Many best practices of cattle breeding originate from the Nordics. Have you ever considered how much data is needed for the innovation of cattle breeding?
The Nordic countries constantly top world rankings in many different areas. Some of them, such as the food security or sustainable development rankings, are closely connected to the quality of agricultural solutions. Looking from the dairy sector perspective, this does not come as a surprise at all. In addition to keeping up with the innovations in dairy processing, animal feeding or farm equipment, we enjoy the most comprehensive breeding system in the world, which includes 90 sub-indices for 15 traits. Most of the latest trends in breeding such as hoof health, youngstock survival, udder health etc. were first introduced in the Nordics.
Nowadays, breeding is rocket science indeed, and as the saying goes: you cannot improve what you do not measure. Breeding is ‘improvement’ by its very nature, and it needs adequate measurement tools to support that improvement. In a permanently changing environment with ever increasing complexity, it must be fast, and at the same time very balanced, being influenced by more factors than ever before. Besides the business health of the farm itself being affected by new sophisticated technologies, multiple external sources of pressure such as ecological and consumer market challenges define the future directions of breeding. For example, along with recent improvements in animal feeding efficiency, breeding scientists are also working on the reduction of methane emissions.
Reliable information is the core of cattle breeding
Fresh, reliable information is the core of “rocket science breeding”. To make it happen you need to measure, collect, and then process these measured and collected data. The Nordic breeding system utilises the rolling base principle (compared to the fixed base evaluation used in the USA, for instance). The rolling base means that the breeding baseline is updated 4 times a year – the population average always reflects the current situation. Breeders see genetic trends in almost real time and in current times, a quick response to challenges is the way to stay afloat.
The secret to this success is simple. In the Nordics, cooperatives have always played a very important role in the agriculture sector. The very first milk recording circles were established here in the late 19th century. This culture of meticulous registration has a long history, which farmers take the credit for – along with farm service organisations and monitoring authorities – and this is why the Nordic countries enjoy one of the highest shares of cows in milk recording – more than 80% of the population. This means that breeding-related big data has been accumulated for over a century, and later supplemented by new data sources along the way.
Calculating the breeding indices for 90 parameters is possible thanks to a massive pool of data collected within and beyond the ICAR approved milk recording system. The latter provides the most common figures, while different service and dairy processing cooperatives, veterinarians, abattoirs, etc. originate an impressive information flow describing various important cattle events that can be successfully utilised in modern balanced breeding.
Unique ID is essential for data collecting and cattle breeding
So, what kind of data is used for the breeding evaluations in the Nordic system? Currently, the EU mandated identification system forms the basis shared by all – every animal is identified at birth to be tracked through the entire life cycle. The birth event, however, gives us a lot of precious information beyond just the date and place of origin, including the calving ease of the dam, possible siblings, pedigree, and so on. Having a unique ID, an animal starts to generate data relevant for the “rocket science breeding” long before it starts to give milk or gets slaughtered for beef.
Milk recording provides the breeding system with pedigree, calving, stillbirth, culling and of course milk volume and composition data. But, even more diverse sets of information come through multiple channels from other data input groups – conformation scores from the classifiers; insemination and fertility data from AI technicians; health data from the vets; hoof health data also comes from hoof trimmers; slaughter data from abattoirs; DNA data from labs. More and more data come from automatic sources like AMS or activity sensors, and evolving technologies like MIR-testing, BHB-screening, and video monitoring will contribute even more to data-driven breeding in the future.
Early introduction of IT solutions for data collection on the national level has ensured the leading position of Nordic breeders in dairy innovations – they were the first to introduce hoof health and youngstock survival indices, to use clinical mastitis data for udder health index calculations, and make use of the worlds’ most complete set of health and functional parameters in dairy breeding.
All this requires not just a single databox, but a comprehensive ecosystem, including applications for the different kinds of stakeholders involved in the dairy sector. Here in Finland, MyFarm is the platform developed for the Finnish farmers and specialists throughout the chain. It works as a stem for the whole complex of data flows, ensuring quality and transparency needed for precision dairy of the future. There is a separate version of MyFarm developed for Sweden, and in Denmark the DMS system is widely used for the same purposes. The collected national data is transferred to the NAV center for cattle breeding evaluations 4 times a year.
The “cooperation of cooperatives” shifting from the national to the international Nordic level lies at the centre of the Nordic “rocket science breeding” success; this Nordic approach of balanced breeding is now widely applied in the world’s best breeding systems, paying more and more attention to animal health and longevity issues.