The BreedCast - innovative dairy breeding in your ears

Episode 01 (Season 02) - Why Food Supply is Relevant to Dairy Farmers

August 25, 2022 VikingGenetics Season 2 Episode 1
The BreedCast - innovative dairy breeding in your ears
Episode 01 (Season 02) - Why Food Supply is Relevant to Dairy Farmers
Show Notes Transcript

We're facing a serious situation with food supply and food security around the world. How can you be prepared for the new demands as a dairy or beef farmer? What tools are available to strengthen your milk and beef production in a new, uncertain world? 

We've invited a Senior Breeding Manager and a dairy farmer, who's also a member of the EU Parliament, to share their perspectives. They also share their predictions of what challenges might be next. 

Jakob Lykke Voergaard, Senior Breeding Manager for VikingRed at VikingGenetics
Asger Christensen, Member of the EU Parliament and dairy farmer

Hielke Wiersma

Inbreeding in dairy herds can give high hidden costs, but actually also some benefits. What is good and bad inbreeding in your herd? What do you need to look out for to ensure a healthy and sustainable dairy cattle production? To help give us the best advice on how to manage inbreeding, I've invited two experts to join me on the show today. Saija Tenhunen, PhD student and breeding specialist at VikingGenetics - with us online today from Norway and Peter Larson, product manager for VikingJersey at VikingGenetics. This is the BreedCast produced by VikingGenetics. I'm your host Hielke Wiersma. Hi, Saija and Peter, thanks for being with us today. Hi. Thank you for inviting us. Yeah, hi. Thanks. Saija, let's kick things off by getting clear. What is inbreeding? Well, in simple terms, inbreeding is a mating between animals who share a common ancestor. So it is mating between close relatives. What are the typical levels of inbreeding in, let's say, dairy and beef breeds? Well, first of all, we need to think about what is in breeding, how we measure it, because we talk about inbreeding coefficient, which is actually a probability calculation. And this calculation gets more accurate the more information you have. Normally we calculate from the pedigree information, but this gives us a little bit different estimation depending on what kind of data we have. So, the more generations on the pedigree data we have, the more accurate probability calculation we get from the inbreeding coefficient. And this is why we cannot really compare the different levels between different populations or say which level of inbreeding might be more harmful than the other. Because we use different levels of information on different populations and instead of the level of inbreeding, we should more focus on looking how fast inbreeding is increasing in our populations. All right. But there is a difference between breeds then, Saija. Yes. Different breeds have different genetic levels. And there is also different types of population structures. For example, in VikingGenetics breeds, the VikingRed is very out crossed, it’s a very heterozygotic breed. So their inbreeding level is very low compared to the Holstein or Jersey. All right. So inbreeding normally is connected to a negative thing and when does it really become a problem? Well, the reason studies have been showing what they have been doing with Holstein, is that it’s the more reason inbreeding when we look on the tree or five generations of pedigree. That's the more harmful one. So this can cause increased level of mastitis or longer calving times. And then the long term inbreeding seems to have more neutral or even positive effect on the populations, because we have actively been breeding against harmful traits where we come from, for example, inbreeding depression. All right, Peter, you've worked with cattle breeding for many years and you're a senior breeding manager at VikingsGenetics at this point. What do you most often hear when you talk to farmers? What are the problems with inbreeding? When talking to farmers from the Nordic countries, from the VikingGenetics countries, we normally do not have a lot of complaints or questions about inbreeding levels or effects of that. We have very good management tools in our home market, so it's easier to handle these problems that could arise from inbreeding. But as Saija mentioned, different populations. When we work abroad, we often meet problems related to inbreeding and the problems that can be traced back to inbreeding, depression and that's mainly because they do not have the same management tools as what we have. All right. So, when you mention that they have problems, what are the signs of that? Signs would normally be infertility, lower health, or that the livability of the cows is not as good and that they are not as strong and healthy, long living as if you were taking this into account. I know that when we spoke about this earlier, Peter, you mentioned that there is no such thing as good inbreeding. But can you explain that a bit what is good inbreeding and what is bad inbreeding? Well, of course, there are goods and bads in both. And