DNA research key for Irish agriculture
The main area of activity for the new facility is animal breeding and genetics research. This will be carried out in collaboration with other research departments at Teagasc and will develop tools to more accurately identify the most profitable animal for current and future production systems.
National breeding objectives have been developed for dairy cattle, beef cattle and sheep and the primary focus is to continually develop, refine and disseminate tools for breeding more profitable animals for the entire Irish agri-food industry.
“We are developing the optimal breeding programmes to maximise genetic gain in the long term,” Dewhurst adds. “Validation of genetic evaluations and ongoing testing of national breeding objectives is being carried out through both controlled experiments with dairy cattle and sheep as well as on-farm studies.”
And the type of traits being studied could have far-reaching impacts. “We are looking at the quality of the meat produced and the amount of fat in it. We are also looking at things like the amount of methane produced by animals. This is a big environmental factor and is responsible for a large amount of the greenhouse gases produced in Ireland. The new tools we are developing will allow us to have an influence on that.”
Animal health and welfare is another key focus for the centre. This research addresses new and improved management practices and their associated support tools. “Our work encompasses the whole production process along with consideration of animal health and welfare in farming systems, product safety and quality. If animal production is to be successful in the future, it has also to respond to the increasing questions about environmental and ethical concerns as well as address the needs of society and meet consumer requirements.”
Specific areas of this research activity include verification of the welfare advantages experienced by animals in our grassland production systems; determining the conditions at pasture which optimise animal welfare; investigating the housing parameters which improve animal welfare; examining novel biotechnological approaches for vaccine delivery to the lung; specifying the mechanisms by which bacterial and viral pathogens affect the immune system; determining the distribution of E.coli in cattle production systems; and assessing the biological impact of short and long distance transport on the welfare of animals.
“One of the things we are trying to select for is animals with reduced susceptibility for disease,” Dewhurst points out. “If you are targeting increased production there is always a potential for increased disease susceptibility. If you just breed for production you put more stress on the animal and increase this potential. Therefore, one aspect of our work is to breed for healthier animals while another is to identify the biomarkers which will in turn help us identify sick animals at an early stage.”