A New Way of Evaluating Dairy Genetics

7/5/2014 7:00 AM
By Katelyn Parsons D.C. Correspondent

Chairman of Dairy Breeding Council Keynotes Jersey Meeting

ALEXANDRIA, Va. — “The United States enjoys being the world’s leader in dairy cattle genomics,” said Ole Meland, chairman of the Council on Dairy Cattle Breeding, at the 146th Annual Meeting of the American Jersey Cattle Association last weekend. “The vast majority of females that have been genetically evaluated in the world have been done right here in the United States.”

As council chairman — a voluntary, uncompensated position — Meland is leading the dairy industry’s work toward a new system of managing genetic and management information, and delivering genetic evaluation services to producers.

Why make the change from the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service Animal Improvement Program Laboratory running the program? Meland explained: “At this time, genomics required more service work. There were several researchers devoting 50 to 60 percent of their time toward service work when they were more interested in research.”

The service work is where the industry records the phenotypic information.

“Some people say that with genomics that you don’t need phenotypic information,” Meland said. “But even with genomics, you need phenotypic data to estimate the snip effect. We need more phenotypic data to get that done.”

By December 2015, the Council on Dairy Cattle Breeding will be self-sufficient in computer resources and staffing, with the capacity to run genetic evaluations, provide dairy management benchmarks and maintain the industry cooperative database.

“Development of the newly expanded CDCB continues on schedule. It is on sound financial footing and it is serving the industry very, very well,” said Neal Smith, executive secretary and CEO of the American Jersey Cattle Association, who also serves as the council’s treasurer. “The council is not only meeting its goal for continuous improvement in the genetic merit and productive efficiency of U.S. dairy cattle, it is also enhancing Jersey cattle competitiveness in the world market.”

“Genomics brings problems with it,” Meland said. “The genetic evaluation program assumes that there isn’t a lot of preselection done and so some of the statistical programs starts to be violated. We look to AIPL scientists to continue to do research to modify those programs to try to catch up with what is happening in reality.”

Meland said the council also wants to make sure the data collected will be used based on how producers think it should be.

“We wanted to make sure the system was sustainable,” he said. “We want the data to be used according to dairy producers’ understanding. We also want to identify traits that would add economic value to dairymen in the future.”

But the only way to do that is with more data.

“We need to develop strategies to increase the amount of the data coming into the system,” he said. “The engine for genetic change is driven by data. The more data we have, the more we can speed up the system.”

There has been genetic improvement in cows in the past, but Meland believes that will ramp up in the future.

“In 1940, there were almost 24 million dairy cows in the United States,” he said. “Today, there is 9 million cows that produce almost twice as much milk today as they used to.”

Meland thinks genetics plays a big role.

“Prior to 1926, there was not much done with genetic evaluation,” he said. “In 1926, they started daughter-dam comparison, where they figured if the daughter out-milked the dam, the majority was due to genetic improvement.

“Later, there was herd-mate comparison, where they figured if they measure herd mates at the same time, they would be able to take some of the management differences out,” he said.

Up to 1994, only minor changes were made. When productive life, net merit and somatic cell count came in, the rate of genetic gain increased by about 50 percent.

“And then you come to 2009,” Meland said. “They estimate the genetics increase rate is more than 50 percent from the introduction of genomics.”

In the future, Meland hopes the council can identify new traits that will add value to the dairy industry.

“In 1926, milk and fat yields were factored into genetic evaluations,” he said. “Notice there was no genetic evaluation for protein. That didn’t come in until 1978. And it wasn’t until 1991 that productive life and other traits were added. What will be added in 2014, 2016, 2018?”

Meland, who has worked in the industry for more than 30 years, feels genomics has brought exciting new prospects to the industry.

“Genomics reinvigorated the geneticist, the dairymen and the whole dairy industry,” he said. “I’ve been extremely excited about the future of dairy cattle with the use of genomics.”

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