Gene-mappers say the information they are producing could add $300 million to the dairy industry. Tamsyn Parker reports.

Richard Spelman says it's unlikely Livestock Improvement Corporation would have embarked on a journey to map the genomes of New Zealand's national dairy herd without a partnership agreement and funding from the Government.

"When we put the bid in, at the time it was quite speculative research," says LIC's chief scientist. "The cost of sequencing was a quarter of a million to $500,000 per animal.

"We though we would sequence maybe 20 to 30 animals."

But nearly five years later Spelman and his team have sequenced 800 animals with the cost coming down to $1000 to $3000 an animal and are well on their way to isolating enough variants to make a commercial difference to New Zealand's dairy production.

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"Our job is to understand which variations impact on traits of economic performance. A lot of it has been gathering data up until now.

"We needed a large number of observations to work out if the data was important. We have got there in the last three to six months. Now we are working out what is important."

One variation identified has been for tropical cows -- cows which can stand up to higher temperatures.

It is already being worked into the breeding programme and is expected to be commercialised in around three years.

"Then we can take that to international markets like South America and Southeast Asia."

The scientists have also identified a genome which affects whether a cow will carry a calf to term.

It requires both the bull and the cow to have the identified genes.

"The nice thing is with the technology we can genotype all the bulls. Because we have over 90 per cent of the animals on a national database we can estimate the probability of a cow being a carrier of the genome."

When the AB tester turns up they can work out whether a bull and a cow should be mated.

It can then be bred out of the herd.

Spelman said it was now in the process of integrating milk production into its genome selection path.

For a single variation it takes around three to five years to get to the commercialisation stage.

Every year LIC buys 250 bulls and puts them through testing. To look at lactation, fertility and a cow's likelihood of getting mastitis they have to look at the daughters of those bulls.

Before they even select the 250 they test 2000 bulls to pick the best based on their genomes.

Spelman says it is believed that genetic improvement could add $300 million to the dairy industry.

"If we can increase it by another 10 per cent that's another $20 to 30 million."

LIC has put up $1.5 million per year for the seven programme which is being matched by the government through a primary growth partnership with the Ministry for Primary Industries.

"The PGP has been amazing we wouldn't have gone down this path without funding."

Spelman says the gains on the farm would be incremental.

"On a year-on-year comparison you probably won't see differences but when you compare 1990s cows to present day cows you can see an absolute difference in the animals."

Spelman said it was like comparing it to a child who grew every day but whose growth wasn't noticeable unless you hadn't seen them in a while.

He says the seven-year project is just the beginning.

"We are in the process of looking at areas within the business that would benefit from further research. We may contemplate whether another PGP will be appropriate."