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It’s in the genes

Teagasc’s genetics team plays a crucial role in both the environmental and economic success of dairy, beef and sheep herds.

Teagasc genetics team members (left to right) Cliona Ryan, Alan Twomey and Maria Frizzarin at Teagasc Moorepark, January 2023

Teagasc genetics team members (left to right) Cliona Ryan, Alan Twomey and Maria Frizzarin at Teagasc Moorepark, January 2023

Genetics is an essential field to the future of the farming industry in Ireland. With new environmental targets being set nationwide, predicting animal characteristics may prove instrumental.

All our research covers different areas of genetics and breeding, but the focus is on creating new tools for farmers to help them make improved breeding and on-farm decisions. It is important that all research carried out can offer a practical use for farmers as well as improve the sustainability of the agriculture industry.

A quantitative genetics research team always existed in Teagasc, staffed by globally renowned geneticists such as Paddy Cunningham and Seamus Hanrahan. The quantitative genetics team in Moorepark was established in 2003, led by one researcher and a small team of PhD students. Since then, the team has grown, providing essential knowledge to both Teagasc and the industry at large.

To find out more about their impressive work in genetics, we spoke to Research Officer Alan Twomey, Post-Doctoral Researcher Maria Frizzarin, and PhD students Cliona Ryan and Elia Dufosse.

Can you explain the history of the genetics team within Teagasc?

Alan: The team has grown since 2003, and is now staffed by four researchers, three post-doctorates and five PhD students; the team has trained 10 master’s students, 33 PhD students and 17 post-doctorates.

Research grants from Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine and Science Foundation Ireland play a key role in supporting the team’s outputs. Teagasc, the Irish Cattle Breeding Federation (ICBF) and Sheep Ireland work in partnership to translate these outputs into outcomes and eventual impact.

What are your core objectives?

Alan: Our team is driven to improve the profitability and sustainability of dairy, beef and sheep herds. Team members regularly speak at events and industry meetings, and also write articles for media outlets to ensure our research has a real impact in the agriculture sector.

Cliona: Data is continually increasing, particularly DNA information, which is available for almost three million Irish cattle. A key objective of ours is to see how we can use the large database of genotype information to generate more tools to improve beef and dairy industries in Ireland.

How does your research achieve these objectives?

Cliona: Genomic selection improves cattle and sheep breeding using DNA information to predict an animal’s potential performance. This allows for more accurate selection of animals with desirable traits, such as high milk or carcass merit, and can lead to faster genetic progress.

Elia Dufosse from the genetics team collects a faecal sample to predict the intake of grass consumed by a cow, Teagasc Moorepark

Elia Dufosse from the genetics team collects a faecal sample to predict the intake of grass consumed by a cow, Teagasc Moorepark

What are the key techniques and tools you use to achieve this work?

Maria: When data is not readily available on important traits, we need to measure these alternatively. In my work, I use a technique called mid-infrared spectroscopy. The spectrometer can analyse many milk samples in a short period of time and produces a spectrum for each milk sample analysed, which can be used as an indicator of the milk characteristics.

We have been working on predicting the change in body condition score, methane emissions and feed efficiency. Hopefully these equations will be available soon to predict these economically important traits.

Alan: We then use these traits, as either actual or predictor measurements to estimate the genetic contribution through quantitative genetic approaches. We estimate breeding values for these individual traits using information on their own performance as well as performance of their ancestors.

Cliona: Molecular techniques are another key part of our work. Adding DNA information allows us to improve breeding value estimates. For example, full-sibs have the same pedigree information, but the actual DNA helps us predict the difference between these depending on individual markers.

What specific projects are you currently working on?

Maria: My work involves predicting new traits of interest and then using the newly developed equations to quantify the traits of interest at a national level. If methane can be accurately predicted using the milk spectrum, it could be used to select more environmentally friendly cows.

Elia: One of our primary goals is to reduce the environmental footprint of the cattle systems. I’m currently using feed intake, milk and meat output data to estimate the nitrogen efficiency of individual cows to potentially breed for nitrogen-efficient cows, which excrete less nitrogen.

Cliona: I’m looking at the effect that myostatin, a gene that controls muscle growth, has on calving difficulty and carcass traits. This is important for improving selection strategies and designing optimal mating plans. Some mutations on the myostatin gene are associated with improved carcass merit, but also increased calving difficulty, while others are only associated with improved carcass merit and have no impact on calving difficulty.

Can you explain why these objectives and your work is important in the context of Irish farming and agriculture?

Maria: This research will improve the economic and environmental sustainability of Irish farms, but also it provides tools that make decisions easier for farmers. All the traits predicted using the mid-infrared spectrum can be used for genetic selection, which provides information on the most efficient or most environmentally friendly cows.

Elia: Restrictions on dairy production are put in place to limit nitrogen emissions. Considering the importance of this industry in Ireland, my work could give producers tools to breed environmentally friendly animals, reducing their nitrogen impact.

PhD student Cliona Ryan and Research Officer Alan Twomey collect a hair sample from a calf

PhD student Cliona Ryan and Research Officer Alan Twomey collect a hair sample from a calf

Have there been any changes made in Irish farming that are a result of your work or recommendations?

Alan: We developed a carbon index for animals, which has been included in our dairy breeding objectives, improving the genetic progress in reducing the carbon footprint of cattle.

Recent research also showed that the genetic trend in carcass traits in animals coming from the dairy herd was declining, so work was done to address this. This was the context to improve the beef sub-index of the dairy breeding objectives, which now includes a trait for age at slaughter which is a world first.

How does Teagasc benefit from your work?

Alan: The team contributes to Teagasc by researching and providing knowledge to the Irish agri-food sector. Also, the team contains key skills, such as being able to handle large datasets, so we can help other departments in Teagasc.

We have also built important relationships with people across Ireland and around the world, which is important for the development of future research projects and to access new data and skill sets.

What trends coming up will affect the team’s work?

Alan: Methane and other environmental traits will be the key traits going forward. Our team and others will all need to put our shoulder to the wheel to achieve the national target of a 25% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030.

Reducing age at slaughter of cattle will be important and the team will be working on developing this further by coming up with tools to predict or identify when animals are suitable for slaughter.

What are the principles you work to that you think make your team successful?

Maria: We all work in the same workspace, so when someone has difficulties, they can easily ask for help. There is open communication, and though we are working on a wide range of areas, the core methodology is similar and everyone in the team is willing to help others. We meet every month to discuss problems within the team and also to talk and to discuss other topics outside our specific work. In the past few months, we have been participating in short teambuilding activities. 



In Ireland, over 60% of the cows routinely have their milk spectra generated after the milk recording.


Continued contributions: the genetics team share their personal achievements

Maria: I am good at bonding the members of the team together. I like
to organise dinners outside working hours, and coordinate team-bonding activities.

Elia: Our team works hard to produce reliable results and make them available to the end user, making the research useful and applicable in the field.

Cliona: The achievement that stands out the most to me is when everyone from the genetics team went to Rotterdam together to present at the World Congress on Genetics Applied to Livestock Production last summer.

Alan: I am proud to be a member of a team that has contributed so much to the industry and I hope that I will continue this great success in the future.