Picture: Speeding up Breeding group L-R Rory Christie, Graham Armstrong and Charlie Russell. Credit: Dan Baillie
"We need to speed up breeding. If I had a herd of the best cows, all my worries would be over.” - Rory Christie, dairy farmer
Our first group brings together three grass-based dairy farmers in Dumfries and Galloway and South Ayrshire. They want to do something no other UK farmers are yet doing: combine their herd data with genetic testing to identify their best cows, then use IVF and embryo transfer to turn their poorer cows into better ones.
In doing this they will not only be increasing their profits. They will be combining sustainable agriculture – grass-based dairy – with cutting edge reproductive technology, and creating a blueprint for genetic improvement that can be used across the dairy, and even beef and sheep industry.
“I’ve done everything I can now to reduce costs and produce for less, and it’s still not enough,” explains Rory Christie, of Dourie Farm near Port Willliam, who is working with Graham Armstrong of Kirvennie Farm, Wigtown, and Charlie Russell of Glenapp Estate, Girvan.
“At the moment my farm, and dairy production in Scotland in general, struggles to be profitable enough to survive. Yet by doing this, I would increase my annual milk volume per cow by 1000 litres – that’s £200,000 extra income per year on my farm.”
“What’s different about this is we’re focusing on the cows, not the bulls"
“What’s different about this is we’re focusing on the cows, not the bulls. We need to, first, be able to identify the genetic make-up of our cross-bred cattle, starting with being sure of the parentage.
“Secondly, we need to combine it with an effective ranking system using our own data, so we're looking at yield and longevity as well as fertility.
“Thirdly, we need to find an economical system of embryo transfer, so we get 10 calves from that one cow, keep the calves and get them back into the herd more quickly. We need to speed up breeding. If I had a herd of the best cows, all my worries would be over.”
Picture: Rory Christie on Dourie Farm, near Port William. Credit: Dan Baillie
RISS has provided these ambitious farmers with a facilitator - Hamish Walls, a project manager from partner organisation Scotland’s Agricultural Organisation Society (SAOS). “When I heard about the Rural Innovation Support Service I knew it could provide a framework for what these farmers wanted to do,” he says.
Mr Walls brought in Professor Mike Coffey, a dairy geneticist from RISS partner SRUC (Scotland’s Rural College), who will use herd data and genomic testing to rank the cattle, then create and oversee a breeding programme.
Picture: Professor of Livestock Informatics Mike Coffey of SRUC
"They had decided to operate their breeding scheme as one nucleus containing 3000 cows across three separate farms," says Professor Coffey. "That's quite unusual - farmers are usually quite independent. It became clear that they were very committed to making very rapid genetic improvements and so were amenable to new techniques that would enable them to do that.
"I'm not aware of anybody who's already doing such a thing, and it's very interesting to see the speed with which these new innovations are being applied, in this case by a group of dairy farmers with large herds. That represents a very good example of the way the national herd is likely to move in the future."
Rory Christie sees another issue that could be addressed by making genetic technology more affordable and available: the difficult question of dairy bull calves. "If we reduce the number of dairy cows we are breeding to dairy calves," he says, "we could target the rest with sexed beef semen, increasing beef-cross dairy cattle available for the red meat supply chain."