Breeding for the future

By Nicola Dennis

In the late 1990s, the folks in charge of breeding dairy cattle all around the world began to realise that they had been inadvertently destroying cow fertility. In New Zealand, years of intensive selection for milk yield had caused a disturbing genetic trend in the 6 week in-calf rate (about -0.5% per year). Daughter fertility had not been a consideration in sire selection until then. Now, after nearly 20 years, the genetic merit for fertility in the average NZ dairy cow has just about recovered to where it was in the 1980s. My point, and one that you surely already know, is that genetic selection is a slow game. It takes a long time for the breeding decisions you make now to improve on (or correct) the breeding decisions made in the past.

So, it is never too early to start thinking about the future. Where do we want to be in another 20 years? What fancy new traits could we be including in our selection indices?

The vegans in my life like to remind me that plant-based or lab-based meat is to cause the imminent demise of the red meat industry. If this is true, many of us may switch to growing whatever precursors these meat-like things are made of -- please remember to keep your friendly breeding consultant at hand when you take up protein-isolate farming! Those traditional farmers that remain may need to improve their game with product placement. Meat will need to compete.

There are already some clever products hitting the pipeline, such as high omega lamb and grass-fed wagyu. Stepping away from the meat for now, there is also some innovation in the wool space such as Lanaco’s breeding program for wool used in air filters and face masks. Wool is also finding itself in other funky places such as footwear and yoga mats. Even in the absence of the vegan apocalypse, these initiatives fulfil the long-held ambitions to move the NZ primary industries away from trading commodities and towards specialist products.

What will our primary industries’ next “gold kiwifruit” be? Being far from a visionary in product development (it seems I never saw the DVD player coming, does anyone want the large box of video cassettes from my garage?), I will refrain from guessing.

What about the problems of the future? A well-meaning town dweller recently asked me if I had got my farm “whipped into shape” yet. I tried to explain that, at least in my experience, farms don’t really take to crash diets, instead the best you can do, is to keep the list of things that need repairs down to a trim 20 items. So yes, there will always be problems. Climate change and the environmental impact of farming are probably going to play a part in those future problems.

Firstly, it is likely that farmers will come under considerable pressure to reduce emissions from ruminants. The idea of breeding low methane emitting stock or breeding “low emissions” fodder for them to eat has been around for a while. In other parts of the world, emissions breeding values seem close to becoming a reality. Lower emissions generally mean greater feed efficiency (producing methane is kind of a waste of energy for a ruminant) which we have been indirectly selecting for since the beginning of farming. We might be a little further ahead with this trait than we have been giving ourselves credit for.

There is another aspect to climate change that is not so rosy: the actual climate change part presents some challenges to livestock. Stock don’t usually mind some extra sunbathing (if they do, there is a company in the USA that is happy to gene edit in the heat tolerance gene to help them out), but they will not enjoy extra health challenges.

The weather is predicted to get much warmer and wetter. This means that facial eczema is projected to intensify in the North Island and to spread down the South Island. Although it will take a while (year 2090, by my calculations), my stomping ground in Dunedin will eventually be at high risk of facial eczema. Ticks also enjoy the warmth, and so it is likely we will see a rise in tick borne diseases such as Theleria. And, not to belabour a point, but there are also concerns that the future climate of Northland will sustain subtropical diseases that we have yet to experience in New Zealand.

I’ll wager that disease resistance traits will become an important part of breeding programs in the future. Especially since, if we are to push the boundaries of feed efficiency, we run the risk of inadvertently reducing the animal’s energy expenditure on important things (like the immune system) if we don’t also keep an eye on animal health. We need to keep things balanced otherwise, in 20 years’ time, we may be discussing that time we started inadvertently destroying stock disease resistance in New Zealand.