Returning to research: Reviving the dairy industry
With some 70 years now passed since scientist TP Lecky pioneered research that led to the development of the indigenous dairy cattle Jamaica Hope, Jamaica Agricultural Society (JAS) President Lenworth Fulton and CEO of Seprod Group Richard Pandohie have pointed to a lack of continuity in scientific research as a glaring reason for the demise of the local dairy industry over the last 30 years.
While both conceded that the liberalisation of the Jamaican economy in the 1980s, which occasioned the importation of milk and milk powder, was a major contributor to the decline in local milk production, the two have raised concern about research building on the work of TP Lecky.
Fulton, in an interview with the
Jamaica Observer, lamented that “there’s no good connection between the research aspect of dairy and what the public needs to improve” farming practices in that industry. To this end, he advocated for the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries to recruit master’s and PhD students at The University of the West Indies to help in the research process at the Bodles Research Station in Old Harbour, St Catherine, where Lecky’s work in cattle rearing is used, as well as other outstations.
“The University of the West Indies (The UWI) up there have some of the greatest scientists that must be tired of sitting around their desks eating patty. They need to get out to Bodles. They need to get to CASE,” the JAS president said.
“Bodles needs to be willing to work with our universities,” he added.
While The UWI’s Mona Campus does not offer agricultural sciences or veterinary studies, it offers degree programmes in zoology and animal biology. Its sister campus in St Augustine, however, offers degrees in zoology, veterinary medicine and agriculture.
Still, Fulton maintains that a “select” number of graduate students from The UWI, Mona could conduct field research while on cattle farms.
“What you need is to select graduate students at the master’s and PhD level, and send them to do their research and these farms, and then they are supervised by their UWI advisors and the owners of the farms…You can have a diploma, you know, and supervise a PhD student, you know, because all you’re doing is to facilitate them, helping them to collect the data, to mark their register to see that they are on the farm at the critical time and a follow a programme, and then the academic side is left with a university PhD. So we develop those systems then we are back on track,” he asserted.
He added that this arrangement can also incorporate students attending the Northern Caribbean University (NCU) and the College of Agriculture, Science and Education (CASE) in Portland.
Fulton argued, too, that there’s need for research in grass nutrition in order to enrich the diet of cattle, pointing to work done by scientists Dr Dinsdale McLeod and Dr Michael Motta in that regard.
“Grass is a crop that provides food for ruminants; grass is that crop that provides cover for your lawn; grass is that crop that provides aesthetic and cover for golf courses and cricket pitches and everything, and to see a major agency like RADA (Rural Agricultural Development Authority) does not have a grass specialist, it’s a wonder where we are going in agriculture,” Fulton, who himself is a former CEO of RADA and executive director of the 4H clubs in Jamaica, stated.
Like the JAS president, Pandohie also underscored the value of research and went further by making a case for public-private partnership with regards to dairy farming.
“I think if you look at the Israel model…the research has to be led at the national level,” he told
Business Observer, explaining that agricultural research is Government-led, but sold to farmers and other private sector stakeholders.
Pandohie pointed out moreover that the Israeli model was a replica of what Jamaica had in the 1960s. “That’s why when I visited that institute in Israel, on the walls [were] black and white pictures of their team’s visit to Jamaica in the 1960s researching cannabis,” he said about his discovery during a visit to Israel.
He argued, too, that Government, working in tandem with the private sector, should be creating policies to promote research and development. However, he laments that the Bodles Research Station has been “abandoned”.
In terms of private sector support for agricultural research, Pandohie noted that “a couple years ago” the Seprod Group “funded” research for an industry project by recruiting university students to undertake the necessary work. On this note, he said that a similar approach can be taken with the dairy industry by hiring students at The UWI, Mona and CASE to take on research.
Having recently been appointed to sit on a Food and Agriculture Committee at the The UWI, St Augustine, Pandohie is hoping to extend the research opportunities to students in Trinidad and Tobago.
Rebutting the claim that there is not much research in agriculture in Jamaica, Minister of Agriculture and Fisheries Floyd Green pointed out that work is being done but “we have to do a better job of” promoting them. One such area he said is looking at how the improvement in genetics by using the Holstein (from Europe) and Girolando (from Brazil) breeds of cattle.
“I know that definitely we’ve had through the work of Dr Motta, along with one of our main farmers out of St Elizabeth, and with the support of the [Jamaica] Dairy Development Board, we have been looking at various genetics in terms of looking at our Jamaica Hope, and how we can ensure [that breed is] performing optimally,” he stated.
The agriculture minister, however, conceded that the magnitude of scientific research cannot be compared to the ground-breaking nature of Dr Lecky’s work back in the 1950s. Additionally, Green admitted, too, “there has been significant lack of investment in Bodles” over a period of 20 years.
“And I’ve always maintained that the strength of your research agenda will determine the strength of your sector. So, definitely, over the last four years we’ve had a specific programme around the rehabilitation of Bodles and…we have spent over one billon Jamaican dollars around that,” he continued.
Added to the investment in the rehabilitation of Bodles, Green said the spend will also see the research station improve its human resource capacity. While promising that more work will be coming out of Bodles, he also shared that the NCU will be working alongside the ministry through the research station.
“NCU is also looking to do some work with us, and they’re going to be working because we had some private sector expansion of dairy into one of the traditional dairy areas that have kind of fallen by the wayside, which is down in Mt Plymouth in St Elizabeth. So NCU is looking to do some work also,” Green revealed to
He also disclosed that CASE was also involved in research work in the agricultural sector generally and the dairy industry in particular.
While pointing out that the Ministry of Agriculture has been working with some private sector entities, he shared that in particular it has contributed in some way to the development of the Trade Winds Citrus Limited’s establishment of a dairy operation at its farm in Bog Walk, St Catherine, through the Jamaica Dairy Development Board. His claim was confirmed by Trade Winds Business Development Manager Stephen McConnell, who stated that the board has given the company support along the way.
In terms of the company’s involvement in research, McConnell said, “We have also had key members from the Hi-Pro family, notably Dr Michael Motta and Khalil Brown, who have been instrumental in our growth and success from day one.”
The company’s research initiative has seen its team members travelling to farms outside of Jamaica with a view to incorporate new practices and improve the overall yields. Included in the team’s travels are to Costa Rica, where farms are averaging 15L of milk per animal each day and to Wisconsin in the United States to attend the World Dairy Expo and visit farms in that state to get an appreciation of the scale that the company is hoping to achieve.
Still, McConnell joins Fulton and Pandohie in calling for more research in that industry.
“We feel that a very important factor to improve productivity is to dramatically improve the local genetics. While the great work of Dr Lecky put Jamaica on the ‘Tropical Dairy Map’ with the Jamaica Hope Breed, very little has been done in recent decades to improve the local genetic pool. The local dairy herds need to be improved with the introduction of new genetics, but in the absence of a robust local breeding programme, we must rely on importing these genetics from ‘tested and proven’ sources with similar climatic conditions,” he told
Business Observer. Further, he disclosed that over the last four years Trade Winds has been trying to get approvals to import embryos from Costa Rica as a first step to towards genetic improvement; however the Government has been moving extremely slow on the evaluation and approval process. “We feel that the GOJ can do a lot more in this area if they are committed to improving the situation,” he concluded.