akrei khsat commune, Kandal Province – The Plan is simple: create a super-race of Cambodian cow. Introduce top-notch genetic stock into the cattle population, get calves that grow faster, bigger and meatier than your average cow. Repeat throughout the country.
If The Plan works, beef production could become the country’s newest power industry. And judging by the crowd at yesterday’s First Cambodia Brahman Show, farmers are willing to give it a go.
“I think I’m going to buy the semen,” said farmer Thuch Mong, staring at a fat pair of cattle, listless in their pen.
“If we start using the Brahman semen, the baby will be bigger. When the cow is bigger, the price goes up.”
Currently in Cambodia, cattle raising is scarcely an industry. As of 2008, the latest census from the Ministry of Agriculture, there were 3.5 million cows in a country of 14.5 million people. By comparison, Australia has about 23 million cows and 21 million people. Livestock in general comprises just 6 percent of Cambodia’s GDP; the portion that would be traced to cattle is possibly negligible.
“There doesn’t seem to be any statistics on it. Essentially cattle in Cambodia is for subsistence only,” said Chan Sophal, president of the Cambodian Economic Association. Certainly, it is not a major industry for export, he added.
But if the breeders of the Brahman species of cattle have their way, all of that could change.
In a country where the going price for a cow is about $700, the Brahmans, which cost up to $20,000 per beast, are way out of reach of all but the wealthiest farmers. But the Cambodian Brahman Breeders’ Association isn’t selling cows so much as an ideological shift in thinking and breeding.
At 30 dollars a pop, the semen of a Brahman bull is comparably priced with a local stud fee. And while the concept of artificial insemination, let alone embryo transfer and in vitro fertilization, is still unknown to most Cambodian farmers, the promise of a better-quality cow might be enough to recommend it.
“We’re trying to provide Brahman semen to all farmers,” said Chheang Bony, general manager of the CBBA, who added that the association sends out technicians to train farmers in the process of artificial insemination.
By Mr Bony’s estimate, there are no more than 250 Brahmans–purebred or mixed–in the entire country. But within 10 years he hopes that a significant proportion of Cambodia’s cattle will be part-Brahman, enough not only to replace imported premium beef, but to provide export revenue also.
“Local cattle does not stand up, it cannot compete abroad. If we improve it, I think Cambodian cattle will be able to compete with Thailand or Australia. Vietnam has a lot of people. In the future we could be exporting there,” he said.
At yesterday’s show, farmers milled around booths selling veterinary supplies from Belgium and tanks of liquid nitrogen. Teenage farm boys and girls got their photos taken in front of slick excavators. Kids crowded a corn vendor and in one discreet corner a scrum of gawkers built up just in time to provide an audience for the breeders to implant a cow with a frozen embryo.
When the breeders and a delegation from Australia and representatives of the Ministry of Agriculture opened the three-day exhibition yesterday, everyone listened.
“Using Brahman breeding is right for the present and right for the future,” said Khy Vibolbotra, deputy directory of the Agriculture Ministry’s International Cooperation Department.
Still, some were skeptical that new technology alone will produce a bovine master class in Cambodia.
“I’m very interested in this Brahman breed,” said Kun Heng, a 42-year-old farmer from Kandal province.
“They’re bigger, they have a lot of meat. Cambodian cows–not so much,” he said.
“I might buy the semen, because the price is similar. But the calf won’t be as big,” Mr Heng surmised.
“If we could use the natural method, it would be bigger.”