the good parts of inbreeding can be that you can make inbred lines and then cross them and have these positive effects of heterosis. And in other species - if you are breeding birds, for the colour of the birds, of course you should do that. Make these inbred lines and make beautiful birds out of it. But that's not the case in cattle breeding. Here you need to focus on the traits that make a good end result for you as a farmer. But also in some monogenetic traits, it can actually be beneficial to do a little inbreeding. Yes. Saija, you mentioned that as well when we talked about that - some of the benefits and you mentioned some benefits as well. How do you see the benefits of inbreeding? Well, there is in the genome when we look at the animal some areas that we want to have as a homozygous, for example, the monitors and the genes which are connected to Kappa Caseins or polledness, because we would like to have those as homozygous in the animals so that means basically that they are inbred on that area. But yeah, it's more about these getting focused on knowledge about which areas we actually want to have out crossed or more heterosis and which we want to have more homozygous. All right. Saija, you've studied inbreeding for a number of years and you're working on your PhD on the matter as well. What are the biggest costs of inbreeding for the farmers? Well, so far, there have been studies about the cost of inbreeding, and that's also what I'm going to be working on what is the cost from this close inbreeding that is 5 to 6 generations. And about the increased level of mastitis or longer calving times. So it means that you get more costs because you need to treat for the mastitis. So you need more antibiotics and it takes you longer time to get a replacement cow, for example. Or it's basically inbreeding is shown on all things related to reproduction. So it also affects milk yield and how well the cow can produce offspring. So inbreeding needs to be managed carefully and in order to keep your herd healthy and productive. Now we're going to look at some of the smart ways to manage inbreeding and actually benefit from it. Peter, when a farmer tells you that he's struggling with inbreeding in his herd. What are the first things that you recommend that he looks at. Well, the first thing I recommend is to dig into the pedigrees that are in the animals of his herd. Is this a matter of close relationship between the animals in the pedigrees? Is it a matter of the breeding strategy that this farmer has been using? So, it's a matter of identifying where the problem comes from, if it really is related to inbreeding or if it's related to something else. Most often it's not related to inbreeding, but in some cases it can be. If he has not been making use of these management tools that he could have. Yeah. So what can a farmer do on a day to day basis then? Well, a mating program is for sure what we will recommend to all farmers that are doing a mating program. It will help him in his choice of bull, in his choice of strategy. But he can also make use of cross-breeding - to cross different breeds. We have some crossbreeding concepts that we recommend; ProCROSS and GoldenCross A three-breed rotational crossbreeding program. But another example is the Reds. Saija mentioned the Reds earlier. VikingRed is a concept where we have merged the Red breeds in Finland, Sweden and Denmark. And for that reason we have made use of bulls that are not that closely related. So kind of an outcross strategy. So, mixed breeds will lower the risk of inbreeding and inbreeding effects. Yeah. And with crossbreeding, you'd get the opposite of inbreeding, which is heterosis. So basically, you get the opposite effect and increasing the fertility, health and all of these things. Yes. Saija, what's preventing farmers from managing inbreeding in a good way? Well, I think for a long time it has been a lack of knowledge because it's not that far away in the past, the farmers or even the breeders were educated that they need to do line breeding to use the same good sires to get the good offspring. So, I remember like in the early 2000s that people were still saying that you need to have the same sire, like two or three times in three generation pedigree to get the good offspring. So that is actually quite a lot and we have gone much forward from that because well, inbreeding depression is not a new thing. Even Darwin talked about it in evolution in the older original species book and that was published in the 1800s and the inbreeding coefficient actually has 100 years anniversary this year. So, it is an old concept, but we kind of forgot it for a long time because you get fast benefits from doing actual line breeding because you are lying to the same good individuals. So you get short term benefits from it. But it's short sighted so to say. Yes, yes. Because these days we know that they also have these high costs from inbreeding, depression. So you can get short benefits for a few years of regeneration. But then it kind of starts to collapse because inbreeding depression starts to cost