Livestock production is one of the leading agricultural sectors in South Africa, due to its contribution to the national economy (Scholtz and Theunissen, 2010). The growing demand for livestock products globally, prompted by an increase in the human population and urbanisation, necessitates an increase in the production of livestock products such as beef (Steinfeld et al., 2006; Otten and van der Weghe, 2011). There is a big need to improve livestock productivity in order to meet this demand, particularly in developing countries such as South Africa. Beef cattle production known to be the largest livestock farming sector in South Africa, and the non-commercial sector is one of the two sectors available in the production of beef. The non-commercial is dominated by farmers’ in a communal and/ smallholder setup. The later described, mainly keep indigenous beef cattle breeds such as Bosmara, Nguni, Boran and other non-descriptive cattle breeds, which sustain their livelihoods through sales at informal market, during ceremonies and festive seasons (Mugwabana et al., 2018). Productivity in the smallholder sector is very low due to many reasons including poor management practices, low reproductive efficiency and failure to adoption new technologies (Mugwabana et al., 2018; Hadgu et al., 2020). The recent climatic and environmental challenges intensifies the problems faced by the smallholder sector, probing further difficulties for the sector to grow (Daly et al., 2020).
Most of the indigenous African cattle breeds are adapted to the local environmental challenges such as periodic droughts, seasonal dry periods, nutritional shortages, parasites, infectious diseases and high ambient temperatures (Mwai et al., 2015). Thus, making them suitable breed for the harsh South African environment, particularly in the smallholder sector, where they can survive with minimum feed supplementation or medication. These breeds are a viable alternative to imported breeds, under the challenging climatic conditions of Southern Africa (Mwai et al., 2015). Thereof, with the utilization of locally adapted beef breed and the given opportunities for their improvement, smallholder farmers have the potential to participate in the beef market value chain by utilizing new developed technologies to meet the local beef demand.
In vitro and in vivo embryo production are advanced reproductive technology that have been proven to enhance reproductive potential and productivity in beef and dairy cattle industry in European cattle breeds. However, there is no data documenting the use of this technology and its efficiency in the smallholder beef cattle sector particulary in Southern Africa’s adapted cattle breeds. In the past years, experiments on advanced embryo production technologies have generated a lot of information on the structure and embryo development with emphasis on cattle (Moore and Hasler, 2017). These technologies, currently, have varying degrees of efficiency, which necessitates intensive research. Previously, attention have focused on embryo recovery methods, however, subsequent steps leading to successful calving proved to be equally important (Greve and Callesen, 2005). Embryo quality is one of the main key drivers that has a direct effect on successful pregnancy after transfer. It is also evident in other studies that embryos with high quality have increased pregnancy rate (Rocha et al., 2016; Thompson, 2016). Culture environment such as in vivo or in vitro, the type of supplementation, the type of medium play a crucial role in determining the final embryo yield leading to pregnancy and subsequent birth of healthy calves (Lopes et al., 2020). However, different embryo production methods still need to be expanded to smallholder beef cattle farmers in order for it to have any impact. It is, therefore, important to first produce and assess the quality of embryos produced in vivo and in vitro prior to transfer to improve production. Thus, the study is aimed to evaluate the effectiveness of the two embryo production systems on the quality of embryos produced by Bonsmara, Nguni and Boran cattle as our model breeds.