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Peter Hynes: How a new wave of genetic data is set to transform dairy farming in the next decade


The calving season is in full swing for us, and our diary is filling up with numerous projects on the horizon.

We had veterinary students from UCD with us for a few weeks in January and there will be more visiting us every weekend in February to try their hands at calving cows, with more booked in for a few weeks in March.

We are all continuously learning so it's always a pleasure helping others to educate themselves.

In early January we were in Glasgow as I was asked to speak at the 30th annual Semex International Dairy Conference.

Semex is one of the leading global genetics companies, with over 1,100 bulls at stud selling in excess of 12m doses of semen globally every year. I was humbled by the response to my presentation, and myself and Paula left the event inspired.

The theme of the conference was 'Be Extraordinary' and the list of speakers lived up to that billing.

Market analyst Chris Walkland explained in great detail, backed up by 10 years of data, why 2020 will be a very positive year for global dairy markets.

Other speakers addressed why it is vital we as farmers communicate more with the public to counteract the anti-agriculture agenda.

I was particularly impressed by Dr Steven Larmer (genomics programme manager) and Jordan Leak (chief operations officer of Double A Dairy and Twin Ridge genetics).

Jordan farms 20,000 dairy cows in the US state of Idaho - Holstein, Jersey and crossbreds with a replacement rate at 28pc.

He also carries 20,000 replacement dairy stock, with all stock being genotyped using that information to make strategic breeding decisions.

It certainly seems to work for him as last year he sold 6,000 in-calf heifers to two clients in Asia, who demanded that all stock were genotyped and above a certain index.

Dr Larmer spoke about the information available to us through genomics. Fertility, milk production, health traits are all more accurately confirmed, but what really grabbed my attention was when he discussed the unknown.

Genotyping creates a wealth of information and currently what is holding it back is computer power to process the volume of data.

Steven was very adamant that within a short space of time computer power will become sufficient to process all the data.

This will unlock the genetic 'black box' to show us which cows produce less methane, require less antibiotics and ultimately ensure every genetic trait required for efficiency is considered.

The end goal is completely tailor-made breeding programmes for every dairy herd. Closing the conference Paul Larmer, CEO of Semex, summed up the last 30 years of genetics, also discussing the next decade ahead.

He said genotyped embryos will become the norm along with beef embryos being used on dairy cows, adding that GM dairy genetics is on the horizon. It's merely a case of which countries will accept GM genetics.

On the plane home, I found myself thinking why are more farmers not embracing genotyping?

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We have been genotyping all females born on farm for five years now and when we look at the latest EBI proofs it certainly highlighted how it has helped us make more informed breeding decisions.

There is also a good return on investment - researchers say the payback is three to one with the cost of genotyping at a mere €22 per female being lower in Ireland than anywhere else in the world.

An estimated 15pc of genotyped stock have incorrect sires - in effect there are at least 250,000 dairy cows in Ireland with potentially incorrect parentage.

The reliability has increased further, and for those considering buying or selling dairy stock, it's surely a must-have piece of information.

Yet there are only 80,000 dairy females genotyped in Ireland. If we really want the Irish dairy herd to be highly efficient, we need to gather all available data.

It's back to calving for me now. For those of you on social media keep an eye out for the #FutureofFarming campaign over the next few weeks. Its something myself, Paula and the girls are delighted to be involved in for the year ahead.

Hopefully the spring will be kind to us all and we'll see maximum days at grass to keep the cows content.

Peter Hynes farms with his wife Paula in Aherla, Co Cork

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