Words by: Bob Edlin

While Ministry for Primary Industries policy officials press on with their review of the Dairy Herd Improvement Regulatory Regime, its programme investment staff are contributing much of the cost of establishing a $1 million system to record and collate vital breeding data on dairy cows.
The development is being led by Holstein Friesian New Zealand on behalf of other dairy cattle breed societies to give the whole dairy industry more options when selecting genetics for physical traits of cattle.
The new system is expected to be completed and fully integrated into the Dairy Industry Good Animal Database (DIGAD) by November this year.
It will serve a two-pronged purpose:
• Breed society registration and classification of cattle
• Recording “traits other than production” (TOP) to help dairy farmers screen more efficient cows that are healthier and live longer.
The TOP system collects phenotypic data on the physical traits of dairy, such as stature, legs and udders, to enable the improvement of those traits.
The DIGAD is managed by New Zealand Animal Evaluation Limited (NZAEL), a subsidiary of DairyNZ.
The societies assess the physical and behavioural traits of 50,000 dairy cows a year to help evaluate the performance of the country’s top breeding bulls.
Data collected on behalf of society members and genetics companies is accessible to all dairy farmers.
“It’s a vital industry-good service which is independent and impartial,” said Cherilyn Watson, general manager of Holstein Friesian New Zealand.
The system now used by breed societies for collating registration and genetic information is more than 20 years old and no longer fit for purpose.
“It’s a threat to the dairy sector’s competitive advantage,” Watson said.
Her organisation took the lead in the development on behalf of the breed societies, applied for funding from the MPI’s Sustainable Food and Fibres Futures and was granted $792,000.
Holstein Friesian New Zealand will cover the rest of the cost.
Once the system is operating, agreements will be reached with other societies about how they use the system and service costs.
“It doesn’t matter whether it’s a Jersey cow, an Ayrshire cow or a Holstein cow, it’s a business where we do very much the same thing,” Watson told Dairy Exporter.
“So it makes sense to build a system that all the breeds can use to do business, working collaboratively as a group rather than all building independent systems.”
The breeds society data comprises just a small part of the total LIC database, but “the system has major limitations and is inadequate to deal with the rise in the use of genomic technologies.”
It was initially developed by the breed societies and the Dairy Board but when the dairy industry was restructured in 2001 the LIC became a userowned co-operative responsible for herd testing and for hosting the dairy core database.
Besides giving independence to the societies when their data is entered through the DIGAD rather than LIC, the new system will ensure against critical gaps in pedigree data that look likely to result from changes in the way dairy herd breeding records are to be collected, stored and made accessible.
Breed societies no longer will have full pedigree information for their members.
Without complete data, breed businesses would not be able to operate.
“That’s why we need to have a solution that has access to all animal records for our members from one neutral source,” said Watson.
Brian Wickham, manager of NZAEL since February last year, said the project is “very much driven by the needs of the breed societies”, aimed at rebuilding their data platform and plugging it into the DIGAD.
He was involved with the original database development with the Dairy Board incorporating breed society requirements. That was the foundation for the LIC database today.
LIC has hosted the system since the dairy industry was restructured to establish Fonterra.
While LIC will no longer host the breed society system it will be a user, and both LIC and CRV will be contracted to complete TOP herd inspections each year as is done now.
Wickham said it was important to have an independent group of people who could assess whether bulls are improving or not improving the traits desirable in dairy cattle.
“From here on this development will give these activities more independence from LIC,” he said.
Moreover, it would eliminate duplication by enabling the DIGAD to collate all information needed for breeding and registering.
DairyNZ will use levy funding for its work on the project and expects to recover this through service fees.
Steve Penno, the MPI’s director of investment programmes, said genetic improvement is good for the environment, animal welfare, and for the profitability of New Zealand’s dairy sector.
He said the database used by the breed societies needed upgrading and had to be able to record a greater number of animal traits.
It also had to be integrated into the DIGAD.
“They wouldn’t have been able to achieve those two things without additional support,” he said.
“We saw this as being an important tool for industry.”
The Sustainable Food & Fibre Futures fund – which has $40 million a year to invest, much of this for projects over several years – supports problem solving and innovation in New Zealand’s food and fibre sectors.
Meanwhile, progress on the ministry’s review of the regulatory regime for herd improvement has been slowed by the government’s measures this year to deal with the Covid-19 epidemic.
The ministry initiated the review and invited comment from stakeholders through a discussion document released late in 2018.
The review aims at updating parts of the regime related to data collection requirements but it also sought stakeholders’ views on how to accommodate the effects of new technologies, such as inline data collection and genomics, into the regime.
A strong response from stakeholders showed they generally wanted a more ambitious and comprehensive approach to matters such as industry good data sharing including genomic data. Agriculture Minister Damien O’Connor agreed to defer decisions on regulatory changes to allow the industry to consider how it could work together and with government to give effect to this broader vision.
Chris Kerr, Director Agriculture Marine & Plant Policy, said industry discussions have been proceeding “and MPI has maintained ongoing engagement with key stakeholders to keep abreast of these discussions.”
The ministry has also been working on the design of a new regulatory framework to support a more modern and comprehensive herd improvement regime, “but its final shape will depend on the outcome of further discussion and then consideration by the Minister”.