Genetic agreements will be made available for public review

Genetic agreements will be made available for public review

Since genomics burst onto the scene in 2008, the dairy genetics sector has been under constant flux. This seismic change brought on by genomics caused some leaders to investigate a new long-term approach to ensure that critical herd information flows into the data collection system so U.S. genetic evaluations can be accurately calculated far into the future.

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Adding to the concern about data quality and quantity is the fact some industry segments could reduce or even discontinue funding data collection and simply rely on genomic evaluations. While this may be attractive short-term, genetic evaluation quality would erode without updated phenotypic data.

As these concerns unfolded, USDA officials who conduct genetic evaluations recognized a need to update the agreements with the industry. These potential updates would accommodate new participants and enable the industry to assume operational control over the database. With the explosion of effort involved in running data, there is a need to enable the industry to assume responsibility for more of the “service component” and allow AIPL to focus on research and development. Genetic evaluations fit into the service work category, and a new model is needed for genetic calculations. Part of that new model could include transferring the responsibility for calculating the genetic merit values from the industry’s genetic database to a private industry consortium.

Developing a new agreement
With that as a backdrop, a healthy and interactive discussion over the progress of these investigations took place during the biannual gathering of the Council on Dairy Cattle Breeding on October 25 in Milwaukee, Wis. Much of the meeting centered on further developing a new nonfunded Cooperative Agreement (CA) between the shareholders in the U.S. dairy genetics community and USDA’s Agricultural Research Service and its Animal Improvement Programs Laboratory (AIPL). It is AIPL which currently conducts a wide array of genetic research which results in U.S. genetic evaluations.

At this October’s gathering were the usual Council of Dairy Cattle Breeding representatives who serve as advisors to USDA. They included voting members from the three major players: the National Association of Animal Breeders (A.I. companies), Purebred Dairy Cattle Association (breed associations), and dairy record providers (milk testing organizations). Also at the meeting were representatives from USDA’s Agricultural Research Service and some other industry partners.

Topic dominated meeting
As the meeting unfolded, the majority of the discussion focused on a new CA which has been in various stages of development.

Two years ago, the Council on Dairy Cattle Breeding agreed to form a subcommittee to discuss and potentially develop a new long-term business structure to deliver genetic evaluations. That committee, known formally as the Dairy Data Working Group, came up with a series of industry-based recommendations that led to a formal draft of a new CA between USDA and the dairy genetics community.

As the draft of this new agreement took form, many breeders at the grass-roots level (who have supported information flow and depend on genetics sales for part of their income) have been unable to review original documents developed by the Council’s committee and USDA. Instead, breeders have had to rely on various reports from different industry segments. As readers may recall, the brevity of the last Council meetings and lack of transparency on the group’s activity was discussed in a July 2011 editorial on page 454.

This lack of public discussion has some in the industry concerned about current developments. Those with concerns point to the fact that when USDA developed a Cooperative Research and Development Agreement in 2008 with some members of the genetic industry, a moratorium was placed on the release of male genetic evaluations until April 2013. The moratorium only allowed members of NAAB that contributed to the Cooperative DNA Repository to access male genomic evaluations. Under the confidential five-year technology transfer agreement, it was decided those group members contributed vital genetic data to significantly enhance genetic evaluations.

The type of agreement that took place in 2008 between USDA and NAAB is not new. For decades, USDA has conducted research on a variety of agricultural issues. When solutions are developed, USDA routinely enters into technology transfer agreements that enable the research to move into the marketplace. The process does not allow an open and broad-based public discussion. It has to be confidential. What makes the current discussions different from those in 2008 is these talks involve transferring the responsibility of calculating genetic merit from the USDA to an industry consortium. It will be up to this group to establish access policies to the genetic merit values.

The need for transparency
Joining this October’s Council meeting was Steven Kappes, deputy administrator for USDA’s Agricultural Research Service. He oversees activity at AIPL which has calculated U.S. genetic evaluations for decades. Kappes shed light on future negotiations to reach a long-term agreement.

“Our goal is to have a new Cooperative Agreement (CA) in place by next July,” said Kappes. “If it takes more time, we are willing to do it. However, there has to be enough time so the process can be open and transparent,” he said.

“There is no reason this process should not be public. People want to see the details,” he explained.

At the same time the CA between the Council and USDA is being developed, another Council committee is working on the Business Plan. Known as the Business Plan Working Group, Council leaders on this committee are hashing out details on how to fund future genetic evaluations. Factors such as past and future contributions, both data and financial, are being considered by the committee. Making this issue more difficult to resolve is the fact the group must ensure that new information flows into the system to recalibrate genomic evaluations. The Business Plan Working Group is comprised of six members with equal representation from breed associations, A.I. companies, and dairy records centers.

After two years of investigation, progress on both agreements has stalled somewhat. In part, this is because key details have not been fully developed and presented for public review. That led some U.S. senators and representatives to write letters to the Secretary of Agriculture questioning the process.

“When we get letters from senators, the Secretary of Agriculture takes them very seriously,” said USDA’s Kappes. “Before we turn over the responsibility of calculating genetic merit, we must have the majority of the industry in agreement.”

Separate but simultaneous
How to move forward became a theme as the Council meeting continued on October 25. Many questioned whether the CA or Business Plan needed to be completed first.

“Legally, the Cooperative Agreement (CA) between the USDA and the industry and the Business Agreement within the industry are separate activities,” noted Kappes. “USDA cannot get involved in private business matters. But, in reality, they must be worked on together,” he suggested.

Some in the industry have asked why the USDA can’t continue to run genetic evaluations. The short answer is USDA has funding to conduct research, not service projects.

“Because we have been productive with research, it has allowed us to provide more service work than we probably should have done,” said AIPL’s Duane Norman. “That cannot continue in the future.”

Together, but separate
As Council discussion wrapped up, industry leaders gathered some consensus. It is the group’s goal to have a Business Plan complete by April 2012 while the CA would be completed by July 2012. At that point, each stakeholder would have to decide to accept or reject it.

During the dialogue, all in attendance agreed that these formal documents, along with some explanation, should be on the Council of Dairy Cattle Breeding website along with other industry outlets for complete visibility, transparency, and industry review. Every dairy producer who chooses to review the documents will have an opportunity to review original versions, including the financial details of the Business Plan. It was also agreed that the Business Plan needs to be agreed upon by the industry before the Cooperative Agreement will be signed by USDA.

Towards the end of the meeting, American Jersey Cattle Association executive secretary Neal Smith summed up the meeting, “Change is hard. Genomics has certainly changed the game. Our vision is to have a better system for producers.”

In closing comments, USDA’s Kappes reminded those attending the meeting, “From some questions I have heard, we haven’t communicated well enough. We need to do better before we can finalize the Cooperative and Business Agreement.”

“When there is push back, ARS and USDA pays attention,” says Kappes. “In the end, this agreement needs to represent the entire industry.”

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