Good uptake of new robust dairy cow breeding database

Innovative and practical breeding tools for improved dairy products from more robust dairy cattle is the focus of a Europe-wide innovative database of which Teagasc is a main player.

The RobustMilk database, developed by researchers from the Netherlands, the UK, Belgium and Teagasc Moorepark, is now widely across Ireland.

According to the researchers, since the mid-1990s most leading EU dairy cattle breeding programmes have expanded their breeding goals to include health and fertility in addition to milk production. Its project, RobustMilk, focused both on the robustness of cows and milk quality.

“Robustness is a broad term and has a range of connotations. The RobustMilk team defined robust dairy cows as healthy, fertile and profitable, ie maintain homeostasis, under a range of commonly accepted and sustainable farming systems. From this overall definition of robustness, two priorities were selected: energy balance and environmental sensitivity.”

They continued: “The challenge for genetic selection is not to select for more robust cows or healthier milk alone, the challenge is to elect simultaneously for robust cows with improved milk quality. However, what might be good for human health is not necessarily good for dairy cow health. Careful and thorough evaluation of the consequences of selection is therefore key.”

The aim of RobustMilk was to develop useful and practical technologies to allow dairy farmers and the dairy industry to refocus their selection decisions in order to include additional traits such as milk quality and dairy cow robustness.

The RobustMilk team developed new methods for accurately and routinely predicting milk quality at little or no extra cost, involving the infrared spectroscopy of milk machines. The methods have been taken up in Ireland, the UK and Belgium.

The team also developed ways to predict energy balance using mid-infrared spectra. They say this is important for breedings wanting to include energy balance in their breeding objectives.

The results included a common database for agriculture institutions across Europe, including Teagasc, which focuses on phenotyping using mid-infrared and statistical use of existing data and tools for genomic selection.

The database includes rarely recorded phenotypic measurements (feed intake, body condition scoring and detailed health and fertility recordings), as well as the genotypes. The results are summarised in a special issue of the journal Advances in Animal Biosciences published recently.