you more. Peter, what's your take on that? And as a Jersey expert, what do you think? Well, Saija’s right. Earlier when we did not have the management tools like the VikMate - an amazing planning program - and we did line breeding. In the Jersey breed, we actually have benefited from line bred populations in New Zealand, in Canada and the US, in Denmark and crossed those line bred populations and benefited from a little bit of heterosis and that there was some diversity in those different populations. It's still there. It's not as much as it was earlier, but we still benefit from it, but we find outcross, we can maintain the high diversity in the Jersey breed. And we do have a full episode on the VikingJersey. If you're interested in that, pop over to the BreedCast page,, and learn more. We have a full episode on Jersey cows with Peter here. Peter, another question is what examples have you seen in terms of turning around inbreeding in a herd? I'm not seeing that many in home market. I've seen it abroad as mentioned before, those having not had access to a mating planning program. And some of those farmers have had the effect of inbreeding in the sense of having defect calves. They have had early abortions, and when they introduced a mating program, starting to mix the different pedigrees or new pedigrees in another way. Then you have changed the results of the breeding strategy and avoided these negative effects. So, both on herd level for the farmer, but also in our breeding of heifers and bulls for next generation. We have very good tools to avoid inbreeding, so we ensure that the genetics that we make available will not lead to inbreeding. So I guess data then in that perspective is, is extremely important. Yes, it's a very, very important and will be even more important under our conditions where we have good help of all the farmers, veterinarians, all related to dairy, cattle breeding. They are registering and they're registering all details and it enables us to make breeding values for all health traits, all traits related to fertility and sustainability. And that leads to a more secure breeding and less worries about inbreeding. Yeah, and I guess we're quite unique in that sense in the Nordic countries that we gather everything into one pot, so to say, or into one database where we have everything. And then the pedigrees of course, also in that regard. Yes, it's very unique. Saija, how do I select the right genetics to manage inbreeding and a healthy herd in general? Well, as Peter mentioned, that we have the different tools for our customers, for example, the VikMate and that actually helps you to control the inbreeding in your herd because it can give you a level of inbreeding that you accept and the level of increase of inbreeding you should not go further than one percent per generation. So that's reason for example, we look when we look on the pedigree and we have like four generations of pedigree, then we would put a limitation for the mating that it cannot be higher than four percent, because then you spred the four percent into these generations. It will be less per generation than 1%. But we have these tools which help us. But also VikMate has a tool for finding good genetics from the breeding values. So, it creates this balance between getting high breeding values and also controlling the inbreeding. So Saija, tell us about the EVA tool. Well, the EVA tools is what we use when we select bulls or heifers to the VikingGenetics breeding program. And it is based on optimal contribution selection where we select the best animals from a group co ancestry. So it's selecting the animals based on the pedigree information and also the genomic breeding values. So we want to maximize our genetic gain while we decrease inbreeding on our animals. Or control the inbreeding - is better to say. Yeah, because inbreeding can only be controlled basically. You're never going to get rid of it. Yes, in a closed population you will always have inbreeding because the longer you go, the more related your animal will be because you are just mixing the close population. One option is if you want to decrease the inbreeding is actually to get out cross to different breed or a different breed population. For example, I use once again Jersey as example but they have for example the American population is quite different from pedigree. So they can be used just to decrease relatedness in our Danish Jerseys for example. Yeah, because Peter, the Jersey breed is a fairly small breed. What's your take on the genetic gain and inbreeding? It’s something that we put a lot of emphasis on. We focus on it all the time in the breeding program using EVA like Saija just mentioned. But with the programs, with the tools that we have, we can handle the inbreeding level and keep it low. So farmers in the Nordic countries, they use VikingJersey bulls on VikingJersey on VikingJersey on VikingJersey. In some other countries, you are recommended not to use bulls from the same population two generations in a row to avoid inbreeding. But if you have the management tools that