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Published 12 July 2012 04:29, Updated 12 July 2012 04:50
The world’s going mad for cows. Dairy scientist David Nation says the global trade is increasing every year by between 9 billion and 10 billion litres of milk – equivalent to the size of the entire Australian industry. For exporting countries that can increase their dairy supply, great gains are to be made.
Under normal circumstances, Australia, the world’s third-largest exporter of milk products, could expect to see a 20 kilogram increase in the volume of protein produced by an average dairy cow over the next 10 years as better breeding boosts average output from the current 238kg. Now it can do better, however.
Thanks to technology and the completion of a new industry database in April, that rate of increase could double to 40kg, bringing the average output of each dairy cow in the national herd to 278kg, says Nation, who heads the Dairy Futures Cooperative Research Centre (CRC).
“We see this as a fantastic opportunity for one of Australia’s major industries to go through a real growth phase,” he says. “[Dairy is] one of the few Australian industries that could dramatically grow its exports. It’s important for us to be able to offer Australian farmers the best genetics that suits their business.”
The story illustrates the good things that can happen when competing producers work together.
In the dairy industry’s case, it has collaborated to better understand the genome, or genetic sequence of any individual cow, and what that means for the productivity of that animal when reared in Australian conditions.
While genetic testing is an established practice and has long been performed in Australia and elsewhere, the dairy industry has now produced a big enough database of the cattle genomes against which any individual animal can be compared.
It allows breeders to know far earlier than ever before the productive capacity of a cow, its susceptibility to diseases like mastitis, and even how much food it is likely to consume to produce milk. It gives cattle farmers and breeders information about a bull’s offspring that they previously would have had to wait up to six years to know – typically until an animal had produced 30 milk-producing cows.
The challenge for the Australian industry has been to come up with a credible genetic pattern from a much smaller national herd than other regions like the United States or Europe have. The US, for example, has a cattle herd 10 times the size of that in Australia.
Still, the CRC achieved this in April by adding the genetic data of the 10,000 producing cows in Australia to the industry’s most detailed records of lifetime milk production, health and fertility from an existing database based on 3000 sires.
That created a reliable tool that allows a step-change when it comes to productivity improvements for the dairy industry.
“Now when you introduce this technology, the rate at which a farmer is able to improve the quality of their herd doubles,” Nation says.
Rabobank International analyst Michael Harvey predicts global dairy growth, by volume, of about 2.4 per cent by 2015. The rate will be faster in emerging countries, however, buoyed by population growth, rising incomes, urbanisation, westernisation of diets and government and corporate promotion. He forecasts China will have a compound annual growth rate of 4.7 per cent, India 3.5 per cent and south-east Asia 3.9 per cent.
“Most of the growth in consumption volumes is expected in regions that are already short of milk,” Harvey says.
“Therefore a significant share of milk required to meet the consumer demands will need to come from export regions.”
Australia is not ahead of other dairy industries in creating such a genetic wallpaper for its national herd. But to do so is crucial to staying a viable competitor at a time when other countries are also increasing their dairy volumes by virtue of the same technology.
This genetic map can only be assembled on a local basis, as it provides information about what genomes are productive in an Australian dairy farming environment.
This will differ from that of other countries, so different characteristics will prove valuable here to those that work in an environment such as the US.
In Australia, for example, cows are typically raised on pasture, Nation says. In the US and Europe, they are raised in barns.
“You have different levels of feeding, different economic drivers,” he says. “Most Australian farmers have a more traditional diary farming style where the cow calves every year.
“In American dairy farms, cows are typically fed more, produce more milk and milk for longer lactations. So it’s important for us to be able to offer Australian farmers the best genetics that suits their business. It’s the local application that’s critical.”
Without a comprehensive local database about cow genomes, Australian breeders would have to hope that US genetic information was useful when applied locally, he says.
Nation says a future use of the technology would be to analyse calf embryos, even before the animals are born, to determine the productivity of their offspring in dairy production.
“It’s more expensive and harder to do, but entirely possible,” he says. “We will see people pushing those boundaries. I don’t think people are doing it so much yet, but as we get more and more confident in the technology, it would be a reasonable step to be more active in how it’s used.”