Breeding programs for rare local breeds to conserve and use their unique traits

Farms with Groningen White Headed cattle produced milk with a relative high amount of unsaturated fatty acids. This unique characteristic is an opportunity to add value to the dairy products of farms keeping this rare local breed.

This was a remarkable finding in the research work that Myrthe Maurice performed at the Centre for Genetic Resources, the Netherlands. On the occasion of the defence of her PhD thesis at Wageningen University, a WIAS-ABGC-CGN seminar was organized with the title “Opportunities for conservation of local breeds”.

Etienne Verrier (Agro Paris Tech) summarized the success factors for development and marketing of typical products of local breeds. In France the combination of unique traits of a breed with unique natural production circumstances are exploited by individual farmers and co-operative initiatives. They produce local cheeses in rural areas for niche markets in urban areas. A Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) supports the conservation of local breeds and their production environments through marketing of typical products.

Peer Berg (Nordic Gene Bank) explained the impact of climate change (higher temperature and more extreme weather conditions) on the Nordic production circumstances. This climate change in combination with the expected population growth, increased meat production, less arable land and a decreasing self-sufficiency, will result in a  drastic change in livestock production systems. These forces will create challenges and opportunities for the Nordic local breeds. Better characterization of local breeds, including their unique product quality traits, has a high priority in the Nordic countries.  Such work could strengthen the future position of the local breeds in the expected new livestock systems.

Mario Calus (Animal Breeding and Genomics Centre, WUR) introduced the opportunities of genomic selection for rare local breeds. The genetic characterization with high density chips (50k or 777k SNP’s) in itself will give a new and better estimate of the genetic differences between breeds. This can be used in the priority setting for conservation. Effective genomic selection programs require a reference population of at least 2000 animals that are genotyped and are recorded for breeding goal traits. For most local breeds both population size and phenotypic data is limited. The advice for local breeds, therefore, is to ensure routine collection of phenotypes and starting to build a DNA-bank that in time could be used for genomic selection.

Bart Buitenhuis (Aarhus University) showed the differences in milk composition of three Danish cattle breeds: the Holstein Friesian (HF), the Jersey (J) and the Swedish Red and White (SRW). The coagulation of J milk in the cheese production process is much better than of HF milk (intermediate) and SRW milk (lowest). The milk of 2 % of the HF cows and 16% of the SRW cows does not coagulate and is not suitable for cheese production. The J milk also has the highest yield in the yoghurt production. These two technological properties are heritable. J milk has the highest proportion of saturated fatty acids and SRW milk the lowest. The proportions of milk fatty acids may be influenced by genomic selection.

Jack Windig (Animal Breeding and Genomics Centre, WUR) explained the tools that were recently developed to monitor and to manage relatedness and inbreeding in small populations. He showed some examples of recent work on Dutch breeds analysing the breeding programs and genetic management of those breeds. A simulation tool was used to predict inbreeding rates on the basis of alternative mating strategies. These tools are very important to maintain and to strengthen unique traits rare local breeds and at the same time avoid high inbreeding levels.