The Current Position of the Guernsey Breed



W G de L Luff, World Guernsey Cattle Federation
With the co-operation of
Dr. Maurice Bichard, OBE, PhD, FIBiol
Honorary Principal Research Fellow, Department of Agriculture
University of Reading, UK

Past and Present
The Guernsey breed built its reputation for the production of quality milk from grass during the 19th. and early 20th. centuries and then exported cattle to found significant populations in several other countries. From an original mixed foundation, island breeders concentrated on improving the stock by eliminating faults and making their cattle more homogeneous. All this was based mainly on visual appearance supplemented by some milk recording.

As long as no one dairy breed is making significant genetic progress and milk production is reasonably profitable, then it is possible for several breeds to co-exist. Either each serves a different market or there is sufficient margin for efficient managers to make a living whatever the breed, serving a single market.

Since the end of World War II the science of quantitative genetics has been available to increase the rates of genetic change in livestock breeding. This 55 year period has seen the continual rise of the Holstein and the growth of more and more efficient testing and selection programmes within this breed. The consequence has been quite dramatic improvements in efficiency of producing milk and milk protein and fat, particularly in the US Holstein population. The world-wide market for Holstein semen is now so large that future genetic improvement seems assured through the competing activities of international breeding organisations (once co-operative but now increasingly limited companies).

The position with the Guernsey breed could hardly be more different. The Island cattle population was always small (2-3,000 cows) and the Guernsey in most other countries was always a minor breed, though the total herd size in USA was substantial. Consequently little improvement in efficiency was made in the Island and UK populations but the breed retained a role (with the Jersey) as a supplier of 'Gold Top' milk when dairying was still one of the more profitable farm enterprises. The US population was large enough to sustain excellent breeding programmes under the direction of AGA, and with the early introduction of more sophisticated procedures for estimating breeding values (the animal model) made considerably better progress. In other Guernsey populations increased yields have resulted from the use of semen from US-bred bulls. However at the same time as the profitability of milk production has come under increasing pressure, the gap between the efficiency of Holsteins and Guernseys has widened and populations of Guernsey cows have declined. There is still some way to go in exploiting the superior performance of the North American strain of Guernseys in Europe and other countries. The real danger now is that further progress will be difficult.

An even greater danger is that those responsible for the future of the Guernsey may not appreciate the true situation and will therefore fail to take appropriate action in time.

Outside the US population the fact that short-term genetic progress on the back of imported US genetics seems satisfactory, may easily conceal the reality that there is no large long-term programme in place that can create improvement out of current and continuing genetic variability. None of the large commercial international breeding organisations is likely to take responsibility for this, so it has been left to us as Guernsey breeders to organise such a programme.

The Birth of the Guernsey Global Breeding Plan
As long ago as 1992 Guernsey breeders meeting at the 7th World Conference in the Island of Guernsey recognised that the breed faced a difficult future and, under the direction of Dr. Ted Burnside, the concept of co-operation in a Guernsey Global Breeding Plan was born. This was at a time when the major population in the US was testing almost three times the number of young sires that it is today. World Guernsey censuses taken at three yearly intervals since that date have revealed a continuing decline in cow and young sire populations world-wide, but this decline has been most severe in the superior US population.

From 1992 the World Guernsey Cattle Federation attempted to focus the attention of Guernsey breeders on the need for global co-operation. The Federation was indeed lucky to attract interest and help from some of the world's foremost genetic scientists. The culmination of this work took place at the 9th. World Guernsey Conference in USA (1998) with the presentation of three excellent papers by Dr. Jan Philipsson of INTERBULL, Dr. Mike Lohuis of the Centre for Genetic Improvement in Livestock, University of Guelph, Canada and Dr. Maurice Bichard, Honorary Principle Research Fellow, Department of Agriculture, University of Reading, UK. Their conclusions were:

1. An improvement programme based upon progeny testing groups of young bulls, and then using the best proven bulls very widely is no longer appropriate in such a small breed. Now that modern statistical methods allow us to predict breeding values with reasonable accuracy from records on ancestors, sibs and other current relatives, we should instead concentrate on producing groups of young bulls from the most promising parents and then use them to produce the next generation of heifers and young bulls. What this system loses in accuracy of predicted breeding values, it gains from more rapid decisions on turnover. The fact is that with so few bulls tested annually we have little chance of identifying the really outstanding sires in the breed, and not much opportunity to exploit any we might find if we wish to avoid inbreeding in subsequent generations.

