Genetics for the future: Lessons from the dairy cattle industry?

Authors: Elizabeth Henning and Lisa Shepard

In mid-February 2014, Lisa Shepard (ADGA Performance Programs Coordinator) and I, as chair of ADGA’s Genetic Advancement Committee,  attended the conference – Advancing Dairy Cattle Genetics: Genomics and Beyond.   One of our goals in attending was to see where the dairy cattle industry stands in using genetic information, and where they see future directions as a result of current  and increasing understanding of dairy cattle genetics.  Although we know that cattle and goats are different in many ways, there are certainly similarities.  It is my hope that we can learn and profit from the successes and mistakes of our colleagues in the world of dairy cattle.

Some background information concerning genomics is important to our understanding of the current application of genomic information to the dairy industry.  Genomics is the study of the role of nucleic acid sequences in cellular DNA that are associated with animal performance or trait expression.  An important current use of genome sequences (SNP’s, pronounced “snips”) is to predict the genetic merit of dairy animals for economically important traits (e.g., production, components, conformation, fertility, longevity.) Other uses include recognition of familiar traits such as polled/horned, coat color, substantiation of pedigree relationships including addressing inbreeding, and revelation of genetic recessives.

SNP sequences can be available at a very young age and can be accurate for selection for traditional dairy traits like yield and conformation.  Therefore, decisions can be made without waiting for progeny test results on males or production records on females.   Many are convinced that dairy farmers should use genomic predictions for sire selection and that genomics could contribute towards genetic progress and improved reliability.  Genomics also can be used to determine fitness in less heritable traits like fertility and address health and nutritional issues.  The possibilities could be endless.

Conference speakers included producers as well as researchers from the university community, the USDA, and representatives from the Reproductive Industries.  Topics included presentations covering health traits, feed efficiency, practical applications, genetic diversity, new applications of and directions for genomic research, and future staffing needs in research, reproductive technologies, and breed associations.  There was also discussion of reducing the “carbon footprint” of dairy farming and concern with issues related to public perception of genetic modification and humane farming practices.

All the producers on the conference panels, as well as those contacted during breakout sessions, incorporate genetic evaluations as part of their routine management.  However, the extent and focus of the use of genetic evaluations varies according to the goal of the producer (strictly commercial, combination, breeding stock/showing, purebred vs. crossbred,) Many of the ideas expressed by the professionals and producers alike are similar to our concerns as dairy goat breeders and producers.  There is, of course, a great deal of genetic information now available for dairy cattle.  This information allows all producers to make more informed decisions about their breeding selections.

Much of the genetic information that has become available reflects what one might consider “obvious” conclusions based on the observation of animals over a period of time.  It is, however, not only interesting, but also important that many of these observations are now supported by research.

The Reproductive Industries (semen processors +) have a big investment (financial and otherwise) in the dairy cattle genetic picture.  They play a huge part in designing and funding the research that is driving the industry, and they also provide/control access to profitable and new genetics through marketing.  Since the dairy goat industry does not (yet) provide the financial incentives necessary to initiate interest in such endeavors, funding for our genetic research will have to come from elsewhere.  Dairy cattle producers also realize that there is potential conflict of interest in their close association with the Reproductive industry.  Additionally, research opportunities in the academic and governmental arenas have diminished in recent years.  Dairy cattle producers have begun to realize that as the beneficiaries of this research, they need to take a more active role in its funding.

The information presented and discussed at this conference makes it even more apparent that we need to find a way to promote and fund dairy goat genetic research.  Each of us wants to breed and manage animals that meet the definition of the goals expressed in ADGA’s unified scorecard:  “selection of the type of dairy goat that can function efficiently over a long productive lifetime.”  Understanding the genetics that can help us achieve this goal is critical to our progress as an industry.

More about the development and application of genomic selection as a new breeding paradigm >>

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