Just what role does genomics in dairy cattle play as you sit down to your breakfast of oatmeal and milk? Or that big glass of milk for lunch or dinner?
Perhaps you are asking, ''Just what are genomics and why should I be interested? I live in town and don't need to know about such fancy words."
Genomics can and is playing a big part in what you eat. And it can be one of the tools, if you will, that will help us feed this country and other parts of the world in the future.
Just what is genomics is a fair question. It is a study of the structure, use and inheritance of the genetic material (the genome) we have in our bodies and in animals such as dairy cattle. This genetic material is found in our DNA as well as that of dairy cattle and other livestock. It can be related to gene mapping or genetic evaluations.
Several dairy cattle breeds are making a lot of use of genetic evaluations. The Holstein breed pioneered the program, and now the Jerseys and Brown Swiss are also involved. This can mean much quicker and greater improvements in the production, type and quality of these animals.
For you and I, as we sit down at the dinner table, this helps assure us of a plentiful supply of healthy, wholesome milk.
Over many years, the dairy cattle breeds have made improvements by selecting daughters from herd sires and good cows that produced more milk than their mothers. This was slow but, through good record keeping, better herd sires were selected that produced calves that were better than there mothers.
Through the use of these herd sires in artificial insemination programs, milk production gradually improved from 5,000 to 6,000 pounds a year from each cow back in the 1940s to 18,000 to 20,000 pounds today.
Years ago, it would take several years to know how good a cow or herd sire was. Using milk and butterfat records on individual cows, there was a program called Sire Proving. A Proven sire was one that produced daughters consistently better than their mothers.
Now with genetic evaluations or genomics, new gene tests can be used that check many different traits or characteristics of dairy cattle at a young age. This will result in much quicker improvements in dairy breeds.
Research shows there are more than 50,000 genetic variations in dairy cattle. One company says they have come up with a chip that examines more than 500,000 variations. That's more than would be practical on an average dairy farm.
Research is also being conducted on a low-density chip that would look at 3,000 genetic traits. This is expected to be a low-cost system that can be used on commercial dairy farms. It should show fairly reliable estimates of the genetic levels of animals in those herds.
Some estimates are that genetic evaluations will be available for as little as $35 to $45 for each cow.
Without the interest and cooperation of dairy farmers such as the Holstein breeders, programs using genetic evaluations or genomics would not be possible. And this is just one example of the research and technology that it will take to feed our growing population.
So I have probably told you more about genomics than you wanted to know. OK, but remember this - technology helps put food on your table!
Parker is an independent agricultural writer and on the local Farm Bureau Board.