Articles

Cattle out of Africa (1990)

October 9, 2019


[Music plays] (Dr. John Frith) We had a lot of
scepticism hurled at us originally that it was just virtually
impossible to do it. The people involved were always
very confident that it would happen because we understand the
technology, we understand what we wanted and understood how to do it. [Music plays] (Narrator) A cow with a
healthy new born calf. It’s a natural every day
event, but with births like this CSIRO scientists are forging a link
between the cattle of two continents. The calf is a pure bred African Tuli taken as an embryo from its natural
mother in Zimbabwe, and its surrogate mother
is an Australian Friesian flown from 5000 kilometres to be
implanted with her offspring to be. And this is where genetic history
is being made, a tiny dot in the Indian Ocean, Australian’s quarantine
centre on the Cocos Islands. The aim of the project is to
improve the genetic makeup of Australia’s northern herds, and Dr John Frisch and his CSIRO colleagues found the new blood
they were looking for in Africa. (John Frisch) So we wanted the
African breed specifically because Africa’s a continent that is
very similar to Australia in many respects. The climate’s very similar, the requirements that cattle need
just to survive and produce in that area are very similar to the requirements here. (Narrator) The Boran from Zambia
with its distinctive hump, and the Tuli from Zimbabwe evolved in harsh environments
very similar to tropical Australia, and as well as providing excellent beef
they are very fertile, a feature needed to improve productivity
of the northern herds. The African breeds
are also highly disease resistant, but importing them live straight to Australia
was out of the question. Africa is paradise for a host of
animal diseases not found in Australia. So CSIRO proposed a daring strategy, bring together handpicked
animals in Africa, then collect and freeze their minute embryos
straight from the protective envelope of the womb. Right from the outset
the team faced unique difficulties. (Tim Williams) Just getting
all the equipment together, we had to actually put two
laboratories together over there. One of them stayed there in Zambia, but just to get all the equipment together
for those two laboratories, all the equipment necessary for six months, two embryo transfer programs. In Africa there’s nobody you call up
and say, look, I need this tomorrow. You got to have it with you. (Narrator) In exchange for access to the genetic potential of the Boran
and Tuli, the CSIRO team trained African staff
in embryo transfer technology and left behind a fully equipped laboratory. The Cocos Islands is
Australia’s offshore quarantine station and provided the rendezvous
for the frozen embryos from Africa and their adoptive
Australian mothers to be. Once the embryos were implanted
it was a case of waiting with a little more than the usual air
of nerves and anticipation. [People talking softly] Births like this have clearly shown
that delivery African cattle from Australian mothers produces
a fine, thriving herd. But before these calves could impart
their genetic advantages in Australia there was six months of quarantine
on the Cocos Islands while they completed a battery of
disease tests and observations. With that last hurdle now surmounted
Australia’s own Boran and Tuli have finally arrived home. For CSIRO scientists like
John Frisch and Tim Williams, the arrival of the Boran and Tuli in Australia caps a decade of intensive
research and organisation. For the beef industry there’s the
potential for productivity gains of up to 25%, and a consortium
of Australian beef producers has ensured the financial support that will see the project to its conclusion. (John Frisch) It provides
that whole new bank of genes that we can use to assemble animals that are better adapted
to the environment that we have, and we’re not just considering
improving the cattle industry up to the year 2000, but improving the cattle
industry in Australia forever. [Music plays]

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