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Jamaica’s Cash Cows

Jamaica’s Cash Cows

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When you think of the cattle industry, you probably immediately think of dairy and beef. But you might be surprised to know that there was a time when Jamaica’s cows were being bred for an entirely different purpose. That is – until T. P. Lecky.

Jamaica is world-renowned for many things, from our music to our food to our athletic prowess. Unfortunately, you will rarely hear Jamaica being mentioned as a pioneering country in scientific advancement.

But long before anyone thought of any of the scientific advancements of the modern era, a young Jamaican was charting his own path as the first Jamaican geneticist.

Early Years

Cows
1970: Dr. Thomas Lecky (centre), receiving the first Noman Manley Award for Excellence, from Mrs. Edna Manley. Prime Minister, the Hon. Hugh Shearer, applauds.
Gleaner File Photo.

Thomas P Lecky was born in the garden parish of Portland in 1904. Growing up on his father’s farm, Lecky was exposed to the inner workings of the agriculture industry throughout his childhood.  Here he developed a love for agriculture, and a natural sense of curiosity, leading him to pursue his education at the Farm School in St Andrew.

Lecky is also considered one of Jamaica’s earliest environmentalists. After leaving the Farm School, he worked with the government to advocate for the preservation of the landscape on the hillsides of Portland and in other mountainous areas.

Early Interest in Cattle

Lecky’s entry into the world of animal husbandry began when he realized that many of his family members in Portland were suffering from an imbalanced diet. He theorized that the milk and beef which were produced by cattle were an excellent source of nutrients.  Lecky’s interest in cattle rearing continued when he moved to work with the government in 1925, and he began to look at the adaptation of new breeds of cattle to the Jamaican environment.

At the time, cattle in Jamaica were primarily used to provide haulage by drawing carts. For this reason, cows were usually bred with a focus on size and strength, rather than for meat and dairy production. However, Lecky believed that cattle which were able to produce milk and beef would provide a greater economic advantage to farmers, as these kinds of cows could be sold and used to support the farmers’ families.

Lecky’s interest in cattle rearing and his desire to create a native Jamaican breed of cows led him to pursue studies in animal genetics. These studies culminated in Lecky becoming the first Jamaican to complete a Ph.D. in agriculture.  At the time, efforts were being made to import cows from other parts of the world, such as Europe, and rear them to become accustomed to the Jamaican climate.

His research, titled, “Genetic Improvement in Diary Cattle in the Tropics” led him to conclude that the best way to address the issues he saw in cattle rearing was to create a truly unique tropical breed of cattle, which would be inherently acclimatized to the Jamaican environment.

Development of New Jamaican Cattle Breeds

Lecky was inspired after observing the development of the modern “mulatto” Jamaicans, who were mostly a cross between black and white. He used this inspiration to create new Jamaican cattle species by crossing existing breeds.

Lecky based his research on the principles of natural selection, and mutation: natural selection (“survival of the fittest”) tells us that organisms which are best adapted to their environments have the highest rate of survival and reproduction, while mutations are changes in the genes of the organisms which give the animals advantages over other animal species in the same environment.

Lecky combined these approaches to produce the first example of an indigenous cattle species, the Jamaica Hope. The Jamaica Hope was a cross between a British Jersey cow, the Indian Sahiwal breed, which was resistant to tropical diseases, and the Holstein, which was a great milk producer. The Jamaica Hope was able to produce up to 12 litres of milk a day – 3 times more than any other cattle species at the time! This breed of cattle transformed the dairy industry both in Jamaica and across the world.

Lecky continued his work by producing two more Jamaican cattle breeds – the Jamaica Red and the Jamaica Black. The Jamaica Red are the type of cattle you’d usually see when passing a farm in Jamaica and was created to be a producer of top-quality meat. It was first bred by combining the Jamaica Brahman (another breed previously created by Lecky) with the English Red cattle, and is now the main type of beef producing cattle in the country.

The Jamaica Black is a breed of small black cattle, created by breeding the Jamaica Brahman with the Scottish black Aberdeen Angus. While this breed was created to thrive in cooler environments, and has been described by some as having an even better beef quality than the Jamaica Red, the Jamaica Black is much harder to take care of, leading to a decline in its popularity among farmers.

The Father of Jamaican Agriculture

Lecky didn’t just stop at creating new breeds of cattle, but continued to work to develop the Jamaican livestock industry.  He researched and produced varieties of grasses and plants to be used for animal feedings, and he also encouraged the export of breeding stocks and cattle semen to spread the Jamaican cattle breeds across the wider Caribbean and African communities.

He also provided calves and technical advice to farmers across Jamaica and stimulated interest of more Jamaicans in the livestock industries. These efforts earned him the nickname “The Father of Jamaican Agriculture”.

Despite his revolutionary work, Lecky faced many challenges in his early years as a black researcher in Jamaica. On many occasions, his work was denied publication because it did not credit his white superiors, who weren’t even involved in the research.

Eventually, his work was nationally recognized when he was awarded the Order of Merit and the Norman Manley Award for Excellence. Lecky worked at the Bodles Agricultural Research Centre in St Catherine, until his death in 1994.

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