Holstein Friesian NZ general manager Cherilyn Watson.

New system to help evaluate performance of NZ’s dairy genetics

A new $1 million project backed by funding from the Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI) will develop a new information system to help shape the genetics powering New Zealand’s multi-billion-dollar dairy sector. 

The world-leading system will be used to record and collate vital data on a range of important traits of dairy cows.

Each year physical and behavioural traits of 50,000 dairy cows are assessed by breed societies to help evaluate the performance of New Zealand’s top breeding bulls.

“The data collected is hugely important. It enables the sector to fast-track genetic gains for traits important to farmers using artificial insemination,” said Brian Wickham, New Zealand Animal Evaluation Limited (NZAEL) Manager.

The current system used by breed societies to collate the information is more than 20 years old and no longer fit for purpose.

“It’s a threat to the dairy sector’s competitive advantage. The system has major limitations and is inadequate to deal with the rise in the use of genomic technologies,” said Cherilyn Watson, Holstein Friesian NZ General Manager.

“The data collected by breed societies on behalf of their members and genetics companies is accessible to all dairy farmers. It’s a vital industry-good service which is independent and impartial.”

The new database is being jointly developed by New Zealand’s independent, not-for-profit dairy cattle breed societies, which include Holstein Friesian NZ and Jersey NZ. It will enable the whole dairy industry to have more options when selecting genetics for physical traits of cattle, like height and teat length.

The Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI), through its Sustainable Food and Fibre Futures (SFF Futures) fund, is contributing $792,000 towards the 10-month project.

“Genetic improvement is good for the environment, animal welfare and for the profitability of New Zealand’s dairy sector,” said Steve Penno, MPI Director Investment Programmes.

“The ‘traits other than production’ (TOP) data collected through this database will help all dairy farmers in their pursuit to breed more efficient cows which are healthy and live longer.

“This project attracted SFF Futures investment because of the clear animal health, environmental and economic outcomes being sought, and its aim of future-proofing our dairy industry by having access to the best genetics.”

The new independent system will integrate with the Dairy Industry Good Animal Database (DIGAD), managed by DairyNZ subsidiary New Zealand Animal Evaluation Limited (NZAEL).

It will provide New Zealand’s dairy industry with access to the latest technology, improved data, and the ability to add new traits in line with world standards, something not currently possible.

“The key to utilising genomic technology is having access to accurate phenotypes in suitable training populations,” said Brian Wickham.

“The more flexible and adaptable TOP system we’re developing will facilitate independent collection of phenotype data for calibrating and validating our genomic predictions.”

“This new system is expected to be completed and fully integrated into the DIGAD by November 2020,” said Cherilyn Watson. 

“It will serve the dairy industry well for many years to come, while delivering a range of benefits for New Zealand.”

Holstein Friesian NZ general manager Cherilyn Watson.
Holstein Friesian NZ general manager Cherilyn Watson.

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