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Genomic dairy cattle breeding: risks and opportunities for cow welfare

By T. Mark, P. Sandoe

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The aim of this paper is to discuss the potential consequences of modern dairy cattle breeding for the welfare of dairy cows. The paper focuses on so-called genomic selection, which deploys thousands of genetic markers to estimate breeding values. The discussion should help to structure the thoughts of breeders and other stakeholders on how to best make use of genomic breeding in the future. Intensive breeding has played a major role in securing dramatic increases in milk yield since the Second World War. Until recently, the main focus in dairy cattle breeding was on production traits, but during the past couple of decades more emphasis has been placed on a few rough, but useful, measures of traits relevant to cow welfare, including calving ease score and 'clinical disease or not'; the aim being to counteract the unfavourable genetic association with production traits. However, unfavourable genetic trends for metabolic, reproductive, claw and leg diseases indicate that these attempts have been insufficient. Today, novel genome-wide sequencing techniques are revolutionising dairy cattle breeding; these enable genetic changes to occur at least twice as rapidly as previously. While these new genomic tools are especially useful for traits relating to animal welfare that are difficult to improve using traditional breeding tools, they may also facilitate breeding schemes with reduced generation intervals carrying a higher risk of unwanted side-effects on animal welfare. In this paper, a number of potential risks are discussed, including detrimental genetic trends for non-measured welfare traits, the increased chance of spreading unfavourable mutations, reduced sharing of information arising from concerns over patents, and an increased monopoly within dairy cattle breeding that may make it less accountable to the concern of private farmers for the welfare of their animals. It is argued that there is a need to mobilise a wide range of stakeholders to monitor developments and maintain pressure on breeding companies so that they are aware of the need to take precautionary measures to avoid negative effects on animal welfare and to invest in breeding for increased animal welfare. Researchers are encouraged to further investigate the long-term effects of various breeding schemes that rely on genomic breeding values.

Date 2010
Publication Title Animal Welfare
Volume 19
Issue Supplement
Pages 113-121
ISBN/ISSN 0962-7286
Language English
Author Address Department of Basic Animal and Veterinary Science, Faculty of Life Sciences, University of Copenhagen, 1870 Frederiksberg C, Denmark.
Cite this work

Researchers should cite this work as follows:

  1. Adverse effects
  2. Adverse reactions
  3. Animal diseases
  4. Animal genetics
  5. Animal husbandry
  6. Animal production
  7. Animal reproduction
  8. Animal rights
  9. Animal welfare
  10. Breeding
  11. Calves
  12. Cattle
  13. Claw
  14. Conflict
  15. Corporations
  16. Dairy animals
  17. Farms
  18. Genetic drift
  19. Genetic markers
  20. Inbreeding
  21. Long term effects
  22. Mammals
  23. Markers
  24. Methodologies
  25. Milk and dairy products
  26. mutations
  27. patents
  28. peer-reviewed
  29. performance traits
  30. Primates
  31. researchers
  32. research personnel
  33. stakeholders
  34. Techniques
  35. traits
  36. war
  1. peer-reviewed