Elite Genetics at LIC

August 2017

Productivity gain in the national dairy herd remains the aim at LIC.

LIC is a co-operative company owned by New Zealand dairy farmers. It runs between 800 – 1000 bulls across its three farms. They are focused on building a national standard of excellence in dairy genetics.

The main Newstead farm is 260ha. There's a 130ha operation at Awahuri which is dedicated to collecting and supplying straws for export, and 15 minutes away at Feilding, a 80ha farm which acts as a bull run off. 

There’s also a dairy farm at Rukuhia in the Waikato (the LIC innovation farm) and a 390ha deer farm at Balfour in Southland which is the home of the LIC subsidiary Deer Improvement.

The Newstead farm produces 6.5 million semen straws a year, 4.5 million of which are fresh and collected from September through to December. The balance are frozen straws.

At peak, the business processes and distributed well over 100,000 straws a day. Around 13,500 collections are processed annually with 70 per day during the peak mating season.

The process of semen collection is well established. Bulls are “teased” with a steer. The handler collects the semen in a warmed artificial vagina to replicate the natural process as much as possible. Once collected, the ejaculate is handed over to the lab staff where it is checked for percentages of viable sperm, as well as motility and morphology.

The sperm is then put through a particle counter to get the number of sperm per ml. In one average fresh straw there are 1.25 – 2.5 million sperm cells.

Malcolm Ellis is the general manager of New Zealands Markets at LIC. He says that LIC has a significant amount of data that flows into the national database, most of which comes from herd test information. They work through that database annually identifying elite cows and cow families and then work with the farmers directly from there.

Malcolm says they have information in the database going back to the 1950s and 1960s. They are looking for animals that have the history and parentage to support really high performance. He says the key driver is to identify elite performance from the millions of cows in the population.

It’s elite performance that will bring LIC staff to individual farmers. On farm they run through other desirable traits; from udder confirmation and body capacity, through to management traits like temperament and milking speed.

It takes up to five years to prove the capability of sires through their daughter progeny, so bulls awaiting proofing are farmed at one of LIC’s bull farms – in Newstead, Fielding or Manawatu.

Upon completion of the sire proving process, the proven cream of the group are set to make a significant contribution to the national herd.

Malcom says the appetite for the kind of cow LIC us looking for in the industry has changed. He says that when you look back fifteen or twenty years ago, the measure was breeding index, it was all about productivity. Now the industry is working with breeding worth, or BW. “It’s all about efficient conversion of feed to milk and so the liveweight of the animal in relation to the output becomes really important. A kilogram of milk solids per kilogram of liveweight is a key factor.”

LIC held a series of herd improvement road shows in early 2017. Malcolm says feedback he had showed many farmers believe the opportunity for further profitability will come from herd improvement. He says that will be achieved by raising selection pressure in pursuit of a better overall herd.

The roadshow highlighted that nationwide the difference in milk solids production between the top and bottom quartiles of herd tested cows within the national herd is 160kgMS/cow. That got farmers looking at their own herds, says Malcolm, “particularly given the 160kg was calculated after age, breed and location were accounted and corrected for.“

Malcom believes the next opportunity for development in diary genetics is going to come from the science of genomics and genomic selection, which by definition is identifying elite capability from within the DNA. He says they’ll stick with the principles of traditional selection of high quality performance in cow families to get to the pre-selection stage and then they’ll breed the bulls onto the ground with the use of genomics, complementing this selection process that contributes significant productivity and prosperity to the industry.