A VISIT last year by billionaire philanthropist Bill Gates to an Australian Agricultural Co cattle property in Queensland has opened his eyes to possibilities to improve livestock production in third world countries.
Amid high security and secrecy, Mr Gates paid a visit to AA Co’s Wylara Station near Surat in 2016, but his video and comments have only now aired on his Gates Notes Youtube blog page.
Many of his references to his AA Co visit were in the context of aid work carried out by his Bill Gates Foundation, and what could be learned to aid livestock production in third world countries.
“Most of the world’s poorest countries are in hot regions, so to understand how to raise livestock efficiently in a tropical climate, Australia is a great place to learn from,” Mr Gates said.
“They’ve been raising cattle successfully for more than 200 years. It’s actually surprising how well these cattle do in these conditions,” he said. “They are thriving, even in a very hot environment.”
“Meeting the scientists (former AA Co technology adoption head, Dr Gerard Davis, appears in the short video) at AA Co was very helpful. They are taking this idea of digital agriculture and pioneering it – keeping track of the genetics of every animal; when that animal gets moved they’re able to weigh it, and see which type of feed is delivering the most gain. They’re gaining a really deep understanding of beef production.”
“A lot of what they do here (like water medication using urea and phosphorus) we can’t immediate take to Africa, but over time, these are the kind of things that we hope can raise beef productivity pretty dramatically – even for a smallholder farmer in Africa.”
Farmers across sub-Saharan Africa were already raising cattle—beef and dairy—in massive numbers, Mr Gates said in his blog. 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,” he said.
“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 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 hand-pick 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.”
“AA Co is looking into methods that extend the viability of sperm samples. Similar technology is currently used in Europe to improve the success rate of fertilisation, 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 AI.”
Mr Gates said he was surprised to see the ranch hands on Wylarah using smart watches to track how much the cows were drinking.
“In the past someone had to manually inspect all of the water troughs scattered across the ranch, driving hundreds of kilometres 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 AA Co’s innovative approaches could work in the poor world, he conceded.
“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.”
Should we rely on animals for food at all?
“There’s a lot we can learn from Wylarah about how to more efficiently raise cattle, but I can’t ignore the big question: should we rely on animals for food at all?” Mr Gates asked his blog followers.
“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,” Mr Gates said.
“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.”