Thursday, May 19, 2022

Taking charge of NZ’s beef genetics

Gemma Jenkins joined Beef + Lamb New Zealand (B+LNZ) with a clear target as she took the reins to lead the Informing New Zealand Beef (INZB) genetics programme.

The opportunity to develop tools unique to the NZ beef industry was a big attraction for Gemma Jenkins as she leads a programme designed to significantly lift the sector’s profits.

Scientist Gemma Jenkins is tasked with informing New Zealand’s beef genetics programme in a bid to boost the sector’s profits. Annette Scott reports.

Gemma Jenkins joined Beef + Lamb New Zealand (B+LNZ) with a clear target as she took the reins to lead the Informing New Zealand Beef (INZB) genetics programme.

Bringing wide-ranging experience in the biotech and food production industries to her new role as genetics programme manager, Jenkins heads up a seven-year partnership between B+LNZ and the Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI).

The INZB partnership programme aims to boost the sector’s profits by $460 million over the next 25 years.

Born and raised in the south, Jenkins gained her BSc at Otago, followed by a MSc in human genetics and a PhD focused on sheep genetics.

She has worked with AgResearch, AbacusBio and the Irish Cattle Breeding Federation and more recently provided consultancy services as senior science and technical advisor to the NZ Medical Cannabis Council.

The INZB programme is focused on maximising profitability in the NZ beef industry in a sustainable way by increasing the uptake of the use of genetics in the beef industry.

NZ’s beef sector currently relies on an Australian genetics platform that understandably factors in traits relevant to its climate and farming systems.

The four main components are building a genetic evaluation and data infrastructure; capturing new data through progeny test herds and the inclusion of commercial farms; developing breeding objectives and indexes; and, most importantly, extension work.

The ultimate aim being to provide farmers with the genetic selection tools they need to breed animals better suited to NZ’s farming conditions.

The programme is designed to generate more income for beef producers with an across-breed evaluation of bulls, which will ultimately result in more efficient beef animals that generate less greenhouse gases and are more profitable.

It is funded 60% by B+LNZ and 40% by MPIs’ Sustainable Food and Fibre Futures (SFFF) fund.

“The opportunity to drive really good industry engagement and develop tools unique to the NZ beef industry are major attractions of this role for me,” Jenkins said.

“While working at AbacusBio, we undertook a major review of the NZ dairy industry’s national breeding objective and engaged extensively with key stakeholders and farmers to get feedback on what traits and genetic tools were important to industry.”

There was also great industry engagement in the Medicinal Cannabis Council work, with everyone in the sector motivated to work for the greater good of the industry.

“Engagement and extension are something we would like to see done very well in this programme for people in the sector to not just be aware of the INZB programme, but to have a real say in how the indexes are developed and have the skills they feel are necessary to use these genetic tools,” she said.

She said in this first year the plan is to carry out an industry survey around trait prioritisation.

“That is, we would like to know what traits are important to farmers, how they make selection decisions and what genetic tools they think would be beneficial to their operations,” she said.

“We will be building a genetic evaluation and developing the nProve tool for beef, similar to that already used by NZ sheep farmers.

“That will support farmers to make good selection and management decisions on-farm.”

With the first calves born into the programme now on the ground on Pāmu’s Kepler Farm near Te Anau, attention has turned to finding a North Island farm to expand the project.

The right place will ideally have 400 to 600 mixed age cows that can be mated with an AI programme and those cows ideally would be a reasonably even line of cattle.

It’s important the cows are reasonably even so when the bulls go over them a fair evaluation is gathered without big breed differences coming in from the cow side.

But the most important thing is the people involved and the stability of the business.

The programme is looking for a six to seven-year commitment and someone who has a passion for cattle and is interested in genetics and recording.

A lot of support is provided along the way, including assistance with recording, and payment for all costs that are over and above normal farm management.

The AI sires used will be selected from the top bulls nominated by breeders from around NZ, so will add quality genetics into the herd during the project.

The programme is designed to fit in with the individual farm calendar with as little disruption as possible.

Intensive calving beats are not necessary nor are animals required to be tagged and weighed at birth.

And for the farm personnel involved, there are important upsides, including access to a range of experts in breeding and genetics and options to be involved in some off-farm activities.

B+LNZ chief executive Sam McIvor said the programme capitalises on NZ’s world-leading skills and knowledge in sheep genetics and applies them to the beef industry.

“The data tells us that our beef industry has been lagging behind in genetic progress,” McIvor said.

“Not only will this give the industry better genetic tools, but a major focus of the programme is to work with commercial farmers to increase understanding and grow confidence in using genetic information to drive productivity and profitability.”

Dairy farmers will also benefit.

“With these new production-focused genetic selection tools, dairy farmers will be able to select semen from beef bulls for AI in their herd more confident that they will have shorter gestation, easy calving and produce more valuable calves,” he said.

North Island farmers keen to be a part of the programme can contact Jason Archer at

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