“Bryan Kingston (ICBF) explains the role of the national breeding programme in the Irish dairy Industry”

G€N€ IR€LAND® is the name of the national dairy breeding programme in Ireland and it forms an extremely important part of the Dairy Industry. The aim of the programme is to provide dairy farmers with the best genetics through a coordinated progeny test programme. Now in its 16th year, the program has delivered over €200 million to Irish dairy farmers through increased genetic gain.

A national breeding programme is essential to ensure there is a supply of top genetic bulls from a wide range of high EBI sires for farmers to choose from each year. This will allow farmers to increase profitability from breeding over time. The success of the programme is built on the national cattle breeding data which stores information across many traits for millions of animals as well as the collaboration of many industry stakeholders. The programme collects data efficiently by having a direct link between the farmer and the national database. Since the formation of the programme in 2005, it has contributed significantly to the increased rate of genetic gain in the national dairy herd. This can be clearly seen in Figure 1 below.

Figure 1. Genetic Trends in EBI for 1st calving dairy females

How it works?

Young genomic sires are put forward to the programme by the participating AI companies.  These young bulls are sourced from Irish farms and are all from high genetic merit sires and dams. Semen from these high EBI sires is distributed to participating herds in ‘packs of straws’ through sales reps and AI technicians.

Farmers that use these straws must partake in milk recording and recording high levels of data, such as, insemination dates, sire details, calving surveys and to provide any health information as it becomes available on daughters of these bulls. This ensures that these sires achieve high reliabilities in as short a time frame as possible. For most farmers, this information is already being recorded so little additional work is needed.

Benefits of the programme for farmers

The main benefits for farmers taking part in the programme include excellent value for money and access to some of the highest EBI young sires available thus speeding up the rate of genetic gain in their own herd. It also gives the opportunity to be involved in a programme that is delivering real benefits for the dairy Industry. Compared with 2005, when the programme was first launched, farmers are now €550/lactation more profitable. Participating herds are also a source of genetics for the breeding programme. As they are the first farmers to use the highest genetic merit bulls based on genomics, these herds are of great interest to AI companies sourcing young animals for the breeding programme. These herds are also attractive from an AI company’s view as they record very good information on their cows, with an ever-increasing number of these herds also genotyping all their females.

Contribution of Gene Ireland Bulls

To date, almost 800 bulls have been tested through Dairy Gene Ireland, with over 400,000 straws distributed across several thousand herds. Bulls tested through Dairy Gene Ireland have contributed over 18,000 milk recorded daughters, achieving an average EBI reliability of 81%. The on-going collection of data is vital for the accuracy of genetic and genomic evaluations for dairy bulls. The information gathered by participating herds will usually form the basis of the first proof for AI bulls. Getting an accurate first proof is essential as these sires can then be used in the genomic training population, further increasing the reliabilities of genomic proofs, as well as being identified as potential sires of the next generation of elite young bulls. Foreign sires dominated the active bull list in the early years. Over time, sires were increasingly sourced domestically. The fact that, today, over 90% of sires tested through the programme are Irish bred, which can be seen in figure 2, is an indication to the success of Dairy Gene Ireland.

Figure 2. AI Sires Country of Origin Trend 2001-2019

Spring Programme 2020

For this year’s programme, the target is to test 60 young Genomic bulls. The breed packs available are Holstein-Friesian, Pure Friesian and a Multi-Breed pack. The Multi-Breed pack is a combination of Holstein/Friesian, Norwegian Red, Jersey and Jersey crossbred bulls. The average EBI of these packs are displayed in table 1. Straws are available in packs of 25 (5 bulls x 5 straws) 35 (5 bulls x 7 straws) and 50 (5 bulls x 10 straws). The cost is only €8.50 per straw. If you are interested, contact ICBF on 023 8820452 or your breeding advisor. A sign-up form (available on the ICBF website) can also be completed and returned to Gene Ireland, ICBF, Highfield House, Bandon, Co. Cork. The increased involvement of farmers in the programme will result in more bulls getting tested, which will in turn, increase the rate of genetic gain of the national dairy herd.

Table 1. Dairy Gene Ireland Breed Packs for Spring 2020

Breed Pack Average Pack EBI
Holstein-Friesian €309
Pure Friesian €160
Multi Breed €264


In short

  • G€N€ IR€LAND® programme efficiently captures information on traits of economic importance for use in genetic evaluations of dairy bulls.
  • Since 2005, the programme has contributed significantly to the increase rate of genetic gain in the national dairy herd.
  • The cost is only €8.50 per straw and the average pack EBI of the Ho/Fr bulls is €200 more than the national herd average.
  • If you would like to take part in the programme or if you have any questions, please call the ICBF HerdPlus Team on 023 8820452