2. No one country now has sufficient recorded Guernseys to mount a competitive breeding programme within itself. Pooling global resources is vital. A co-operative Guernsey Global Breeding Plan must not be rudderless with lots of individual sub-programmes being pursued by different breeders. If these remain, as in the past, then our breed will just fall further and further behind the dominant Holstein until no commercial herds will be able to make profits. The Plan must somehow achieve a tight degree of genetic management, with individual breeders pledging their cattle resources for the overall benefit of the breed - and hence in turn of those individuals themselves.

3. Running alongside the genetic improvement programme has to be an effective market development programme which either stabilises today's demand for Guernsey milk, with an improved premium, or even increases take-up. Everywhere there is a growing interest in quality foods - drinking milk, butter, cream and yoghurts and there also seem to be properties of Guernsey milk which are uniquely useful in the manufacture of new products. Also the Guernsey as a coloured breed is generally associated with less intensive management and better animal welfare which are of increasing concern to the consumer. In the UK, the Channel Island breeds' milk marketing co-operative reported that demand for CI milk would soon exceed supply and that the main market was for milk fat, requiring test to be maintained at a minimum of 4.8%. Further, federal order reform in the USA has resulted in greater rewards for milk with high components (fat & protein), after years of volume-based payment. It is also possible that future dairy cows will be breed crosses (instead of today's purebreds) in order to utilise their well-known advantages in health, fertility and longevity, as has already happened in poultry, pigs and sheep. If this is to happen, other breeds must be available with which to cross the Holstein, and these must be reasonably competitive in milk yield.

The need was therefore for a testing and selection programme within the Guernsey breed that would continue to supply genetic improvement to commercial herds world-wide. In 1998 the Directors of the World Guernsey Cattle Federation agreed unanimously to harness the world's Guernsey cattle resources in the Guernsey Global Breeding Plan. They estimated that their individual members would commit more than half of their herds - perhaps 20,000 cows.

A New Breeding Philosophy
At that timeWGCF Secretary Bill Luff said, 'The Guernsey Global Breeding Plan that is now translating into a Programme amounts to custom processing of young sires. This means that there will be a guaranteed market for a limited amount of semen on first release. Account will need to be taken of the limited amount of straws retained for possible further release because this will not actually be used if the bull does not perform to well above average standard; the cost per straw will need to reflect this.

GGBP represents a new breeding philosophy, with no pot of gold at the end of the rainbow for the hot young bull. However, I think that you will agree that with a world population of some 40,000 recorded cows, the Guernsey breed could soon run itself into some very serious problems if a limited number of sires were to regularly produce even one thousand daughters each world-wide.

Team Work - Team Spirit
It is important to remember that GGBP will centre on TEAMS of Young Sires rather than individual bulls. Historical data shows that any group of young sires consistently outperforms the previous generation of proven bulls. It is the TEAM that we will rely upon to move us forward not the individual. This is why it will be very important to use each member of the team sparingly. Just as in a team game, where there will be a spread of ability between individual players, so there will be a spread of genetic merit between individual bulls, BUT it is the TEAM performance that will count.

In the same way we are asking breeders to adopt a TEAM SPIRIT of discipline within a co-operative venture. Those who refuse to join the TEAM will reduce the potential benefits both to the breed as a whole and to themselves in particular.

Guernsey breeders and their Associations, as the guardians of individual genetic pools, have a very great responsibility within any plan to secure the global future of the Guernsey breed. Changing market forces mean that our breed can reverse its recent decline in popularity but bold steps are required to secure the all important genetic future. The old Chinese proverb, 'If you do not change direction, you will end up where you are going', seems more than appropriate to the occasion."

The World Guernsey Cattle Federation and the Guernsey Global Breeding Programme

The GGBP Steering Committee asked Guernsey breeders world wide to implement a simple new strategy in advance of the full implementation of the Guernsey Global Breeding Plan.

