Increasing Genetic Gain in Dairy Discussion Group Sessions

With the 2021 Breeding Season getting underway shorty, it is important dairy farmers have a clear breeding policy as it will have a significant impact on their farm profitability and sustainability.

Over the past number of months, ICBF met with over 100 dairy discussion groups online to address any questions farmers might have on some of the key improvements and changes introduced to the EBI last year. These discussion group sessions gave ICBF the opportunity to engage directly with discussion groups and dairy advisors from across the entire country and to help farmers make more informed decisions ahead of the coming breeding season.

Some of the main topics covered through these sessions were genetic trends in EBI, milk solids and fertility trends, bull usage and sire advice, dairy genomic updates, benefits of genotyping dairy females and the role of the Dairy Gene Ireland breeding programme.

Genetic Trends in EBI

The Economic Breeding Index (EBI) is a measure of the genetic potential of an animal and was first introduced in 2002.  Research from Teagasc have shown us that for every €1 increase in EBI will result in a €2 gain in net profit/ cow. So, cows with an EBI of €100 are leaving €200 more profit per lactation than cows with an EBI of €0.  Looking at the genetic trends in the graph below, it shows us that the rate of genetic gain in EBI by year of first calving has accelerated rapidly over the last number of years, helped by the formation of the national breeding programme in 2005 and the introduction of genomics in 2009. With the current rate of genetic gain in EBI now over €10, financially this equates to another 5 cent per litre for farmers.

Bull Usage and Sire Advice

A team of bulls is vital and should be used equally not only on cows but on heifers as well. Overusing a small number of sires will leave your herd overly exposed to potential EBI changes in individual bulls. By using bulls in a team will minimise the risks of bulls falling in EBI and will result in higher reliability (95%) for the overall bull team.  Any bull team should consist of at least 7 bulls. For herds greater than 150 cows, this number needs to increase. Maximum usage of one bull should not exceed 15%. Use the HerdPlus Sire Advice tool to allocate your selected bull team to the cows in your herd to maximise EBI, reduce the variation between the milk and fertility Sub indexes and to avoid inbreeding.

Dairy Genomic Updates

The training population, which is required to generate genomic evaluations, is a large population of genotyped animals with accurate performance information such as milk yield or fertility. The associations between the DNA and performance measures are then developed from this population.  In Spring 2020, the size and criteria of the training population was updated to increase the accuracy of genomic evaluations to generate greater genetic gain in the future. Genotyped females and other dairy breeds such as Jerseys and Norwegian Reds are now included in the Irish training population since last Spring.  By updating the training population, it did cause some upward bias in genomic figures, so a cap on the impact that genomics can have on an animal’s proof was applied to correct the predication bias in the October 2020 proof run.

Benefits of Genotyping Dairy Females

Many Farmers now see genotyping their dairy replacements as a routine and essential part of running their dairy farm. The main benefits of genotyping currently include genomic evaluations, increased reliability, and parentage verification. This technology will help to decide which heifers to keep or sell. Animals can increase or decrease in EBI so within a group there can be a wide variation of results. Most animals move between -/+ €40 from the parent average. At extremes, this can be in the order of -/+ €90. The increase in reliability of a genomic proof over the parent average is between 20% to 30%, which is an equivalent to around 15 daughters in milk production. The cost of genotyping female dairy calves can be recouped through better selection of herd replacements.

Dairy G€N€ IR€LAND Programme 2021

G€N€ IR€LAND is the name given to the Dairy breeding programme in Ireland. An effective breeding programme is necessary to ensure an adequate supply of top genetic bulls from a wide range of high EBI sires for farmers to choose from each year. Herd-owners who partake have access to the highest EBI young sires available thus speeding up the rate of genetic gain in their own herd. The cost is only 12/straw and the average pack EBI of the Ho/Fr bulls is €200 more than the national herd average. There will also be a reduced priced genotyping offer available to participants in early Summer.  The increased involvement of farmers in the programme will result in more bulls getting tested and will in turn, increase the rate of genetic gain of the national herd.

Dairy Discussion Groups Key Performance Indictors

With over 100 discussion group breeding sessions completed, the performance of all the groups were analysed across Key Performance Indicators (KPI).  These KPI’s are listed below in the table. The analysis shows the top group KPI figure achieved of all these discussion groups. KPI’s are strong signals for greater efficiency, sustainability, and profitability at farm level. This table provides a great opportunity for dairy farmers to undertake some benchmarking and identify areas that can be improved within their own herd.

EBI has made a significant contribution to profitability and sustainability on Irish farms over the years. Utilizing the various HerdPlus reports, profiles and applications will allow farmers easy access to vital performance data to make more informed breeding decisions and increase the genetic gain of their herd. We would like to thank all the farmers that participated in these discussion group sessions and for providing us with some excellent feedback. We would also like to thank the dairy advisors for facilitating these sessions and we look forward to future collaborative sessions with these discussion groups going forward.