Lessons for Australia on sharing genetic data

24 May 2018

Andrew Cromie

The creation of a single national platform containing genetic evaluation, carcase and production data for all beef cattle is achievable and valuable – just ask Ireland’s beef producers.

That was among the key messages delivered by Irish Cattle Breeding Federation (ICBF) Technical Director, Dr Andrew Cromie, during his presentation to producers and industry stakeholders at MLA’s 'Fork to Farm seminar' at Beef Australia 2018.

Dr Cromie was in Australia to share the genetic and productivity gains achieved by the development a central data platform for all cattle breeds in Ireland.

“Establishing a common data platform has had a major impact on profitability of Irish beef farmers,” Dr Cromie said.

“The terminal index has seen a steady increase in returns over the course of the last 15 years by over 70 Euros, or AU$100 per animal slaughtered. A total benefit of 580 million Euros to our cattle farmers. 

“Productivity gains are moving in right direction as well.”

Ireland’s beef herd comprises 1 million head and produces around 500,000 tonnes of grassfed beef/ year, around 80% of which is exported.

The ICBF brings about 30 different organisations together – including breed associations, farm organisations and AI companies - to share data and provide cattle breeding information services to producers. The ICBF has an operating budget of about 7 million Euros, or AU$10 million.

Dr Cromie said the ICBF’s evaluations had evolved with the available data. Today, ICBF services 100,000 cattle producers, and the central data platform produces terminal and replacement indexes.

The terminal index is the genetic merit rating the ICBF uses to describe an animal's genetic ability to be finished. It identifies the most profitable animals. The replacement index is made up of traits including fertility, beef traits, feed intake, milk, calving traits and docility.

‘A rising tide lifts all boats’

Dr Cromie said a fundamental requirement in the establishment of the ICBF was to share data for the benefit of farmers and the wider industry.

“First of all you have to have a common goal and vision. We export beef and we’re focused on farmer profitability – if you don’t have profitable farmers, you don’t have a profitable industry. It’s the principle of a rising tide lifts all boats,” Dr Cromie said.

“The benefit of that is you remove duplication. Duplication is an absolute pain in the neck for every farmer and people who work in the industry – it results in errors and problems.”

Who owns the data?

A simple approach to data ownership has served the ICBF well in its 15-year history.

“We’ve applied a very simple principle as we’ve operated the database in Ireland, and that is, the person who owns the animal, owns the data – effectively, the data moves with the animal," Dr Cromie said.

“Whether an animal is sold to an individual farmer or to the meat processor at the end, all of the data goes with the animal.

“You can switch access to the data on or off for individual service providers, whether it’s an AI company, breed association or a veterinarian – the control sits with the farmer.

“To facilitate that control you need to have very strong user agreements with different stakeholders and service providers. We now have this in place for the very large range of service providers that now operate off the ICBF database.”

Supporting R&D

ICBF data is available to researchers to facilitate R&D projects, and the availability of the central data platform has enabled ambitious projects to take place, attracting significant investment from government and stakeholders.

“Having the data consolidated has allowed us to have large-scale genomic programs including one currently underway involving 24,000 farms and 600,000 cows,” Dr Cromie said.

Dr Cromie said despite the hard work required to establish a central data platform, he encourages Australian beef producers and stakeholders to get involved in the process.

“There are challenges, it’s hard work, and it requires leadership. ICBF is a working example, it’s not perfect, but there are many similarities between Australia and Ireland in the context of beef production, and in terms of ability to consolidate that data," he said.

More information
Visit www.icbf.com/wp

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