Sheryl Haitana

Farmers may have seen a slight change to their herd records after changes to animal evaluations in February as part of a two-stage overhaul of the genetic evaluation systems to deliver improved breeding values to New Zealand dairy farmers.

Breeding companies LIC and CRV Ambreed are collaborating with DairyNZ subsidiary New Zealand Animal Evaluation Limited (NZAEL) to replace genetic evaluation software with a nationally consistent, independent genetic evaluation system for dairy cattle.

The reports farmers will receive from their breeding companies from February onwards will look very similar. The main difference will be that some farmers may see their animals re-ranking on BW as genetic evaluations become more accurate, NZAEL manager Dr Brian Wickham says.

“The format hasn’t changed, but of course the numbers have.”

There will be multiple improvements as part of the new software release, called NZAEL 2.0. The previous genetic evaluation model, NZAEL 1.0, was developed by LIC in 2006, and adopted by NZAEL for the wider industry. The new system incorporates LIC’s latest software and models, and NZAEL research and development. It has been tested and scrutinised by internationally renowned geneticists.

The new software is faster and gives more reliable results, Brian says.

“These are pretty complex equations we solve, and the last 10-15 years there has been a lot of development in the software that solves the equations. We’ve upgraded to the latest version.”

Two of the most significant changes are better recognition of trait differences between breeds, in particular for fertility, and the removal of the effect of inbreeding on breeding values. This work has been funded by levy investment from DairyNZ, and by LIC.

“While inbreeding depression can negatively affect an animal’s performance, this effect is not passed on to the next generation of animals.”

The change to differentiate Holstein and Friesians is because of a certain amount of hybrid vigour when a Holstein and a Friesian are crossed.

These changes give more accurate animal evaluations, but it will be hard for farmers to see the changes on an individual animal, he says.

There have been slight changes to all of the traits for BW and PW in the new software.

For example, the parent average adjustment that applies to highly selected young bulls before they get a progeny test.

“These bulls don’t perform as well on average as ancestry says that you might expect. That adjustment has been re-estimated.”

The decision to make an adjustment to a trait is made if it can be more accurate, he says.

The second stage 3.0 will involve incorporating genomic data in the animal evaluations, and the intent is to have that launched in February 2021.

NZ has been slower than other countries to include genomic data to its animal evaluations, but if NZAEL, LIC and CRV Ambreed can collaborate on a genomic index it will certainly be a game-changer, Brian says.

“These changes support our national breeding objective and, when completed in 2021, will represent the greatest improvement to the animal evaluation system since the introduction of breeding worth (BW) in 1996.”:

The goal is that when NZAEL 3.0 is launched, farmers will get the same genomic information for bulls and cows, whatever breeding company they use.

“For NZAEL, by combining all the genomic data from the different breeding companies we can provide something more accurate and directly comparable than any one of them can provide on their own.”

For farmers to have this genomic data at their fingertips means they have more accurate information on young animals, both bulls and heifers which ultimately gives them the ability to make better breeding and culling decisions earlier.

“It’s like having a relatively weak progeny test on the day the animal is born. That lets selection decisions be made when animals are a lot younger than we currently do, so young bulls might be used more widely.”

With just ancestry information accuracy sits between 30-40%, but with genomic data could increase to 50-60%, he says.

Accuracy varies by trait, but higher accuracy can give farmers more confidence to pick bulls.

“That’s why everyone gets so excited by it, the increased accuracy early in an animal’s life.”

The upgrade in genetic evaluation software will provide more accurate predictions of animal genetic merit, CRV Ambreed national sales and marketing manager Jon Lee says.

“This information forms the foundation for CRV’s genomic evaluations and allows us to continue to breed bulls for NZ conditions.”

CRV Ambreed uses BW and PW in conjunction with its New Zealand Merit Index (NZMI), which includes further traits to help farmers build a herd for the future.

“The correlation between NZMI and BW is very similar. We still adhere to BW, but we account for other traits that we consider are of value to our herd,” Jon says.

“It helps us to breed an animal that suits the BW index as well.”

The mantra for CRV Ambreed is to breed a cow that can perform efficiently in the future environment.

“We want to breed a bull that’s going to generate a cow that’s needed in 10 years-time. Environment pressures, nitrogen and methane might be a consideration that NZAEL will have to think about, we are already going down that road.”

The collaboration between CRV Ambreed, LIC and NZAEL to get to this stage has been good and Jon is looking forward to further discussions to work toward a national genomic value.

The next discussions will be to get a national genomic value. Both breeding companies have invested significantly in their own genomic research and the key will be to ensure good stewardship of that work, he says.

There is an increasing trend of farmers using genomic bulls and DNA testing their herd and farmers will benefit from having a national value they can refer to when selecting genomic animals, he says.

“Genomics helps to bring tomorrow’s genetics into our herd earlier than we normally would.”

LIC general manager NZ markets Malcolm Ellis agrees that the collaboration has been a huge step for the industry.

Working together brings the maximum benefit to NZ farmers because NZ is not a big enough industry to play in isolation, he says.

Meanwhile LIC will begin to incorporate the benefits of its Single Step Animal Model (SSAM) with genomic information flowing into the daughter proven evaluations.

LIC daughter-proven bulls will have different indices on Minda than NZAEL, but the outputs will benefit from that additional genomic information, he says.

The new 2.0 software can compute larger quantities of data and give greater insights into animal performance. This enables farmers to improve the performance of their herds overall by breeding more productive and efficient cows, he says.

The dairy industry has reset in the last couple of years and the focus is now heavily on positive cash flows rather than capital gains. Peak cow restrictions on farms is now becoming more of a reality and thus the focus is going to be even more on breeding the most efficient cow.

This is the time when the industry is going to benefit even more from working together to increase accuracy on breeding evaluations to breed the most efficient animals, Malcolm says.

The latest changes to the NZAEL figures include the annual standard update to economic values.

“I’d like to think when farmers look to the indexes, they can now be more confident that there is more enhanced accuracy.”

  • Look out for the CRV Ambreed podcast on animal evaluation, hosted by Sheryl Haitana, found at