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Single-trait selection can be too much of a good thing

Dairy and beef cattle are amazingly adaptive, but problems arise when we breed for just one trait

As I have travelled the world I have had the privilege of seeing many different breeds of cattle.

They come in every colour and shape, from the stocky Belgium Blue to the sleek Zebu. Some cattle can be found on streets eating food waste; others are beasts of burden working fields and transporting goods; the hearty romp in Alpine meadows; and there are grazing herds that cover vast areas of grassland.

Our love affair with the bovine goes back to the first domesticated herd around 10,500 years ago according to new DNA-based studies. Prior to that, smaller animals such as goats and sheep were a better fit for nomadic farming cultures. As man got into cattle, he selected for specific traits and the cattle self-adapted to the environment in which they needed to survive. Originating in the Near East, all cattle are really bos Taurus. A subspecies, those cattle identified as having a hump on their neck, are known as bos Indicus.

Cattle in their original form were considered multiple-purpose animals, and used for milk, meat, leather, heat, dung, transport, in trade, and as a measure of wealth. As time went on, they were selected for specific traits.

In North America, their purpose has been narrowed to beef or milk production. To get to the point of high production in one stream, single-trait selection was employed. Those considered as dairy cattle were bred for high milk production and those considered beef were bred for high yield.

Canadian genetics are considered superior and allow for us to consider many paths as a global supplier of live cattle, semen, and embryos. According to Statistics Canada, Canada’s global exports in embryos, semen, and live cattle in dairy and beef in 2016 was nearly $173 million. We have earned our place on the world stage.

That being said, the focus on single-trait selection from a global perspective has influenced farm income. Lighter-muscled calves are not seen as profitable by the feeder and yet may have come from an extraordinarily adaptive and productive mother who can survive on 25 cents of sagebrush a day and carry enough milk to feed a baby at night. These situations, though, are becoming rare.

I visited with a farmer in southern India. She recognized the attributes of her cattle and had Holstein cattle for volume, water buffalo for milk quality, and a beef-cross for longevity. By combining the milk she was able to hit all her quality and production targets. In order to enhance this trinity of female producers, she had also developed a hand-turned knife system to chop fresh feed into two-inch pieces for digestibility; she covered her animals from the intense heat of the sun; and had a manure compost to build her soil on her seven acres of land. Poor as she was in the eyes of the westerner, she was very advanced in her thinking.

It was there that I began to rethink the role of dual-purpose breeds again. Further travel revealed dual-purpose dairies all over the world. The journey brought home the importance of building balance in our breeding programs and I wondered if we could improve in measuring our efficiencies.

Fertility and a constant plane of growth are still the dominating factors in beef production profitability, and this linear mindset remains predominant in breed selection. The question is: What do we gain or lose if we back off and allow again for multiple traits?

What we know is that in the heavy production milk cow we have sacrificed fertility, longevity, and made her susceptible to laminitis and other ailments. In the beef herd, selecting strictly for growth has a negative impact on maternal traits.

And although we are starting to measure feed efficiency, the future of breeding programs may be in those cattle that can not only convert at a more efficient level but use less water and carry maternal and performance traits.

Why? Because 98 per cent of the world’s cattle do not reside in Canada where there is an abundance of fresh water, grazing, feed production land, and room for bionutrients such as manure. In most of the world, fresh water, feed and space are in short supply and farms are small. Farmers in developing countries need cattle that are at least dual purpose.

Because we measure the traits within the breeds and not across them, we need more information on the capabilities of these combinations from an EPD (expected progeny difference) and genomic perspective as genomics contribute to trait accuracy across breeds. And we need to see how they perform in different climates.

Surely we can give this woman in India the technology and breeding opportunities in her dairy that deliver on longevity, conversion, milk volume, and milk quality without having a cow for each purpose. With certainty, we must at the very least move away from the linear path of single-trait selection.

About the author

AF Columnist

Brenda Schoepp works as an international mentor and motivational speaker. She can be contacted through her website at www.brendaschoepp.com. All rights reserved.

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