Gene editing allows for polled dairy genetics without the production drag

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Semex, a Canadian-based, farmer-owned cattle genetics company, and Recombinetics, a gene-editing company, have formed an alliance to bring hornless dairy cattle genetics forward through the use of TALENs technology.

TALENs involves very precise gene editing that makes small adjustments to the genome of an animal to delete, repair, or replace individual elements of DNA.

Because dairy cattle breeds are traditionally horned, and polled lines, bred through conventional means, tend to reduce productivity, dis-budding of calves is a common practice on dairy farms. Dis-budding is done in the most humane means possible, including the use of pain medication for the calf, but the procedure may still be stressful for a calf and carries a cost (estimated at about $10-$12/calf).

By using precision breeding technology, polled genetics can be reliably introduced into elite dairy lines, eliminating the need to dehorn calves, says Recombinetics. The alliance with Semex is designed to “seamlessly integrate the polled trait into high-merit dairy genetics through precision breeding.”

To achieve the polled trait, scientists at Recombinetics make use of the cell’s natural DNA repair functions to replace the horned gene with a naturally-occurring polled gene. Gene editing is done very early when the animal is still just a few cells. The polled trait is dominant and will be carried within the semen or eggs of that animal going forward.

The project is being led by Dr. Tad Sonstegard, chief scientific officer of Acceligen, Recombinetics’ agriculture division. Sonstegard says, “The polled trait has been part of bovine genetics for more than 1,000 years, and it has been conventionally bred and selected for in some cattle breeds, but not in most high-merit dairy breeds. We have proven we can safely introduce the polled trait into any breed of horned dairy cattle with complete precision. This new partnership will provide unique opportunities for dairy farmers and artificial insemination companies to introduce polled genetics without losing genetic diversity or production potential.”

Francois-Xavier Grand, corporate veterinarian for Semex says, “By eliminating the need to dehorn, we eliminate the stress and health concerns associated with the procedure. This benefits the cattle, the farmers, and consumers who value animal health and well-being.”

This alliance will begin with a multi-year implementation and regulatory process that will include government regulators, food processors, retailers, and other stakeholders, says a representative of Recombinetics. A timeline for commercial introduction was not announced.

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