Report Synopsis

How can UK dairy farmers use genomics to breed a better herd?

Good genetics are fundamental when considering the profitability of any dairy enterprise. A structured approach to breeding can be a highly cost-effective way of improving herd performance. Genetics directly influence a number of key areas of management including: production, milk quality, health, fertility and feed efficiency.

Genomic testing has transformed the dairy industry’s understanding of genetics. Genomic test results are significantly more reliable than traditional parent average values as they reveal more about the genetic potential an animal actually inherited. Using genomic testing, an animal’s genetic potential can be revealed early in life, and genetic progress can be accelerated with confidence.

The rate of genetic gain in the genomic era has doubled. Early on, the major focus of genomic testing was the benefit in identifying high quality young bulls early. Now farmers can use exactly the same power of prediction for females as a cost-effective tool to make more precise management, selection and breeding decisions on-farm.

Whilst the adoption of genomics on the male side is high, the number of UK dairy farmers genomic testing their females is low. I set out to explore why this might be by visiting producers who are benefiting, as well as meeting with other stakeholders. I wanted to understand more about how producers are using genomics in practice, consider the potential returns that can be realised, and learn more about the role the vet can play.

The key finding from my study was that faster genetic progress can be achieved on UK dairy farms with the use of genomics. However, in order to exploit the opportunity, farmers must have clear breeding objectives and optimise their breeding strategy. For most the motivation to test should be to identity the animals with the lowest genetic merit. There must be scope to deselect these animals if a return on investment in genomic testing is to be realised.

The amount of information returned after genomic testing can be overwhelming. As farmers look to realise the maximum return from their investment, they must have confidence in those who are advising them, in a space where independent advice is a rarity.

Genetics alone is not the whole answer: to complement focused-enhanced breeding it is essential good herd management is practised. The combination of genetics and excellent management will yield the best results. Armed with on-farm data and a clear understanding of the breeding objectives the vet can be well placed to identify those herds where an investment in genomic testing is likely to increase productivity and profitability.

The importance of data has never been greater. Existing and new data sources on-farm represent an exciting opportunity for further genetic improvement. Through sensor technology and on-farm recording procedures, farmers should be encouraged to record as much high quality data as possible. In return, stakeholders should be prepared to reward farmers with financial remuneration or access to improved services.

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