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Utilising AI and Big Data to guarantee continuous supply of milk

Pic Credit: iomlananimalscience.ie

Researchers from Australia’s University of Queensland are assisting smallholder milk producers in India with AI-based breeding technology.

The project has support from one of the largest private foundation in the world.

According to a recent press release, genomic selection uses big data bioinformatics derived from genome-wide analysis of performance recorded cows to detect gene effects associated with the desired trait.

The Problem

Because India has more than 1.3 billion people, the milk producers in the country are focused on maintaining adequate supply.

Professor Ben Hayes, the co-developer of the big data genomic breeding technology, explained the significance of milk in the country.

India relied on cow and buffalo milk as an important source of nutrients, especially for the children.

However, most of India’s milk is produced by small holder farmers with as few as only two animals. Their income from milk is often the difference between ‘getting by’ and poverty.

The smallholder producers deliver to a sophisticated and integrated supply chain, which includes a massive distribution arm that can reach nearly all Indian households.

Similar to the crisis that is afflicting the agricultural systems globally, the production arm is burdened with the need to produce more milk in order to keep pace with the growing demand.

The issue lies in the need to have this extra milk supplied from the same amount of land, water, labour and animal feed.

The Solution

The Professor is familiar with the issue of increasing the supply from the same resource base because he had previously addressed similar constraints in the Australian dairy industry.

The solution lies in taking advantage of existing genetic variation between animals in how efficient they are at turning feed into milk.

The trick is to establish a breeding program that identifies these animals and to use them for breeding the herds of the future.

But, achieving this goal in a production system dominated by smallholder farmers introduces its own challenges.

Past breeding efforts in India have seen milk production rates stall at about four to five litres per animal per day.

Genomic Selection Technology

The Professor was able to apply the genomic selection technology, which he co-developed, to address the issue in the Australian dairy industry.

The technology enables modelling to predict the genetic combinations, and therefore the stud bulls that are best suited to achieving genetic gain in the breeding target.

As a world-leading expert in genomic selection and its application to cattle-based industries, he was approached by the Foundation to revisit the stalled genetic gain, and the associated food security and poverty reduction implications of India’s milk industry.

The project aims to double the milk production to about 10 litres a day and achieve it with a modest increase in feed.

The project is being undertaken in collaboration with Indian smallholder farmers who are already logging the milk production rates in order to generate data vital to the computing algorithms.

Also taking part are two Indian organisations that are essential to the development of an integrated milk supply chain that seeks to pull smallholder farmers out of poverty.

The project is also recording fertility traits associated with the genotyped cows and buffalos to guarantee that the breeding program does not accidentally reduce fertility in its goal to push more energy into milk production.

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