AFSB outlines genetic improvement research

Pictured are: (L-R) Trevor Lockhart (AFSB Member), Peter Amer (AbacusBio), Tony O'Neill (AFSB Chair), Jason Archer (AbacusBio) and Ian Marshall (AFSB Member).
Pictured are: (L-R) Trevor Lockhart (AFSB Member), Peter Amer (AbacusBio), Tony O'Neill (AFSB Chair), Jason Archer (AbacusBio) and Ian Marshall (AFSB Member).

The Agri-Food Strategy Board’s Livestock Genetics Sub-group has outlined the findings of its report into delivering genetic improvement within the beef, dairy and sheep sectors in the future to the industry organisations that provided funding for the research.

Working with world renowned geneticists AbacusBio and key stakeholders, local industry representatives have reviewed options for the delivery of genetic evaluation across livestock sectors and considered opportunities for maximising economic gain through improved genetics.

The research has concluded that whilst there is much of value in existing genetic evaluation activities, efforts have been fragmented and outcomes under-utilised.

The group concluded that opportunities existed to develop further value from existing activities, particularly if data-collection was managed on a more integrated basis via a single Northern Ireland hub, generating information such as comprehensive physical and financial performance evaluation reports. Key productivity opportunities identified include improved farm management decision-making, better management of animal health and disease, and increased economic gain via genetic improvement.

AbacusBio has put forward ambitious and challenging recommendations for the local livestock sector to:

- Build business relationships and the IT infrastructure required to bring together data from different parts of the dairy, beef and sheep value chain;

- Provide comprehensive external genetic evaluations to increase the rate of genetic gain within the dairy, beef and sheep sectors; and

- Develop a comprehensive suite of farm livestock evaluation tools to help local farmers bring about real change in their business performance.

It is proposed that this work is driven forward by an existing or new industry led organisation which will take ownership of an industry wide data hub, co-ordinating data collection services, provide genetic evaluation information and promote its use and produce management information reports for the industry and individuals to use to deliver real economic gain.

The research findings and implications for the future are now being considered by the Agri-Food Strategy Board.

Ulster Farmers Union deputy president, Ivor Ferguson has said industry and government must get behind the Agri-Food Strategy Board’s genomics initiative.

“We welcome the findings of its report which assessed options to deliver continued genetic improvement for beef, sheep and dairy farming,” Mr Ferguson said.

He added that the UFU and a few other NI industry organisations had fully supported this initiative and had provided significant funding so that this report could be used for the betterment of the industry. Mr Ferguson added that the speed with which it had been delivered highlights how the industry’s main players can work better together.

“Northern Ireland is renowned for our excellent livestock producers but science and technology continue to develop. As an industry we have to do what we can to improve producer profitability and it is now time to look at how we can best use these technological advancements to give farmers more tools to help with management decisions,” he said.

Mr Ferguson said the pig and poultry industries have changed dramatically over the last 20 years by not only making better genetics more accessible but also by making full use of them. “The challenge now is to see how we can do the same for beef, sheep and dairy,” he said.

The Republic of Ireland, Australia and the USA have already moved ahead with livestock genomics programmes which have been funded by Government and industry. The UFU says however that the good news for producers here is that there is already a lot of information available through Aphis, abattoirs, markets and milk recording, but it is essential that this information is evaluated and better utilised.

“A central hub for Northern Ireland must now be developed to collect all this data and identify the genetics that are performing the best in the commercial world. This information can then be made available to farmers to help with decision making,” he said.

This report also holds an important message for meat processors and retailers, highlighting that advances in genetics are a long term process. “We are all aware of the changes in specification that have taken place over the last couple of years. These have created practical and financial difficulties on local farms. If processors are serious about this initiative they must show leadership. They need to begin giving long term signals that the market is changing. This would ensure farmers have the best chance of producing the animal that is going to return the best market value,” said Mr Ferguson.