UK Genomics – It is believed that genetic improvement can be increased by about 50 percent through the use of genomics technology but the UK was very slow to take up the genomics mantle and lagged behind much of the world. With its delayed reaction to this new technology, has the UK genomics industry found that it needs to play catch-up in the dairy cattle genomics world?

The importance of genomics in dairy farming

It is believed that using genomic technology will benefit the dairy industry to the tune of millions of pounds over the longer term. This is mainly through the improvement to genetic gain in dairy cows, identifying the higher genetic merit bulls at a much younger age. Traits such as disease resistance, fertility, and even longevity can be very hard to measure compared with some of the production traits, and this is where the industry can improve and gain financially.

UK genomics and the use of foreign bulls

At the point at which genotyping began to come to the fore, the UK was using a high number of foreign bulls, and so it was thought that genetic testing undertaken by countries more advanced in the field would benefit the UK. However, industry experts pointed out that the UK would have a different set of objectives for breeding and that genetics do not perform in the same way in other countries. This meant that the UK itself needed to generate its own indigenous genomics data in order to identify the highest merit bulls for breeding. The UK at the time also had – and continues to have – a very strong interest in TB resistance which many other countries do not, and so data for this resistance needed to come from UK cattle.

Why was the UK slow to embrace genomics?

The technology first became available in 2008 and the costs were very high. It was regarded as the preserve of large AI companies rather than dairy farmers themselves, and so investment in research and development of genotyping was not seen as a priority. At the beginning, there was also a reluctance by nations to pool resources even though this would have been beneficial to all participants. The UK was not willing to move forward on its own.

However, a year after the advent of the genomics technology it became apparent to those countries involved that the task needed a multi-lateral approach. Genotyping relies on high numbers of reference animals to be successful. If only a small number of animals are sampled, the genetic reliability of the data will be low. It was at this time that UK genomics and genotyping was embraced.

Now UK Genomics has caught up in the field of cattle genetics and every farmer in the UK can access UK genomics data to assist in herd improvement and increased profitability.