year in my late 20s, all I had to do to get my daily serving of protein was buy a can of beans or a container of tofu at the grocery store. It’s not so easy for families in poor communities to get the nutrition they need. 

For them, meat and dairy are a great source of high-quality proteins that help children fully develop mentally and physically. Just 20 grams of animal protein a day can combat malnutrition, which is why our foundation’s nutrition strategy wants to get more meat, dairy, and eggs into the diets of children in Africa. Cattle are also a huge economic driver in some parts of Africa. In Ethiopia alone, cattle account for 45 percent of their agricultural GDP. In addition, livestock can actually contribute to ecosystems by stimulating pasture growth, enhancing biodiversity, and recycling energy and nutrients.

As more people in poor countries move into the middle class, they will likely eat more beef and drink more milk. But we can mitigate the impact of that growth on the environment by increasing production from the cows they already have. The cowboys of Wylarah Ranch have mastered the art of raising tropical cattle. I don’t know yet how African farmers can benefit from their expertise—our foundation is just starting to dig into this—but I’m excited about the possibilities.

This blog was originally published on Bill Gates' personal blog, Gates Notes. You can view the original here. Copyright 2010 Gates Notes, LLC.

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