Crossroads (Toward Philippine economic and social progress)
Philippine Star, 15 May 2013


I returned recently from a summer’s road journey of more than 2,400 kilometers all over Northern Luzon – on the country’s main highways and inns, and through the mountains where I could pass. I have done this over the years with my driver, to observe firsthand how the country goes. My mind is filled with many useful impressions and findings.

One of these is about the carabao – the quintessential Filipino beast of burden. Our rural picture of traditional agriculture is the carabao pulling the plow to break the hard soil, skillfully tethered by a farmhand, or of one hauling a cart burdened with harvest.

As I headed northward by the ‘Science City’ of Munoz, Nueva Ecija, the modern offices of the Philippine Carabao Center (PCC) attracted my attention just beyond the Central Luzon University campus on the road. I dropped by to venture a talk with a responsible officer. Luckily,the director, Dr. Libertado C. Cruz, was in the premises. I was glad that he received me.

Dr. Cruz (a Ph.D. who specialized in reproductive biotechnology from the University of Illinois) was an engaging conversationalist. He answered my innocent questions with informative answers. He was comprehensive, technical sometimes, but full of anecdotal turns that kept me asking for more. My one hour drop-by became one night and a morning more. The director gave me a number of interesting booklets, published materials, and annual reports on the carabao. I was hooked.

Some of what I learned I share today.

The Philippine Carabao Center mission. The carabao center was the result of an almost quixotic mission of Joseph Estrada (Erap). As senator, he was consumed with a single idea, to transform the Philippine carabao from beast of burden to productive partner of the rural household. It helped that Dr. Raul de Guzman, his brother in law, was then the chancellor of the UP Los Banos, the country’s premier agricultural university. He fed him ideas on how the poor farmer (and the nation) could benefit from the carabao.

Essentially because Erap did not have any major legislative projects, his sponsorship of the carabao center enabled him to get his favorite bill to pass the Senate and then, Congress, during the presidency of Fidel V. Ramos which also appropriated substantial financing for it. When Erap was elected president, the PCC was assured of budgetary releases to prove its worth.

Livestock scientists in the country thought that the carabao had promise beyond its role as draft animal. It could produce more milk. Also, it was a source of meat for Filipinos. It was all genetic science. The carabao was butchered to great scarcity during the time of President Magsaysay that he banned the slaughter of the carabao to conserve its use as draft animal when agriculture was simpler.

Modernizing agriculture means less use of carabao power. As mechanization in agriculture spreads, the carabao loses its preeminent presence, except for the poor farmer. The rural farm household could make the carabao yield milk for family nutrition and also for supplemental cash income. One problem, however, is that the carabao was not a prolific milk provider.

Could we develop a super-carabao that was more productive, both in terms of milk and meat?

The scientific problem. As Dr. Cruz explained to me, the Philippine carabao, which is also commonly found in Southeast Asia, is a swamp buffalo. The buffalo that is endemic to the Indian subcontinent is riverine. It has an advantage over the native buffalo in that it can produce more milk. Could the swamp carabao be successfully cross-bred with the riverine type?

It turned out that this was not an easy problem. The native carabao had 48 pairs of chromosomes. The riverine type had 50 pairs of chromosomes. Finding the right cross-breed and propagating them could be a mission for improving the stock of the native carabao. If successful, a kind of super-carabao would be a healthy meztizo of the native and the Indian buffalo.

In early experiments of cross-breeding the native carabao with imported semen from the riverine carabao, the outcomes produced possibilities. The cross-bred offsprings showed the following outcomes: One chance in four (25 percent) produced a carabao with 48 pairs of chromosomes, no different from the native. Two chances in four (or 50 percent) led to a carabao with 49 pairs of chromosomes, an improved native. And there was one chance in four that the new carabao would have 50 pairs of chromosomes.

The females with 50 pairs of chromosomes produced the best dairy output. The problem for propagation of the cross-bred carabao is to tap these offsprings and further propagate them for dairy production. The males with the 50 pairs of chromosomes would be selected to produce semen for cross-breeding purposes as well as for loan as bulls for direct propagation in carabao ranches and stock farms.

Enlarging the new super-carabao population. The PCC thus has a well defined mission. It has been well-funded by government, one center that does not seem to be in want of good support from the government.

Breeding livestock is a long term proposition. A generational change for carabaos requires five years. In 15 years, it is possible to get a “pure-bred” developed. What is important is that the productivity of milk produced rises over time as the breed is improved.

The PCC undertakes applied research to produce the superior carabao through cross-breeding. The work happens in conjunction with the country’s agricultural universities: UP in Los Banos, Mariano Marcos State University, Cagayan State University, Central Luzon State University, Visayan State University, West Visayan State University, Central Mindanao University, Mindanao State University, and University of Southern Mindanao. In addition, the work is also undertaken in three major stock farms.

The PCC’s annual reports and several publications are well written reports on progress of the center’s work on the carabao. The PCC has sponsored also publications written on the center’s various activities. One of these, written by Sosimo Ma. Pablico entitled Changing Lives… Beyond the draft carabao (2006), reports on the lives of ordinary and extraordinary farmers who have engaged in carabao farming.

I was guided to the stock farm laboratory within the PCC compound. There, the dairy carabaos are milked and selected. A cross-bred carabao proudly displayed her profile as I clicked my camera (enclosed). The milk output is sold through a cooperative.

One interesting place that is worth a visit by motorists between Manila and the northern provinces toward the Cagayan Valley is “Milka Krem,” a store outlet of the cooperative. It is a snack bar and store retailing a variety of products made from carabao milk – fresh milk, yogurts of different flavors, ice cream, and candied products derived from carabao milk. It is an experience!