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Fastbreeders – accelerating genetic improvement for farm and food resilience

Fastbreeders – accelerating genetic improvement for farm and food resilience

Picture of SRUC and SAOS staff and the FastBreeders

As a result of work commissioned by the Scottish Government funded Strategic Research Programme (SRP) looking at resilient food supply chains, a group of farmers teamed up with Professor Mike Coffey at Scotland’s Rural College (SRUC). Their project will demonstrate the application of large-scale recording and genotyping of dairy cattle to accelerate genetic improvement for traits that lead to better resilience of their farming systems within a net zero context of the future. The research for SRP is identifying animals of optimum size that can graze grass and produce milk efficiently and at low environmental impact. Milk from these cows, feeds into supply chains that become resilient and efficient as a result. 


Image on right shows farmers from the 4 commercial farms working with SEFARI researchers. Frrom left to right: Charlie Russel (Fastbreeder) of Glenapp Estates Ayrshire, unknown lady, Hamish Wells (SAOS), Mike Coffey (SRUC), Rory Christie (Fastbreeder) of Dourie Farm Wigtownshire, Michael Kyle (Fastbreeder) of Linns Farm Dumfries, Graham Armstrong (Fastbreeder) of Kirvennie Farm Wigtownshire and Wayne Powell (SRUC).

FastBreeders is a collaboration between four progressive farmers located in South West Scotland. Highly educated and with years of experience and professional development, the group share the same vision for resilient dairy systems that have minimal environmental impact. Their joint operations can exploit economies of scale, benefit from increased selection intensity in breeding animals and build resilience because genetic material can move freely across the four farms. Their joint assets include over 9000 genotyped cows and calves and access to relevant previous production and other farm records. All calves are now genotyped routinely and a Fastbreeder Index is used to select those cows to breed the next generation of replacements using sexed semen. These animals are mated to a panel of bulls specially selected for use in grazing environments using an Australian programme called Matesel. Animals to be culled from the herd to make way for replacements are identified by a culling tool called Cows Own Worth (COW). The top 25% selected to breed replacements are mated to sexed semen and the remainder to beef semen. All cows and calves are weighed regularly leading to a datafile of over 100,000 cow weights.

In Fastbreeder herds (representative of all UK dairy farms that practice crossbreeding), the selection objective is kg fat plus protein per kg cow liveweight within a mating window of 90 days. Cows in these herds range in liveweight from 450kg to 600 kg to optimise cow efficiency since their grazing activity costs energy proportional to their liveweight. As such, smaller and more fertile crossbred cows are favoured leading to smaller beef (and dairy) calves.

The group have a very audacious goal to nearly double the solids output of the cows from the same type of cow specially adapted to a grazing environment and keep the cow size appropriate. This goal is 1.5kg milk solids per kg cow body weight. The process of coming together into a group has helped create focus on breeding, created experience and data exchange, allowed purchases to be grouped and created a research culture attractive to academics. It is truly a coming together of industry and academia to solve a problem of sustainable dairy farming from sun, soil and water.