Advice for dairy farmers: Genomics can help double Irish production

Less than a decade ago, very few farmers were aware of genomics in animal breeding.

However, within a few years, genomic breeding has moved to a central role in the breeding programme of most farmers.

Ireland is one of the leading countries in implementing genomics at farm level.

Genomics enable us to know the genetic potential of animals at a very early stage of their lives, rather than waiting for years for progeny test results.

Within 30 days of birth, a 50% reliability for an animal’s genetic potential can be established, which is equivalent to the information from having 15 daughters milking.

Information from the genetics can be used to supplement the traditional science prediction approach which uses the parental information available on the parents.

The cost of genomic testing is reducing every year.

As well as significantly cutting the cost of evaluating the genetic potential of animals, genomics speeds up the rate at which bulls can be evaluated, and is largely responsible for the very high EBI bulls available to farmers at present at reasonable costs.

National genomic evaluation was introduced in 2009, and Ireland was the second country in the world after the US to do this.

According to Teagasc and the Irish Cattle Breeding Federation (ICBF), there were 1,000 bulls in the reference group initially, but this has grown to over 5,000, through swapping information with other countries, mainly New Zealand, Austria, Poland and Belgium.

ICBF say that they need to continue to increase the size of their reference population and continue to validate genomic selection. 

More and more farmers are genotyping their young stock so that they can select the best daughters at a younger age.

There was some scepticism when genomic bulls were introduced first, but there is plenty confidence in the system now, with more than two thirds of total AI usage being genomic bulls.

This is understandable because ICBF data proves that genomic testing is very accurate, especially for fat and protein.

Collection of on-farm recording data is crucial for successful genomic testing.

According to ICBF, genomics will also play a crucial role in measuring traits such as health, disease and feed intake.

The power of genomics

In a recent update, Teagasc researcher Donagh Berry, who has been leading the genomic programme, said that Ireland will soon have the most fertile Holstein Friesian herds in the world. 

He also predicted that there is massive potential for increased production per cow over the next 20 years — in theory, up to double the present levels can be achieved. 

There is also the possibility to breed cows that will convert feed into milk much more efficiently, saving up to six tonnes of feed (in dry matter terms) over the lifetime of a cow.

Using genetic selection to increase the number of lactations per cow from four to 5.5, coupled with longer lactations and better management, would increase the lifetime production of a herd by 40%.

The researcher said that genetic improvement would continue at the rate of 1% per year.

When coupled with better management, that would cumulatively add another 40% to overall production.

This progress in breeding will have a huge effect in the fight to control green house gases from agriculture, while leading to much more efficient and profitable dairying.

Because of their relatively low reliability, farmers are advised to use teams of four or five genomic approved bulls.


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