A Family Affair: A Fourth-Generation Charolais Breeder Embraces Genomic Breeding
For more than 50 years, Groupement Agricole d’Exploitation en Commun (GAEC) des Peupliers, a 110-hectare farm, has graced the banks of the Loire River between the cities of Nantes and Angers. Antoine Charrier, the coproprietor of the farm, is a fourth-generation cattle breeder with a herd of 50 Holsteins and another herd of 50 Charolais. Farming has changed dramatically in the past few decades. “To support a family, my grandfather had 20–30 animals,” the 55-year-old farmer said. “My parents’ generation was expected to produce a bit more. To support even one person today, we need at least 50 cows.”
In the past, farmers worked independently to produce food for their families and the local area. However, the demands on Charolais farmers are higher today and they are expected to produce more than their predecessors for export. “There are more people to feed and fewer farmers,” Charrier said. “So, we have had to adapt. Our farms are bigger and there is more livestock on each farm.”
Advances in technology, particularly in the field of genomics, can now help farmers like Charrier keep up with today’s demands. iCommunity spoke with Charrier about how he’s incorporated genotyping information to manage the growth of his herd.
Antoine Charrier is coproprietor of the GAEC des Peupliers farm on the banks of the Loire River.
Q: When did you begin using genomics with your herd?
Antoine Charrier (AC): We first brought Charolais cows onto our farm in the late 1970s, when my father was in charge. Everyone had a local breed then, called la Rouge des Près. However, this local breed had calving difficulties, as well as other health issues. That’s why my father brought the first Charolais to the farm. He quickly started using insemination to manage the herd. He was an administrator with the local farming cooperative and became familiar with the newest techniques at the time.
Even back then, people were already talking about genetic progress, ie choosing bulls that could correct certain criteria. We also were concerned about ease of calving. So, as we chose the bulls, we inseminated the heifers to reduce our problems with calving. Quickly, we saw that the higher quality of the calves meant that we could pass these traits down to the whole herd, even the cows. Little by little, insemination became a part of how we farmed. By the end of the 1990s, the whole herd was inseminated.
Insemination has now been in place on our farm for generations of cows. In the past few decades, we’ve introduced many new techniques into our farming practices. We have pregnancy tests so that we can see if cows are pregnant and use embryo transfers to increase the use of great cows for 30 years. Now we’re using genotyping, with the data enabling us to choose our bulls better than we could have in the past.
Q: How does genotyping help you select the best bulls for your herd?
AC: We used to choose bulls from a catalog and had to wait about seven years to know the genetic value of the animal after a series of different testing stages. That’s a long time to wait to see if we made the correct choice. At the time, there were no other alternatives. Genotyping enabled us to gain almost five years of knowledge because we now know the genetic value of a bull almost from birth. We can use the bull when it goes through puberty, collecting insemination doses. We can also sell males for reproduction.
When a client comes to see us, we can show them the bull’s genotyping data. It provides the same amount of genetic information as if the bull had already produced 20 calves or more. It delivers extra information to farmers right away and people really want that.
"Genotyping enabled us to gain almost five years of knowledge because we now know the genetic value of a bull almost from birth."
Q: Has genotyping changed your breeding criteria?
AC: Genotyping hasn’t changed our breeding criteria. However, it has made the breeding selection process much faster. Because of how informative it is, we genotype our females as much as our males.
Genotyping our females enables us to know the genetic value of the cow very early on, especially because heifers have their first calves at two years of age. Right from the start, we know the heifer’s calving ease or capacity of calving. Before, heifers were calving alone and had very small calves. Depending on what the genotyping data tells me, I can match a heifer with the genetics for calving ease with a bull that’s the right size and possesses the right genetics. The calving ease data is true even for cows that are calving at a very young age. Ultimately, it enables me to develop a stronger herd.
Q: How does genotyping enable you to manage genetic anomalies?
AC: The ability to manage genetic anomalies is a significant advantage of genotyping. It has enabled us to identify genetic disease carriers in our herd. Like all breeds, the Charolais breed has its own specific diseases, including ataxia, where the animal is paralyzed; blindness, where animals become blind at 4–5 years old; and a disease where calves are born without teeth. We can also identify animals for the culard gene, which is linked to ease of calving, and the gene for no horns, or polled cattle.
Through genotyping, we can identify these problems early. When we sell to a breeder, we can tell them that, “This animal has the right version of the culard gene or this animal is free from genetic diseases.” This is very useful when selling animals.
Q: What is the return on investment for genotyping a herd?
AC: When everyone is aware of the value and uses genotyping, it helps all of us. Being able to identify genetic diseases is a huge advantage. When people take that into account, they tend to be more open to genotyping.
The initial cost of genotyping can put off some farmers, yet the value is there. If you look at our farm and breeding plan, we are testing more males and identifying the best males faster and earlier using genotyping. To know that genetic variability right away and identify the calves that are clear of disease enables us to increase genetic progress quickly. It’s fabulous for our breeding plan and herd.
However, we can’t perform genotyping any old way. If we agree that genomics is important, we need to do the phenotyping work of weighing our animals and measuring their growth as well.
Even though we are genotyping, we also still need to look at parents’ indexes from time to time, to make sure that our animals will match. Overall, we generally find that the indexes and the genotyping match. However, sometimes we have animals where genotyping was focused on the muscle and not on the skeleton. When we see the animal in front of us, it is all about the bone conformation quality.
"If we agree that genomics is important, we need to do the phenotyping work of weighing our animals and measuring their growth as well."
Q: What changes would you like to see in genotyping parameters?
AC: Genotyping is a great tool to use in the breeding plan and it’s always useful to have more information. I would like to see genotyping evolve to include more criteria. Currently, we have an overall index on muscle development and another one on bone development. When we see bulls with a high bone index, it could be because of their length and not necessarily their height. My dream is that genetics will give us data about each criterion, on the length of the pelvis, the width of the hips, the growth of the animal, the breed qualities, and so on. For that to become reality, we will need to gather a lot more phenotypic data.
Q: How do you see the agricultural community providing that phenotypic data?
AC: Farmers will need to take more measurements of their animals. We don’t yet have enough farmers monitoring their herds so that we can gather this data. Ideally, if farmers are interested in working their Charolais herd correctly, they will gather the data to inform these indexes.
Fortunately, Charolais Univers is taking on some of this work. It has launched a research program on sexual precocity and fertility characteristics. Given that we inseminate animals at younger and younger ages, we need these indexes on sexual maturity and fertility available. Charolais Univers is asking farmers to help establish these indexes. Collars on the animals will collect and send the data to a mobile base. That will allow us to have indexes on precocity and fertility in the future.
Charolais Univers is also conducting research on the quality of the meat. With genotyping, we could have indexes on everything. For example, we could develop indexes on animal behavior and temperment by monitoring how an animal acts when it’s weighed, noting whether it moves around or is still.
We need to understand that the more indexes we have, the more complex it will be to find the right bull for a mating match. However, it still will provide extra information to farmers that will be valuable in helping them improve their farming incomes.
Q: What do you hope genotyping will enable you to achieve in the future?
AC: My goal is to have a herd that is easy and pleasant to manage. I want to perpetuate dairy cows in our herds, make a living from our work, and enable my successor to be able to work in good conditions.
My business partner and I are planning to take on a young person at GAEC des Peupliers and make the move to organic farming. We want to make more food of better quality, but with less impact to the environment. That’s the challenge we have set for ourselves. I believe that genomics will help us go down that path.