Saija mentioned you can easily do that and use bulls from the same population. Saija and Peter have given us their best advice on how you can use inbreeding in positive ways in your dairy herd and to ensure a healthy cattle breeding strategy in general. Now let's take a peek into the future at some of the technologies and trends that might help you as a farmer. Peter, what role will health and breeding strategies play in the future? It will play a very important role. It'll be increasingly important to focus on health and breeding strategies because the future goal will be sustainability and profitability. So, to balance that and to achieve the goals not only of the farmers, but also of us breeding the bulls, then you need to have this in mind so that you always focus on what relates to good economics, good sustainability, and a good life. As a farmer. What other genetic solutions are there on the horizon that can help farmers around the world? Well, currently we control inbreeding based on the pedigree data and we are also doing genomic breeding choices and we have lots of genomic information, but we are not really looking into the genomic inbreeding. And that can be highly different than what we see from the pedigrees because as I mentioned, the pedigree inbreeding coefficient is a probability about if these two alias are homozygous in one locus and with genomic information we can actually know if it is homozygous or not. And there is a difference because a probability calculation based on the pedigree always thinks that the siblings have 25% relatedness to each other. But we know - based on genomic information - that they can have a highly different relationships with each other because it can vary from 20% to 70% even. So, the genomic information gives us more tools about controlling this inbreeding and actually seeing which are more related from these siblings or cousins with each other. And that's what your PhD project is about? Yes, I'm working to solve this problem about how we can manage inbreeding depression and inbreeding in our dairy cattle in the Nordic countries. What are the main issues that you're working with? The main issue first is to find a correct way to calculate the genomic inbreeding because there is lots of ways to do it and we want to have what is the most efficient way to do it, because it's easy to do some calculus on yearly basis because some of them might take time, because currently we have lots of genomic information from our dairy cattle. So these relationship matrices can be quite huge and we want to have a fast way where we can do it with less possible delay. So basically it will for the future give us the tool to actually know not only the probability but the actual inbreeding on a genomic level. Yes, at least a best estimate what we could build from the information that we have. So what other things are important for dairy and beef farmers to be aware of for the future, Peter? Well, first of all, it's very, very important that you identify the genetics and the strategy that fulfills your goals and takes into consideration the conditions that you are working under as a dairy farmer, and then set goals for sustainability, animal welfare, climate impact, profitability and a good life. In the end, that's very, very important to identify those things. All right. So to summarize, I'd like if you could give your best advice on managing inbreeding on a herd level. Saija, what would be your best advice to farmers? Well, to use the mating tools that you have available. And all the experts’ advise because we have the breeding advisors in different countries and I know people know quite a lot on these things. So, use their help, And especially this VikMate tool is really good for the estimating, which will be the best mating for your herd. Peter, what are your thoughts on that? Well, I agree with Saija, and focus on making use of the management tools that's available, the mating programs that we offer, like VikMate and others that are available so that you avoid inbreeding and negative effects of it and then to maintain the genetic diversity. Maintaining genetic diversity, we see that as one of our most important responsibilities. Maintaining genetic diversity is a responsibility of the breeding companies, and we take that very seriously. Yes, to add to that we want to have a long term genetic progress and not focus on the short term benefits. Thanks for joining the BreedCast today. Together with Peter and Saija, we've looked at the challenges with inbreeding in dairy herds and how you can manage it well. If you'd like to learn more, please visit Thank you, Peter Larson and Saija Tenhunen for sharing your knowledge and insights with us. Thank you to everyone out there for listening. I hope you enjoyed the show today. If you have an idea for a topic in cattle breeding that you'd like us to focus on, please visit or send us a message on the VikingGenetics Facebook page. My name is Hielke Wiersma. Please join me for the next episode of the BreedCast about dehorning of dairy cattle and how you can use polled genetics.