Selective breeding in organic dairy farming

Tuesday June 2, Wytze Nauta will defend his PhD-thesis ‘Selective Breeding in Organic Dairy Production’. 

Family herd

A family herd

Organic dairy farming doesn’t have a distinct breeding system. Farmers are free to breed with a farm bred bull or Artificial Insemination (AI) bulls of conventional breeding programmes. Organic farming thus directly and indirectly depends on conventional breeding goals and modern selection and reproduction techniques such as multiple ovation and in vitro embryo production and transfer (ET). As naturaless and animal integrity are basic principles of organic farming, the direct and indirect use of these modern reproduction techniques is questioned, from organic farmers as well as from societal interest groups favouring organic farming. Moreover organic farming intends to maintain or even contribute to bio-diversity. It supports the use of different (traditional, regional) breeds. Finally, in organic farming animals are kept for different purposes and in a different, more extensive production environment then conventional agriculture. This further questions the dependency on conventional breeding programmes, since these programmes select breeding animals that perform best in intensive, high input production systems. Practice learns that on the whole these cows are genetically not well equiped to perform in an organic environment and this was sustained by research (see paper Genotype x Enviroment Interaction). So one can argue that organic farming has its own demands towards breeding, that may even differ with different farming strategies (see paper Different Strategies, Different Demands). Organic farming is highly diversified and organic farmers are known for their on-farm experiments, also with regard to breeding.

The question is not so much if selective breeding in organic dairy farming needs to be more in line with the intentions and principles of organic farming, all stakeholders agree on that, but to what extend and how to realize that. Then opinions diverge and different positions are taken (see Discussion paper).

Wytze Nauta explores this question throughout his PhD-thesis. He finally discusses the pro’s and con’s of three options that meet organic principles to a different extend: 1) a pragmatical one, i.e. using conventional breeding programmes, but with the exclusion of modern reproduction techniques, although an exception is made for AI; 2) a distinct organic breeding programme with distinct breeding goals and exclusion of modern breeding techniques and 3) a distinct breeding system based on natural mating.

The more exclusive, the more organic, but also the more difficult to realise. However, for an individual farmer it is more easy to decide to start breeding with a bull at the farm for natural mating. For option one and two more stakeholders need to come to an agreement. But all options imply a ‘system innovation’: radical change of practices at different levels of different actors in different positions lacking appropriate knowledge to come to a well grounded breeding system for organic farming. So, the ultimate recommendation of Wytze Nauta is not to impose a new breeding system, but to start joint learning processes involving organic farmers as well as other stakeholders based on the three options provided. This would best respect diversity organic farming.

Wytze Nauta ( is researcher Animal breeding at the Louis Bolk Institute.