Dairy Australia has an important role in innovation in the dairy industry on behalf of the 5500 dairy farmers across Australia.

Collaborating with industry partners such as the Gardiner Foundation, Agriculture Victoria and others, Dairy Australia ensures the maximum value is extracted for any levy-funded research.

We asked DairyBio animal program leader Professor Jennie Pryce and DataGene group leader: genetics and delivery Michelle Axford to give an update on these two key herd-improvement investments and how genetic research from DairyBio’s animal program is making significant productivity gains for Australian dairy farmers.

Jennie Pryce

Who is DairyBio is and why are they important to the Australian dairy industry?

DairyBio has two main programs. One is responsible for delivering improved forages and the other is focused on genomic prediction or improvement of dairy cows and it’s known as the animal program.

The work is funded by Dairy Australia, Agriculture Victoria and the Gardiner Foundation, so it’s funded by taxpayers and farmers and is real value for money for farmers in terms of future prosperity to the dairy industry through innovation.

Can you tell us about some of the active research that’s happening?

We’ve got six main projects. All of them are focused on genetic improvement or helping with herd-testing organisations and there’s one that’s focused on how to use genome sequence data.

So that’s understanding every variant there is in an animal’s genome.

We also work in terms of developing new methods to do genomic predictions for breeds other than Holsteins and Jerseys and crossbreds as well.

We also have a research project that’s helping DataGene, where we are working on improving existing breeding values.

And we’ve got another project, which is very much focused on new breeding values and that’s focused very much on the health and environmental impact space.

Why should we care about genomic sequencing? Why is that better than traditional genetic improvement genetic selection methods?

The way that genomic selection works is that we use 50,000 genetic markers that are equally spaced across the genome.

And we pretty much work out the relationship between those genetic markers and whatever trait we are interested in improving.

Now, where the sequence data comes in is that we recognise that there are really important parts of the genome.

That if we put a bit more emphasis, or be able to kind of track exactly what’s going on in those parts, it can actually give us a lift in terms of the accuracy within the genomic predictions.

So it’s some way of enhancing what we currently do with current genetic or genomic evaluations.

The interesting thing is that the enhancement works best for traits other than production, these are the lower heritability traits that we don’t have so much data on.

One thing that we’re working on at the moment is improved fertility breeding values and we’re looking at lots of different sources of data.

One researcher is having a look to see if we can use herd test information in a novel way and this is the midinfrared spectral data that we get from herd testing and whether we can use that to improve our genetic predictions.

We’re also looking to see if we can bring in data that’s been collected by other collaborators.

So we have a collaboration with Dairy NZ on this cool study where they’ve got high and low fertility breeding value cows – around 500 of them.

We’re interested to see if there are genetic variants that crop up in either the high or the low fertility group that we can then use to help with our genetic predictions in Australia.

How does your research reach farmers?

So this is the beautiful thing.

It’s very simple for us to do the research and then we have the very capable hands of DataGene to translate that into tools that farmers can use.

We’re really fortunate to have this model and it’s a very seamless transition for us to be able to convert the research into applications that farmers can use.

Are there any specific success stories in terms of the translation of this research on to farm?

There’s lots of examples, I think that’s one of the really gratifying parts of my job to talk to farmers about their experiences.

A fertility example that comes to mind is the relationship that you see between six-week in-calf rate and the daughter fertility breeding value.

This is a beautiful piece of work that John Morten did as part of the InCalf program, and he showed that the relationship was really tight that you get exactly what you would expect in terms of the increase of daughter fertility breeding value and the increment also in six-week in-calf rate.

Michelle Axford

Who is DataGene and what do they do?

DataGene might be best known for providing the genetic evaluation, which is delivering the breeding values for bulls and cows to Australian dairy farmers with releases in April, August and December.

These days, our activities are geared around how we can use genetics and herd improvement to improve herd performance on farm.

We’re involved in components of research, development and extension as well.

What are Australian Breeding Values and why are they important for Australian dairy farmers?

Australian Breeding Values let us compare animals by looking at the genetic differences between bulls and that helps farmers choose the bulls they might use in the upcoming mating season.

Breeding values also help farmers choose the best replacements that are going to go into their herds.

Farmers want to make sure the herd is doing the best job it possibly can and we can use breeding values to select the right heifers that are going to enter that milking herd.

What I find always fascinating is if we see a herd of cows, they’ve been given the same access to feed and the same care and attention, but we see some cows do a better job than others.

One of the reasons they can do a better job, whether that’s being more fertile or more productive or last longer comes down to genetics and the ABV is our way of measuring those genetic differences.

Does genetics work as well in herds that have low inputs to very high levels of inputs?

It’s something that we hear from farmers quite a lot – that the BPI (Balanced Performance Index) doesn’t work for me.

We had the opportunity to look at five different feeding systems and look at the performance of high versus low genetic merits cows in those herds.

All the way from feeding system one, which was feeding less than a tonne of grain per cow per year, to the fully intensive total mixed ration feedings systems.

In all feeding systems, the high genetic merit cows produced more than the lower genetic merit cows.

They lasted as long, if not longer, if they were a high genetic merit cow

In the lower feeding systems, with not as much extra grain being fed, sometimes people say the genetics we use doesn’t matter because they are not feeding huge amounts and so the cows are doing the same.

What we found was really interesting.

These cows were still producing more and lasting longer than the low genetic merit cows.

And at the other end in the total mixed ration groups, sometimes people would say we don’t want to use the high BPI animals because maybe they don’t last as long.

Maybe they produce so much that they don’t last.

But when we looked at the data we found that there’s actually no difference in survival between the high and the low genetic merit animals in these herds.

So those high genetic merit animals have produced heaps more and they’re not leaving the herds early.

I think that’s really valuable to think about and helps us when we’re planning our next joining periods to make sure that we’re choosing the right bulls for our herd.

How do we choose the right bull for our herd?

At DataGene we’ve grouped the bulls together that are high genetic merit, so they’ve reached a certain standard for BPI, and they’ve also reached a certain standard for reliability.

The companies have told us that those bulls are active and can be purchased during this next season.

We put those bulls together on a good bulls list, which we present in the Good Bulls Guide in paper format and online but the easiest way to access this list is using the Good Bulls App, which is freely available.