Genomics have been used for some years now for farmers to select the best bulls for breeding.
But now, for the first time in the UK the technology is being used to assess the females in the herd.
A hair or tissue sample is taken from the calves at about four weeks old, which is then sent to the Clarifide laboratories in Kalamazoo, Michigan. There they are DNA sequenced and marker genes for health, fertility and productivity are identified.
Derbyshire Dairy Farmer Mark Moore, like other farmers, used to rely on experience and instinct to select which of his Jersey calves he would spend £1,500-£1,600 on to raise for breeding and milk production, and which would go to be raised for beef.
Now he’s signed up to the genomics service, which costs £30 per test, plus a retainer fee for the vets who provide it.
He says: “We want to breed the best animals, the healthiest, strongest animals which will hopefully give us better milk, better components and a better, healthier herd in the future.”
Animal rights groups, though, worry that the selection of animals could be dictated by profit, not welfare.
Phil Brooke, from Compassion in World Farming, says: “Selective breeding has been very unkind to the dairy cow. Cows today are unhealthy, they are lame, they are thin, they are infertile, all too often kept indoors – because they have been bred to overwork and to produce more milk than is good for their health.
“The danger with this kind of tool is it is used as a sticking plaster to deal with problems of decades of selective breeding.”
But Rose Jackson, from Scarsdale vets disagrees. She says the markers which show the animal’s susceptibility to disease are just as, if not more, important than those which suggest a high milk yield.
“Historically with dairy selection, years back we just chose on production because that was measured well, so we could do that,” she says.
“But going back over the past 10 years there’s been more focus on health and fitness. And now with genomic testing we can find that information out much earlier on, which means we can make make far more informed decisions on farm.”
The first cows selected by Mr Moore using the genome science are still yet to be old enough to produce milk. But, he says, the animals whose tests showed genetic markers for better disease resistance, have indeed proved, so far, to be healthier.
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