The role of genetics in profitable animal breeding

Stockfarm|June 2020

The role of genetics in profitable animal breeding
The principles of selection, genetics and genomics have been fascinating humanity for many decades. Over the centuries, innovators have been trying to imitate and enhance the course of nature using artificial selection as opposed to natural selection.
Koos du Pisanie

Robert Bakewell is known as the father of modern animal breeding. He established that there are certain traits that differ between families. Although he was not known as a geneticist, he popularised the saying ‘like begets like’.

Charles Darwin, the father of evolution, was the first person to take note of the fact that environmental pressure has an impact on the survivability of offspring and that nature, via selection, favors the fittest animals. On a trip to South America, he noticed that finches of the same species found on the Galapagos Islands had different beak shapes. He resolved to conduct research in this regard to determine whether these types of changes could be reproduced in captivity.

Although some time passed before he started working on this, he did study bird breeders’ activities in England years later to see how, through artificial selection over several generations, offspring with desirable traits could be established by mating parents possessing those traits. This was the first foray into the practical application of selection and genetics.

Selection processes

Early in the last century farmers realized that the value of animals in a herd cannot be assessed solely on appearance. There must be a means to measure and reproduce that which is hidden for subsequent generations. This was the start of recordkeeping and careful selection, and the beginning of interesting science to genetically improve cattle herds.

Today, this science is relatively advanced. Dr. Michael Bradfield, chief executive officer of the Livestock Registering Federation (LRF), says the genetic improvement in animals occurs when the average genetic value of the offspring is higher or better than the average genetic value of the generation from which the parents were selected.

Dr. Munro Marx, managing director of United, says sustainable genetic improvement is not a simple process. Apart from genetic makeup, environmental factors such as nutrition, carrying capacity, and climate change also play a key role.

“Genetic change occurs when the herd’s average genetic merit improves over time. It has a cumulative effect and contributes to the sustainable improvement of traits such as growth, product quality, and disease resistance. This facilitates improved production and efficiency.”

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June 2020