The evolution of data in livestock farming

 

Harnessing the power of data is being hailed as the next major step for livestock farmers who are striving to make their businesses more competitive.

In the face of rising input costs and volatile markets, finding ways to rear more profitable livestock which meets the demands of producers, retailers and consumers alike is becoming a priority for many.

And while pedigree breeding may have shaped the livestock sector in the past, developments in technologies such as hybridization and genomics offer producers the chance to accurately select traits which result in better-yielding animals.

Sam Boon, AHDB breeding services manager, says the idea that livestock should be selected on the basis of their heritage is outdated.

Instead more producers should be selecting livestock based on their Estimated Breeding Values (EBVs), which give a better indication of how an animal will perform over its lifetime and will ultimately result in better profits for farmers.

“History shows that it’s not always the best genetics that has the most success,” Mr Boon says.

“Britain’s most-expensive ram, Texil Tophill Joe, was bought for £128,000 when it was sold in 2003. It was valued for its perfectly-shaped head and legs, tight skin and top-quality fleece – none of the traits which have any influence on how it tastes.”

Rather than breeding for perceived benefits, farmers had more chance of producing what the market requires – and in turn achieving higher premiums – by recording and making use of genetic information.

The challenge for producers is that the approach does require a new mindset in terms of recording breeding data and actively using EBVs across breeds.

But as momentum around recording and sharing data builds, and new technologies such as CT scanning are used to identify beneficial traits, the potential for genetic gains is massive, he adds.

Change in habits aside, the volume of data potentially available to producers when they are making breeding decisions can be overwhelming, says the UK’s Centre for Dairy Information (CDI).

“[To make things simpler], it helps to think about data in two distinct categories: phenotypic and genetic,” it says in its guidance to farmers.

“Phenotypes should be used to inform management data such as culling, feeding and husbandry. For example, a high-yielding, trouble-free cow – regardless of its genetic merit – is worth keeping as an efficient milk producer.

“Genetic data meanwhile should be used to make breeding decisions such as sire selection and mating choices. Genotypes tell us about potential performance: They remove the effects of management.”

As livestock producers across the world become more familiar with collecting and analyzing data, the potential for it to guide breeding and business decisions is becoming increasingly likely.

“In future we will have commercial progeny tests which will look for the relationship between pedigree and commercially-derived phenotypes [in sheep],” Mr Boons says.

This combined breed analysis will allow a degree of breed comparison and generate estimated breeding values for cross-bred lambs.

“[It’s using data in these kinds of way] which will really unlock the untapped potential to improve genetic in the livestock sector.”

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