Selective breeding in organic dairy production

Nauta, W.J.


Organic dairy farming started to take off in the early 1990s, when the European Union laid down organic standards for animal production. Until now, however, only incidental steps have been taken towards organic breeding and organic farmers mainly use breeding stock from conventional breeding programmes. This thesis focuses on the possibilities for breeding in organic dairy farming. This thesis starts with describing the basic backgrounds of organic dairy farming and the results of a study that was carried out in 1999-2000 on the vision on cattle breeding. The main conclusions are that breeding in organic dairy farming should be in line with the intensions of organic farming and that farmers need animals that fit to their extensive farming system. This study is followed by describing the differences and the magnitude of genotype by environment interaction (G x E) between conventional and organic dairy production. There proved to be significant differences in levels of milk production, percentage of protein in the milk, milk cell count and fertility between Holstein heifers on organic or conventional farms. A fairly large impact of G x E was found indicating that organic dairy farmers might have difficulty with selecting the right animals from the conventional supply of breeding bulls. This effect may be caused by the lower uptake of energy by cows in organic agriculture. After this a study into organic dairy farmers’ breeding aims in relation to their farm management was carried out in 2005. This study shows that, despite differences in farm management, organic farmers had more or less the same breeding aim and many farmers were already experimenting with breeds and crosses in a quest for the most suitable type of cow for their farm. There was, however, no relationship between the farm management system and the breed or cross used, which indicates that although farmers demand suitable animals, they do not know what type of cow this would be. Based on the results of the different studies, three distinct options are formulated for breeding in organic dairy farming: (1) use of adapted conventional breeding, (2) a separate breeding programme and (3) a breeding system based on natural mating. The advantages and disadvantages of each of the three breeding options are described in relation to naturalness, technical breeding issues, societal concerns and costs and benefits. These illustrate the complexity of the breeding issue in both breeding-technology and social terms. Restricting the use of conventional breeding would effectively mean the rejection of a system with a long and successful history, and throw organic dairy breeding back on its own resources. It is concluded that ‘system innovations’ at multiple levels are needed to create new, sustainable breeding systems, stakeholders must join forces to stimulate the development towards appropriate breeding