Dogs and ducks, genomics and designer bulls

Training working dogs with ducks

Paul McPhail training working dogs with ducks

Outside the pavilion, hundreds watched working dog trainer Paul McPhail show how young dogs are schooled herding ducks. Inside the pavilion, a small crowd lunched with researchers investigating genomic testing of bulls.

This scene from the Dairy Expo at Korumburra yesterday struck me as a really interesting statement about modern farming. It’s the meshing of age-old skills and cutting-edge science.

Zoe and I couldn’t resist watching the pups – one just four months old – rounding up the ducks. The warmth of Paul McPhail’s training and the dedication of his dogs were mesmerising. Nor could I resist the chance to find out what science will bring to our dairy farm in the next few years. One of the most interesting was the genomic testing – as distinct from genetic modification – of bulls.

Normally, bull calves are selected for breeding based on pedigree and their conformation or “type score”. Their semen is then collected and used to breed daughters, who must then get in calf so we know how fertile they are, and then be milked at age three before we know the real value of the bull as a sire.

It’s all based on observed and measured performance. On the other hand, genomic testing compares the DNA of new sires with the DNA of historically well-performing sires as a benchmark. More work needs to be done to increase the reliability of this testing but it promises a shortening of that four-year timeframe.

There is also hope that the testing will soon be affordable for mass screening of our cows. We will be able to verify the parentage of our animals and gauge their genetic merit very early on. This should “speed up” improvements in our herd with powerful animal welfare outcomes. By better selecting cows for breeding, we should be able to reduce the number that become lame, have bad udders and need to be treated for mastitis.

The scientists, who were from the DairyFutures CRC and are also working on designer forages, will help Australia’s dairy farmers remain competitive on the world stage.

Exciting stuff!