Genomic test can help SA dairy farmers pick the most productive herd

By conducting a genomic test, farmers can identify specific traits in their dairy cattle to predict which animals are more resilient to certain costly diseases and have higher potential for milk production and fertility. Photo: Supplied

Dairy farmers in South Africa can now do a genomic test on their heifers that enables them to select a healthier herd and improve their breeding strategies.

By testing the genes of their cows, farmers can identify specific traits in their dairy cattle to predict which animals are more resilient to certain costly diseases as well as those with higher potential for important traits such as milk production, fertility and productive life.

This information is provided by using a genome test called Clarifide Plus, says technical manager for the Ruminants Division at Zoetis South Africa, Dr Chantelle Erwee.

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The Clarifide Plus genome test was launched by Zoetis, the world’s largest producer of medicine and vaccinations for pets and livestock in South Africa in June, says Dr Barry van Houten, marketing manager for the ruminants division at Zoetis.

The aim of the genomic test is to help dairy farmers to build a healthier herd by testing heifers as early as possible in their lifetime. This will help to avoid unnecessary costs incurred by raising heifers that end up leaving the herd prematurely. At the same time, farmers will be able to improve breeding strategies and selection decisions.

According to Zoetis, the number of dairy farms in South Africa dropped by 65% between January 2009 and August 2019. However, the good news is that despite major changes in the industry, milk production increased by 31% between 2009 and 2018 and milk production per producer rose by 273%.

Ultimately, reliable information provided by genomic testing will enable farmers to fine tune their management, selection and breeding decisions with confidence.

Testing process

“The testing process involves getting a DNA sample from a young dairy animal in the form of a hair sample or tissue sample from an ear notch using a specialized applicator. These samples are then sent to Cape Town for further processing before being sent to our global genetics’ lab in Kalamazoo, USA,” says Van Houten.

“Once the samples arrive in Kalamazoo the DNA is extracted and tested by both Zoetis and the Council for Dairy Cattle Breeding (CDCB). Once results become available, the producer can access them on our online platform called SearchPoint whenever convenient. Support is provided by local and international Zoetis colleagues, as well as from our partner World Wide Sires.”

He adds that hundreds of thousands of tests have been submitted globally already and they even have a number of local dairy producers testing their animals. The genomic test is accessible to all dairy farmers in South Africa for approximately R800 per cow.

The genome test also allows producers to rank animals with the Dairy Wellness Profit Index, which is based on traits that affect health, performance and the lifetime profit of cows and calves.

Zoetis teamed up with an agricultural banking and consulting institution to identify dairy operating measures that correlate with the financial health of contemporary dairy farms. From this, six key financial drivers of net farm income were identified – net herd replacement costs, pregnancy rates, heifer survival, energy corrected milk, somatic cell count and death loss in cows.

The test also enhances the ability to improve the outcomes of these financial drivers by improving the ability to genetically select key performance and wellness-related traits.

“Cow and calf wellness genomic predictions were developed because of the commitment by Zoetis to the continuum of care for dairy cattle. We strive to improve dairy wellness and understand genetic factors impacting resistance to common diseases in dairy cattle,” says Dr Erwee.

She says that utilising genomic testing like Clarifide Plus also assists farmers and veterinarians involved in technologies such as embryo transfer to make smart decisions when it comes to selecting females as recipients or donors and indirectly guides them on sire selection.

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