Genome Alberta

Livestock Blog

A companion site to Genome Alberta's
Bovine Genome Sequencing Project
November 2, 2011 2:45 PM

When it comes to genetics, Canadian dairy industry is a powerhouse

Filed Under: News Cow Lisa Guenther

Lately the mainstream media has been highlighting agricultural policy in Canada. It started with the battle over the Canadian Wheat Board, and now supply management is in the spotlight. The dairy industry in particular is being scrutinized, with Sun News accusing supply management of gouging consumers and killing innovation.

“Where’s the motivation to develop into an agricultural powerhouse when you’re legislated to milk consumers for guaranteed profits,” Charles Adler asked.

I’m not going to outline all the pros and cons of the dairy supply management system. But I think that when it comes to innovation and research, especially in genetics, the Canadian dairy industry is an agricultural powerhouse.

Alberta Milk has been funding dairy production research for over 20 years. They currently direct five cents from ever hectoliter of sold milk to research, which adds up to over $320 thousand each year. Right now Alberta Milk’s research priorities include increasing the longevity of lactating dairy cows, decreasing manure management costs and liabilities, improving control over milk composition, and producing higher value milk.

Canada’s dairy industry has been collecting genetic information for over 125 years, according to the Government of Canada. Since then, Canadian dairy producers have adopted several systems to improve the genetics and productivity of their herds:

  • In 1991, the industry began using the Lifetime Profit Index. The index combines production, durability and health, and fertility to calculate the link between genetics and profit.
  • Canadian dairy producers were the first to adopt the Canadian Test Day Model, which uses records from a cow’s first three lactations to calculate a lactation curve. This information is then used to estimate breeding values.  The Government of Canada states that several countries are now adopting this approach.
  •  In 2005, Canada’s dairy industry introduced the Canadian Multi-Breeds Classification system, which evaluates the conformation of all breeds of dairy cattle.
The dairy industry continues to break ground in genetics research. Right now Genome Alberta is funding research looking at resistance to mastitis, laminitis, milk fever, laminitis, and several other dairy cattle diseases. Researchers from the University of Guelph and University of Alberta are also studying genetic resistance to Johne’s Disease.

Dairy producers are using genomic technolgy at the farm level. Dairy producers send their cattle's DNA to Holstein Canada for genomic testing. A 3K SNP chip to helps them make culling and mating decisions within the herd. A 50K SNP chip offers more accurate genomic information for elite heifers or bulls entering artificial insemination programs.

This focus on genomics means that Canadian dairy cattle genetics are sought after worldwide. In 2010, Canada exported over $100 million in dairy genetics.Canadian dairy genetics are exported to 98 countries, and Canada’s share of the global dairy bull semen market sits at 20 per cent.

The Canadian dairy industry’s attention to genetics pays off in international competition, too. At the 2011 World Dairy Expo in Madison, Wisconsin, a Holstein cow from Alberta was named supreme champion, top honours for the show.  Canadians also dominated the Holstein class, taking the grand and reserve grand champion titles, among others.

I’m glad to see Sun News and other media organizations covering agricultural issues. But condemning the dairy industry for lacking innovation when there is evidence to the contrary is a disservice to dairy producers and Canadian consumers.

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