The research activities of the Animal Production Section focus on ruminant nutrition, management, animal breeding, genetic improvement and physiology of reproduction. Research is directed towards increasing milk and meat yields under semi-intensive or intensive systems of management in sheep, goats and dairy cattle. In addition, genetic methods and animal husbandry practices are employed, aiming at controlling and/or preventing animal diseases. More specifically, research pursued aims at studying and preventing the Scrapie disease in sheep and goats. Additionally, the Animal Production Section is responsible for monitoring farm animal genetic resources and is active in organizing educational seminars for sheep and goat breeders and other stakeholders, such as colleagues from other departments in the Ministry of Agriculture.
In animal breeding, research work aims at improving the genetic stock with respect to important economic traits for livestock using within-breed selection methods. Genetic evaluations of Cyprus Chios sheep and Cyprus Damascus goats are based on selection indices that combine individual capacity of young animals for growth with milk production of female ancestors. This method is routinely used at all government breeding units for the evaluation and selection of superior breeding stock in sheep and goats.
Further research in genetic improvement is directed toward dissecting the genetic aspects underlying milk production and other traits in Cyprus Chios sheep and Damascus goats. Recently, the Animal Production Section successfully coordinated phase 1 of an EC-funded research project with a total of 8 partners from 4 European countries, including Cyprus. This project, AGRICYGEN (www.agricygen.eu), aimed at the development of a thorough strategy and business plan for implementing high-throughput, cutting-edge technologies and know-how to pursue more precise and extensive genetic evaluations and improvement of sheep and goats and crops used to produce feedstock. For this purpose, fruitful collaboration has been established with the ARI Plant Improvement and Agrobiotechnology Sections. AGRICYGEN’s ultimate goal is to employ and further develop innovative scientific methodologies to better serve the agricultural and animal production sectors in Cyprus.
Genetic research and management of the Scrapie Disease
The project for combating Scrapie in Cyprus Chios sheep, with the use of genetic methods, is successfully implemented at ARI. The Chios sheep unit in Athalassa has been transformed into a nucleus herd of Scrapie-resistant genotypes and, at the same time, the number of female ewes suitable for reproduction has doubled. All the animals in the nucleus herd are of the homozygote ARR/ARR genotype, considered to be 100% resistant to the disease. A large number of young rams and surplus females are issued to farmers at the end of each of the two lambing seasons, in order to improve the genetic stock and productivity of their flocks and to further increase the frequency of resistant genotypes in the Cyprus sheep population. During the last 15 years, more than 4800 scrapie-resistant sheep of superior genetics for growth and milk production were issued to farmers.
In mid-2008, a research program commenced to transform the ARI Cyprus Damascus goat herd into a nucleus of 300 Scrapie-resistant genotypes, through targeted matings. This program allows ARI to gradually issue an increasing number of animals to the farmers. These animals are of superior genetic stock and are also considered resistant to the disease. In this respect, ARI is contributing decisively to the national effort for combating Scrapie in the Cyprus goat population. Since 2009, ARI provided goat breeders with more than 1570 genetically improved and scrapie resistant goats (128 goats, 244 bucks, 745 male and 457 female kids).
Additionally, through collaboration between the Animal Production and Agrobiotechnology Sections, an ARI-funded research programme is in progress for further characterisation of Scrapie genotypes in goats, in order to determine whether there are associations between genotype classes and goat productive and reproductive characteristics.
Research programmes in the area of reproductive physiology of farm animals aim at improving reproductive performance. In this regard, we examine genetic and environmental factors that influence seasonal reproduction, reproductive development and puberty in sheep and goats under local conditions.
Animal Nutrition and Farm Management
Research projects in the field of animal nutrition focus on nutritional evaluations of various concentrate and roughage feeds for ruminants. More specifically, the substitution of barley hay with alternative feeds is examined, along with its effects on milk production, milk quality and on live weight changes for animals at the beginning of lactation. The effects of corn processing and concentrate mixture form on the growth rates of weaned Damascus kids are also studied.
In the fields of nutrition and farm management, artificial rearing systems using automated feeders and milk substitute for lambs and kids are evaluated. Research is conducted on zero suckling systems in Chios ewes and Damascus goats. Results show that such systems can be used to increase the marketable milk with no adverse effects on lamb and kid growth. Lambs and kids on zero suckling are reared artificially on milk substitute using four automatic milk feeding machines. Marketable milk of mature ewes on zero suckling has been found to be 70 kg more than ewes that suckled their lambs for 35 days and that of mature goats 85 kg more than goats that suckled their kids for 49 days. Further research comparisons of reduced suckling period, both for natural and artificial rearing (28 versus 35 days for lambs and 42 versus 49 days for kids) are in progress. It is worth noting that research results and recommendations from this nutritional and management scheme have immediate and important financial benefits for the breeders.
Conservation of Farm Animal Biodiversity
The Animal Production Section is also active in the field of conservation of farm animal genetic resources. Priority is set on preserving local breeds of farm animals and on collaboration with international organisations, such as the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) and the European Regional Focal Point on Animal Genetic Resources for the implementation of the “Global Plan of Action for Animal Genetic Resources and the Interlaken Declaration”. For this purpose, the aforementioned document has been translated in Greek for wider dissemination within the public. Additionally, the Animal Production Section is responsible for managing the national node of the European Farm Animal Biodiversity Information System (EFABIS; http://efabis.ari.gov.cy), which is also connected with the international database on farm animal genetic resources, dad.fao.org, managed by FAO.
Moreover, a researcher at the Animal Production Section has been elected for a four-year service (2016-2019) as a member of the Research Council of the European Federation on Animal Production (EAAP). ARI has long serves as the national coordinator of Cyprus in EAAP. The EAAP Research Council has a pivotal role on decision-making regarding EAAP procedures and activities in the field of promoting Animal Production in Europe and beyond.
The Animal Production Section also participated in a European research project, in which Mediterranean countries collaborated on topics of agricultural research. The DoMEsTIc (http://www.arim-domestic.net/) project, funded under EU FP7 ARIMNet (www.arimnet.net), aimed at enhancing our knowledge on sheep and goats production systems. Case studies from Greece, Cyprus, France and Morocco were analysed through field surveys, focusing on livestock farming systems, the genetic management of the breeds, and economical aspects. The comparative analysis of the data collected assessed the associations between the structure of the farming systems, farmer practices and the characteristics of the sheep and goat breeds with the sector’s resilience, competitiveness and overall sustainability.
The Animal Production Section has taken the initiative, and, in collaboration with the Department of Agriculture and the Veterinary Services, has devised and conducted an extensive seminar program to inform sheep and goat breeders on the topics of farm animal management, nutrition, genetic improvement, disease and prevention. During these seminars, in addition to general knowledge shared, relevant ARI research outcomes, which can be put to practice, were also described.
The Animal Production Section also provides short seminars for new and experienced farmers, at the seminar room of the Athalassa Experimental Farm, and during trainings organized by the Department of Agriculture, the Department of Environment and others. Moreover, the Unit provides training for colleagues from the Department of Agriculture on nutrition and genetic improvement aspects for sheep and goats. Finally, the Animal Production Unit yearly provides training and supervision of practical placements and thesis projects for Livestock Production students at universities in Cyprus and abroad, both at the undergraduate and graduate levels.
Vassilis Vassiliou, Georgia Hadjipavlou, Dionysios Sparaggis