Researchers at Livestock Improvement Corp (LIC) are working with the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) to piece together a genetic jigsaw of 15 million pieces.
LIC and First Light teamed up in 2016 to start an artificial breeding programme that sees lower breeding worth dairy cows bred with First Light Wagyu sires to produce calves said to be in demand by consumers globally.
Richard Spelman, LIC’s acting general manager of biological systems and former chief scientist, is overseeing the Wagyu breeding programme.
“Our focus is on increasing the profitability of dairy farms. Over the past few years, milk prices dropped and farmers were looking for other opportunities to increase their bottom line.
“This breeding programme is a way for our farmers to improve the profitability of their lower breeding worth dairy stock, increase revenue and address the bobby calf issue. It’s a broader solution that addresses many issues on farm.”
Spelman says the breeding programme’s effectiveness requires ongoing selection and improvement of breeding genetics.
“The aim of any artificial breeding programme is to improve a herd’s worth, and that will ultimately result in a boost in profits for everyone in the supply chain – farmer, rearer, finisher and marketer.
“With Wagyu, the quality and reliability of the genetics is critical. Genetic improvement is paramount in any production system for any species and is permanent and cumulative. It’s a long game but if you continue to invest, you will continue to reap the benefits.”
In 2012, supported by a government Primary Growth Partnership, First Light began a three-year progeny trial of Wagyu over dairy cows. These trials mated at least 3000 calves with the NZ grass-fed Wagyu genetics from 13 bulls in controlled conditions at Synlait’s farm in Christchurch.
“The genetics we collect were bred in the NZ environment in non-variable conditions. On the other side of the fence is ‘genetics by environment’, which have been imported or sourced from animals fed in barns or feed lots.
“The genetics that excel in that environment are quite different from a cow that runs around a grass field. One of the main benefits of working with NZ genetics is their having been tested in the actual environment the cows are in,” says Spelman.
“The results from the first completed trial in 2016 have enabled the development of genomic indices to rank Wagyu sires based on growth rate, marbling, gestation length and calving ease, says First Light general manager Wagyu, Matt Crowther.
“The creation of genomic indices also allows us to provide our consumers with the transparency they demand. It gives farmers and First Light confidence that the product they are marketing and selling is what they say it is.”
A steering group was also set up to provide First Light with technical advice on how to enhance the genetic improvement programme and where their selection pressure should be.
“There are specific genetic traits that are of interest for us as a Wagyu business,” says Crowther.
“With this information we are able to develop genomic tools that will identify the Wagyu animals that possess the best genetics to collect for our artificial breeding programme with LIC. These are traits we are aiming to continuously enhance through genetic selection.
“This technology enables us to use the best genetic information available to cross the bottom 15 - 20% of a dairy cow herd with Wagyu sires and create greater value for farmers, while providing a consistent and reliable source of export-quality Wagyu product for domestic and international markets. It addresses the calf utilisation issue while also providing a value-added NZ product.
“By focusing our efforts on identifying the best genetics, we are giving farmers better quality animals and a reliable, consistent product.”