May 12, 2022 — With funding from U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and the Project for Enhanced Engagement Research (PEER), Notre Dame University-Louaize (NDU) held the 1st conference outlining the research results of goat parasites and their environmental implications in Lebanon. The event was organized and moderated by Dr. Pauline Aad, Chairperson of the Department of Sciences at the Faculty of Natural and Applied Sciences (FNAS), with an opening statement given by Dr. Ghazi Asmar, Assistant Vice President for Research and Graduate Studies, and a welcome address by Ms. Melissa Trimble Bressner, Program Analyst at USAID and Regional Manager of PEER in Lebanon. In attendance were Abbot Semaan Abou Abdou, Vice President for Finance and Administration, Dr. Michel El Hayek, Vice President for Academic Affairs, Dr. George Eid, Dean of the FNAS, as well as representatives from the Ministry of Agriculture, League of Veterinarians, the Lebanese Agricultural Research Institute, and various University professors and students.
This 2-year research effort is notably the sole recipient of USAID funding in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region in 2021, and projected to be completed by 2023. Dr. Aad reported the benefits of the endeavor thus far, including its positive impact on farmers, the creation of four scholarships for graduate students, and the involvement of 13 NDU students in research and analysis. Dr. Asmar’s statement relayed the project’s focus on internal displacement and nomadic farming systems, and acknowledged the Lebanese University(LU) and Saint Joseph University’s (USJ) participation in the project. Ms. Bressner, joining virtually from the U.S., spoke of USAID’s role in the Innovation, Technology, and Research (ITR) hub, dedicated to local capacity-building and the inclusion of students in such novel research.
The first presentation was that of Dr. Aad and Dr. Khaled Houchaymi, researcher in the Animal Research Unit at LARI. Dr. Houchaymi provided an overview of the local (baladi) goats in Lebanon, particularly in the Beqaa Valley. Of the estimated 400,000 goats all over Lebanon, 96.8% of which are baladi, with farmers depending on these flocks for milk production and later processing into yoghurt, labneh, kishk, and other foodstuffs. There is a need for increased rural support to help semi- and nomadic herds, according to Dr. Houchaymi, in addition to an increase of traceability and record-keeping of goats, veterinary and extensions support, and field supplies for goat yields and their kids. Dr. Houchaymi explained that goats are naturally more resilient than sheep, able to eat and digest harsher and dried grass, have longer milking seasons, with many morphotypes. However, the baladi flocks suffer from pasture depletion and overgrazed fields. The goats depend on natural grass, crop residue, and forest greens for food; Dr. Houchaymi discussed the temporary prohibition of goats passing through Lebanese forests, a measure that would be lifted as it was discovered that goats eating forest residues significantly reduces the risk of forest fires. His presentation concluded with further threats to baladi goats, including nutritional and physiological stress, a lack of water, rangeland quality, veterinary services, vaccination availability, ticks, and other gastro-intestinal (GI) parasites.
Also speaking virtually from the East Coast of the U.S. was Dr. Joan Burke, of the Agricultural Research Service in the U.S. Department of Agriculture, presenting her study titled “Parasite threat to Goat production and efficiency.” She investigates small- and mid-sized farms and their potential parasite prevalence, such as parasitic worms called helminths. A pervasive threat includes nematodes, parasites causing GI issues, lung worms in both goats and sheep, and eggs laid and hatched on pastures themselves. Their lifecycle in the latter instance is renewed, and the diagnostic process involves culturing goat feces samples to determine treatment options. Dr. Burke spoke of the unfortunate resistance that parasites have developed to traditional treatments. Recent recommendations are to use the FAMACHA and 5-Point Check method in order to treat affected animals. Asymptomatic parasites do not necessarily need treatment except in the event that they start spreading. Dr. Burke’s presentation ended with a summary of management tips against parasites, such as avoiding overgrazed areas and genetic selection in breeding. Her closing statement was a reminder that animals also tend to treat themselves through eventual immunity responses against parasites and infections, a point to consider when attempting treatment.
The second virtual guest, and third presenter overall, tuned in from South Africa: Dr. Gareth Bath is a Professor of Veterinary Science at the University of Pretoria, with extensive experience in parasitic research, and the creator of the FAMACHA system. His presentation explored the importance of extension services in optimizing goat farming, with the aim of increasing sustainability, integration, and management. Dr. Bath cites the low parasitologist to farmer ratio, especially in Lebanon, which complicates transference of information and treatment methods. Dr. Bath’s emphasized that the outreach message to farmers becomes effective following simplification, reporting, and encouragements. The disparity between farm sizes is another variable complicating matters, an example being 10 thousand goats on larger farms versus a handful on smaller ones. The proposed solution is the employment of extension service specialists, persons who acts as go-betweens for parasitologists and farmers, emphasizing the development of relationships and trust. “Extensionists need to get to know the farmers on personal terms, getting to know their pastures and families, in order to give the proper advice and determine if problems are serious or minor,” said Dr. Bath. It is imperative, he concluded, that the message of improvement is simplified and that farmers are involved in every step.
Dr. Brenda Murdoch, our last virtual guest, also speaking from the U.S., is a professor of the Animal, Veterinary and Food Sciences at the University of Idaho. She discussed a diagnostic process in screening for parasite and disease susceptibility in goats through genotyping, namely the 70k snip chip, in which 70 thousand locations on individual genes are tested to see if a goat is prone to a specific disease. Previously, 50 thousand locations were tested, and the upgrade to 70 thousand is a testament to the advancement of genotyping technology available for the preservation of goat genetic resources. Two types of tests are administered, explained Dr. Murdoch: single- and multi-gene tests, the former identifying worms, disease susceptibility, and proteins, and the latter determining meat quality, traceability, and parentage for selection and genetic enhancement. She gave the example of the Nucleotide PRNP gene, the 13th chromosome in goats, in which polymorphic amino acids could benefit breeding strategies to decrease disease susceptibility. The 70k snip chip, then, creates a genome-wide association in the research, increasing the data availability and ultimately the development of treatment options and even prevention tactics.
The final presenter, Dr. Samer El Murr, joined us in person, another LARI researcher at the institute’s Animal Testing Lab. The first student on board the PEER research project, his study is a preliminary survey adapted from his thesis on baladi goat parasites, the central theme of which is the management of goats under three conditions: (1) agro-pastoral, (2) pastoral, and (3) intensive. He surveyed GI parasite distribution, looking for clinical signs especially in blood-sucking parasites that lead to anemia, dehydration, and diarrhea in goats, the last affecting kids in particular. The protozoan parasite analysis tested for parasites under various managerial conditions, his results reporting a significant prevalence of various parasite groups. The goats in Dr. El Murr’s sample were undergoing late-summer heat stress, as the data was collected between July and September 2021, a factor he recommended to consider in future studies for data retrieved in other seasons.
Following the presentations, the conference concluded with a panel discussion with both the live and virtual audience, which included NDU students on campus and virtual guests from abroad, such as Jordan. NDU is proud of its Faculty members and students for spearheading this endeavor in Lebanon, and we extend our sincerest gratitude to USAID, PEER, LARI, LU, and USJ for their partnership and support in this novel research. May these efforts continue to bear fruit for the sake of protecting goats, farmlands, and the Lebanese ecosystem and beyond.