Development of the Dairy Industry Good Animal Database has serious implications, potentially, for the future of breed societies and how they access their data to provide services to members. Bob Edlin reports.

Dairy breed societies want equal access to industry-good herd-improvement data for member dairy farmers and supporting industries so everyone is operating on a level playing field and there is no commercial tie-up with data.

Cherilyn Watson, general manager of Holstein Friesian NZ, the country’s biggest breed society, affirmed this when asked what over-riding outcome she hoped would result from the Ministry for Primary Industries’ review of the regulated (“core”) herd improvement dataset.

Pam Goodin, Jersey NZ’s corporate services manager who also represents the Ayrshire Association and the NZ Milking Shorthorn Association, agreed data collected on behalf of farmers throughout New Zealand should be made available for all for industry-good use – “that’s the one thing we would want to come out of the MPI review”.

‘In effect it’s the farmers’ data because the farmers pay to put it in there in the form of herd records, herd testing results, etc, and then they pay to get it back in a form that they can understand and use.’

The review, aimed at ensuring the dataset meets the dairy industry’s current and future animal evaluation needs, extends to issues such is the role and membership of the Dairy Core Database Access Panel and the certification of herd testers but the NZ indices (breeding worth and breeding values) are outside its scope.

While disappointed by this exclusion, Watson’s key concern is the collection of and access to industry-good data.

Development of the Dairy Industry Good Animal Database (see sidebar) has “some quite serious ramifications”, potentially, for breed societies and how they access their data to provide services to their members, she said.

Data transferred to DairyNZ for the DIGAD comprises only the 46 core data fields and any other fields agreed between DairyNZ and LIC to run the NZ Animal Evaluation model.

But under LIC’s custody the number of data fields has been widened and LIC raised objections when the Anderson Report in 2009 recommended the database be moved into industry-good hands with DairyNZ.

LIC argues it and its farmer owners have paid for the development of the database.

The breed societies say LIC has gained unprecedented access to industry-good data, the reason for the 2008-09 review to determine if a commercial entity should have custody of the data.

They want a widening of the group of fields covered by the regulations as well as the database’s being put into industry-good hands.

Goodin acknowledged intellectual property considerations in data collected by LIC, such as breeding worth (BW) and lactation worth (LW), but said these are national indices, in effect owned by the farmers who provide the data.

She hoped MPI notes the emphasis on access issues raised in many submissions during its review.

Watson said much of the data for the three data fields which breed societies provide to the LIC database comes directly from the societies’ farmer members.

“In effect it’s the farmers’ data because the farmers pay to put it in there in the form of herd records, herd testing results, etc, and then they pay to get it back in a form that they can understand and use,” Watson said.

“Farmers often get frustrated because they feel they put it in there, the industry uses it, and then they have to pay to get it back.”

An immediate concern is that CRV may supply data directly to DIGAD from May this year before breed society concerns have been resolved.

If this happens, Watson said, “it will cause market failure for the dairy cattle breed societies, most of which have been operating for more than 100 years.”

She foresees the prospect of gaps in an animal’s family tree.

Breed society members record data with both CRV and LIC and need information from both organisations.

A complete set of data for an animal can be provided now because all animals are recorded through the LIC database regardless of whether LIC or CRV is the herd record provider. But when LIC and CRV supply data directly to DIGAD the database will not hold all the required fields to complete a three-generation pedigree.

“Before a breed society solution can be designed and built, we need to know 100% what data will be located where – with DIGAD, LIC or CRV,” Watson said.

“We are waiting for these parties to reach an agreement on what information they will and will not share.”

The building of DIGAD

Six “participating breed societies” have been involved in the development of a computerised national herd improvement database since initial work in the late 1970s resulted in the establishment of the NZ Dairy Core Database in 1985. They contributed funding and data from their herd books.

The breed societies with access to the database are Holstein Friesian NZ, Jersey NZ, Ayrshire NZ, the NZ Milking Shorthorn Association, the NZ Brown Swiss Association, and the NZ Guernsey Association, all not-for-profit organisations and members of the New Zealand Dairy Breeds Federation.

They own three fields on the database – pedigree status, pedigree name and classification information – and add to some non-core data fields.

Breed society membership funds the provision of this data on behalf of members. In return the societies can access data contributed by member farmers’ herd recording through LIC and CRV.

When the Dairy Board and Livestock Improvement Corporation were corporatised in 2001, LIC became responsible for the core database.

But LIC has become more commercially focused since then and a review committee headed by Professor Robert Anderson in 2009 recommended the core database and animal evaluation function be shifted to an industry-good body.

The breed societies have been frustrated by the delays – and the costs incurred – in implementing this recommendation.

Four years passed before DairyNZ (funded by all dairy farmers) and LIC (a farmer-owned co-operative) reached a commercial agreement for the change to begin and the Dairy Industry Good Animal Database (DIGAD) to be established.

Animal data was transferred under phase one of the shift to DIGAD, the provision of core data comprising 46 data fields and other agreed fields. These include animal performance data from LIC and CRV customers and data collected by breed societies related to “traits other than production” (TOP), such as farmer scores of temperament, milking speed and udder characteristics.

Phase two added the fields required to run the NZ Animal Evaluation model, which is now operating under the DairyNZ umbrella, too.

Phase three was to integrate the breed societies, which need access to information across all areas of the industry.

In the original plan, CRV was to have ceased supplying its information through the LIC database in phase four and supply directly to DIGAD. This was changed in the past two years to include CRV in phase three with the breed societies.

The societies are anxious to secure – at a minimum – access to the same data they can access now when DIGAD is fully up and running. They are concerned that CRV will supply data directly to DIGAD from May this year, with or without a breed society solution in place.

Falling behind

The New Zealand dairy herd improvement database is no longer the envy of the world, a World Holstein Friesian Federation Board and the ICAR Breed Association Working Group member, Cherilyn Watson says.

The database was acclaimed because it enabled breeders to access all information on an animal from one screen – calving details, herd testing records, DNA verification, classification and so on.

But data ownership and access issues are still being sorted out to implement the 2009 Anderson Report recommendation to move the database into industry-good hands with DairyNZ.

Australia, meanwhile, is among countries which have built a central data repository.

“The industry there is working together to put data in and is gaining from the unified sharing of data,” Watson says.

Previously their system was fragmented – herd testers had some information, breed societies had other information, and so on, but Dairy Australia established DataGene, a company which has built the central data repository that gathers data from an array of sources into one central database and runs the country’s animal evaluation model.

“They have done the opposite of what NZ is doing,” Watson says.

“I believe our industry is falling behind the rest of the world while we continue to argue about who owns what data and have our national indices owned by a commercial entity.”