Genomic Evaluations On the Way for Milking Shorthorns

Published: June 21st 2022
Milking Shorthorn dairy cattle on pasture at Oceanbrae Farms near Miscouche, Eastern Prince County, P.E.I. Photo: Ryan Barrett.

After many years in the background of Canada’s Holstein-dominated dairy industry, Milking Shorthorns have begun to attract the attention of a growing number of dairy producers.

Breeders, represented by the P.E.I.-based Canadian Milking Shorthorn Society, are seizing the moment to elevate their dairy breed with genomic evaluations. The move will level the playing field for Milking Shorthorns with Canada’s five other established breeds of dairy cattle. These animals, all registered, have genomic evaluations accessible through Lactanet, a farmer-run organization. 

Ryan Barrett, the society’s secretary-manager and an enthusiastic booster of Milking Shorthorns, explained: “we want to build a reference population in order to hopefully start offering genomic evaluations for our breed very soon.”

To get started, the society landed a grant through the Small-Scale Climate Change Fund set up by Genome Atlantic and supported by Research Nova Scotia. The money has allowed the society to begin work with Milking Shorthorn breeders in the Maritimes to genotype their animals  – that is, to do a complete genetic workup on each animal by way of DNA analysis.

This groundwork will supply a template for additional genotyping of other Milking Shorthorn dairy cattle across the country, as well as for testing genetic material from existing gene banks.

The aim is to help breeders improve the quality of their Milking Shorthorn herds through genomic selection, a faster, more precise and reliable way to improve dairy herds with desired attributes that generally revolve around milk production, reproduction, longevity and health.

Why the revived interest in the Milking Shorthorn? The breed, once known as Durhams or Dual-Purpose Shorthorns and considered one of the oldest recognized cattle breeds in the world, are gaining new recognition for their climate-friendly qualities in an era of climate change. With greater efficiency they turn forage into milk with higher percentages of fat and protein than the industry standard Holstein breed.

Rated ideal for farms using rotational grazing, Mr. Barrett said the Milking Shorthorn “generally last longer, have fewer health and breeding problems and have a quiet temperament.” He added, “While Milking Shorthorns rarely produce as much milk as Holsteins, they make up for it with lower input costs.”  

Even by 2022 standards, Milking Shorthorns are high achievers, which is perhaps all the more surprising for a breed developed in the late 1700s in Northwest England in the Valley of the Tees River, bordering the counties of Durham, Northumberland and York. 

“In recent years, we have seen more Canadian dairy producers who have started to reconsider the Milking Shorthorn, either as part of a mixed herd or as a dominant breed in their herd,” said Mr. Barrett.

Without the benefit of genomics, he explained, genetic evaluations must rely solely on information about an animal’s lineage and its progeny’s performance.

“Depending on how much data has gone into that animal’s genetic evaluation, the reliability of an individual animal’s evaluation will vary,” he said. “For example: a proven sire with thousands of daughters across the country will have a reliability over 95 per cent. On the other hand, a newborn calf only has the average performance of its parents, so it starts with a reliability of 30-40 per cent. “

With this method, the reliability of the rating depends on the time it takes to establish the data.

By comparison, genomics substantially improves the reliability factor while dramatically reducing the time involved to supply results with greater precision. “By doing a genomic test of an individual animal from a hair or other tissue sample and identifying how that animal will code for more than 65,000 markers (SNPs) that are commonly used in dairy cattle,” he said, “we can compare that animal’s genetic profile against other genetic profiles, identify individual SNP’s or groups of SNPs with favourable or unfavourable performance for a number of traits and improve the reliability of genetic evaluation without that animal having to be calved, and having a milk record etc. This provides the dairy producer with more reliable information to chose how to breed his cattle, which cattle to keep for replacements, which to sell, etc.”

The Canadian Milking Shorthorn Society is betting that genomic evaluations for the Milking Shorthorn will ensure the moderate-sized cows with the climate friendly advantage will gain even greater traction on Canadian dairy farms.

Certainly, the Milking Shorthorn is a firm favourite with Mr. Barrett and his family. His grandfather, Keith, purchased his first one in 1950 and since then the breed has remained at the heart of Oceanbrae Farms, now run part-time by Mr. Barrett and full-time by his brother, Matt, and their father, Fred, on the southern shore of Malpeque Bay, near Miscouche, in Eastern Prince County.

Oceanbrae Farms was recognized for having a Master Breeder herd in 2008 and the operation is said to be in the running to claim the title again this year, a significant year for Milking Shorthorn advocates everywhere.

This year marks the 200th anniversary of the Coates Herd Book, the first cattle herd book ever produced, “Containing the pedigrees of Short-Horned Bulls and Cows Etc. of the Improved Durham Breed.” It is a reminder of how important genetic improvement has been for the Shorthorn breed and the potential that lies ahead with genomic evaluation.