1. To use more young sires, but use them sparingly, aiming at approximately 40 first crop daughter records per bull. This will mean limiting the first release of semen to 400-750 straws per young sire if the bull is to be used in one country or 200-375 per country if he is to be used simultaneously in two countries. Under this Plan, outstanding proven bulls with accurate proofs will not be available, Thus the young sires that turn out to be well above average will influence the breed through having sons used in the next generation, not by siring large second crops of daughters.

2. Maximise the number of herds involved world-wide and the proportion of each herd committed to the Plan, so that breeders really utilise all the precious number of new heifer records created each year within the breed. New information is the life-blood of genetic advancement. If WGCF members decide not to fully co-operate by insisting on keeping large numbers of heifers from older bulls (second crop daughters) or from their own natural service sires (within-herd proofs) then the whole breed will lose out to the competition. It is easy to see that with 20,000 cows committed to GGBP there will be approximately 5,000 (25%) heifer lactations annually. If one half of these are second crop daughters or by natural service bulls then only 2,500 heifers will be producing information on new young sires. With 40 daughters from each young sire, the breed will only be able to evaluate 60 young bulls each year across the whole world population of Guernseys.

The Pilot Programme
This strategy is being implemented in the UK and the Island of Guernsey with the Pilot Guernsey Global Breeding Programme already confirming that success can be achieved by use of this technology. Many more matings are now being made to Young Sires in USA, and South Africa is adopting a scheme using both natural service and A.I. Young Sires, but more co-ordination is needed before a truly global programme is an efficient reality.  Veterinary restrictions play some part in limiting programme growth although these are often political considerations and largely beyond the scope of WGCF influence.

WGCF has been involved in research programmes that have been of very great value in formulating the future structure of GGBP.

1. As a Member of the International Committee for Animal Recording (ICAR) WGCF was one of the first Breed Organisations to fund the INTERBULL Centre at Uppsala, Sweden.  The INTERBULL laboratory has carried out a number of Guernsey specific studies for the World Guernsey Cattle Federation. The projects have helped to develop the methodology to produce more accurate international genetic evaluations for the Guernsey Breed. This is particularly important when dealing with small population breeds.

2. In the UK, the Milk Development Council funded a two-year research project at the Roslin Institute, Edinburgh.  Dr. John Woolliams worked out the details of the optimum design for the Guernsey Global Breeding Programme. The project examined technology to maximise genetic gain while controlling rates of inbreeding which can so easily become a problem in small populations. It also evaluated the potential of new breeding structures such as the use of nucleus herds and the development of operational tools to aid selection decisions on the optimum use of bulls within the global Guernsey population.  This work was completed in time for the 10th. World Guernsey Conference in South Africa, March 2001.  Dr. Woolliams also developed the Guernsey Merit Index, a breed specific index based on a world survey of Guernsey breeders that asked what emphasis they wished to place on the traits that they considered to be of most economic importantance to the breed.

3. WGCF has also become a member of Biosciences Knowledge Transfer Network and has benefitted from the following research grants:

4. WGCF in conjunction with Roslin Institute, Sygen International and The Guernsey Foundation has also funded participation of the Guernsey breed in the Bovine HapMap Project. This was the first step to genomic evaluations for Guernseys and defined the Guernsey genome, demonstrating that the breed was developed in isolation over a long period of time.

5. WGCF, in association with the English Guernsey Cattle Society as a participating SME, has joined the EU Gene2Farm Consortium with the objective of harnessing across breed data to optimise and customise genomic selection, breeding and population management. See G2F web site. The hope is that this programme will eventually lead to genomic assisted evaluations for the Guernsey breed

Readers will learn about the progress of the Programme from the GGBP page.


Genetic Evaluation Review, A Report to the UK Milk Development Council Dr. M. Bichard
Review of Breed Development Services in the Island of Guernsey
Dr. M. Bichard
Report of the Guernsey Global Breeding Plan Steering Group
The Proceedings of the 9th., 10th.,& 11th World Guernsey Conference

The above are available from the Office of the World Guernsey Cattle Federation, The Hollyhocks, 10 Clos des Goddards, Rue des Goddards, Castel, Guernsey, GY5 7JD Channel Islands Telephone: +44 (0)1481 257276 Fax: +44 (0) 1481 255756 e-mail [email protected]