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Changes coming to who calculates, distributes genetic evaluations

Calvin Covington Published on 31 December 2012

The USDA has calculated and distributed some form of dairy cattle genetic evaluations since 1926. These genetic evaluations have played a major role in the average annual milk production of a U.S. dairy cow tripling in the past 50 years, from about 7,000 pounds per cow to now more than 21,000 pounds. And these evaluations have helped the U.S. become the world’s leader in dairy cattle genetics.

USDA’s Agricultural Research Service (ARS), through its Animal Improvement Programs Laboratory (AIPL), announced a few months ago that it would no longer calculate and distribute dairy cattle genetic evaluations. ARS stated it would transfer the calculation and distribution of genetic evaluations to the dairy industry.

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Going forward AIPL will focus its resources on research and development. The transition from a government program to the dairy industry is expected to take place in 2013.

For most dairy farmers, the topic of genetic evaluations is not in the same league as increasing milk prices or lowering feed costs, but nevertheless it is a topic that impacts a dairy farmer’s bottom line. As such it is important for dairy farmers to know what is taking place, and provide their input as needed.

Why change a program that successfully worked for almost nine decades? Based on my observations there are three reasons for the change. First, ARS points out that such a transfer keeps with their policy of helping industries become self-reliant.

According to the ARS, the dairy industry has matured and is now capable of assuming the responsibility of calculating and distributing genetic evaluations. Plus, the USDA does not provide similar services to other agricultural industries.

A second reason is money. The USDA continues to look for areas to make budget cuts. This is a savings, however, a minor one. The total fiscal 2012 AIPL budget is about $2.6 million – a relatively small amount in government circles. AIPL will continue with genetic research and development activities, so the total amount of savings from not calculating and distributing genetic evaluations is not known.

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It should be added that moving genetic evaluations from the government to a private entity is not new. In May 1995, the Canadian Dairy Network was formed to transfer responsibility from the Canadian government to the industry for calculating genetic evaluations.

The third and the most important reason is genomics, but some background information is needed first. The source of data for genetic evaluations comes from the Council on Dairy Cattle Breeding. The council is composed of artificial insemination companies, breed associations and dairy herd improvement organizations.

The council has a memorandum of understanding with ARS to supply data needed for genetic evaluations. It establishes guidelines to help ensure the reliability, accuracy and uniformity of data used by ARS to calculate genetic evaluations. The council and its members, including dairy farmers, are the suppliers of data used for genetic evaluations. It is this data that has and continues to build the genetic evaluation system.

With genomics, genetic evaluations can be calculated without any traditional phenotypic data. This creates the potential to discontinue collecting phenotypic data, and only use genomic data for evaluations. However, genomic genetic evaluations are based on mathematical prediction equations. These equations were developed and continue to be updated based on traditional phenotypic data.

There is a cost to collect phenotypic data on dairy animals. It costs money to weigh milk, test milk for components, progeny test young sires, classify cows for type and then gather and process all of this data. Without a continuous supply of phenotypic data (the data supplied by the council and its members), the accuracy and quality of genetic evaluations will eventually decline.

In addition, genomics creates the opportunity for entities, who have not supplied data to build the current genetic evaluation system, to receive the benefits of the genetic evaluation program at little or no cost. If the dairy industry is to continue having a superior genetic evaluation system, a plan must be in place to encourage the continued collection of needed phenotypic data, and to equitably share the cost of this data collection. What is the plan to accomplish this?

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The only formal plan currently on the table is for the council and ARS to enter into a new non-funded cooperative agreement. Under the agreement, the council will have a business unit that will calculate and distribute genetic evaluations.

ARS will focus its efforts on research and improving the methods used to calculate genetic evaluations. The council will maintain the phenotypic and genomic data used for genetic evaluations. There will be agreements between the council and those providing such data to help ensure quality and accuracy.

The council will have provisions for other entities not currently involved with the council to participate. Money to operate the council’s business unit will primarily come from fees charged for those who request genetic evaluations for cows or bulls.

It is anticipated that fees could vary based on the level of data supplied. For example, dairy farmers who register and classify their cattle may pay a lower fee for a genetic evaluation on one of their cows compared to a dairy farmer that does not.

As with any change there are advantages and disadvantages, and those who support the change and those who have reservations.

Shifting a governmental program to the industry is considered an advantage by some people in that it puts the program in the hands of those supplying the data. However, it is a disadvantage in the eyes of others in that it moves calculations of genetic evaluations away from a public, non-commercial, governmental agency to a private entity.

Along with this there are those who see such a shift as increasing the potential to monopolize, limit or control future dairy cattle genetics.

An obvious disadvantage is that the cost of calculating genetic evaluations goes from being funded by taxpayers to being funded by dairy farmers. Numbers published by the council estimate the expense of the new business unit to be about $1.15 million in the first year, and then growing to $1.84 million by the third year.

On the other hand, there are those both inside and outside of the dairy industry who question why the government should fund a genetic evaluations program for just one industry.

A final concern expressed by some is that the council and its proposed new business unit will need more direct dairy farmer input. The majority of the council’s voting members are represented by management. Granted, most of the managers report to dairy farmer boards of directors, but direct farmer input is important.

There are three obvious facts as I see it. First, unless something changes, ARS has plainly stated the responsibility for calculating and distributing genetic evaluations must now be assumed by the dairy industry. Second, genomics has changed the playing field.

Genomics still requires a continuous supply of reliable phenotypic data to maintain accurate genetic evaluations. There must be an equitable incentive for dairy farmers and their organizations to continue to supply such data. Third, the U.S.’ genetic evaluation system plays a major role in improving the production and efficiency of the dairy cow.

This system must be maintained to help improve dairy farmer profitability and help ensure that consumers of dairy products have an ample supply of high-quality dairy products at the best value possible. A plan is on the table to address these facts. It is now up to dairy farmers and their organizations to make the council’s plan work. PD

Covington is a retired dairy co-op CEO and currently a management consultant.

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Calvin Covington
Farm Consultant

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