July 12, 2009

Introduction to Practical Animal Breeding

Clive Dalton's latest1980 Practical Animal Breeding textbook - is devoted to providing a pragmatic person's guide to the sciences of animal breeding, genetics, population genetics, basic biology and Mendelism, with examples and case studies of their application in agriculture, farming, animal production, and livestock improvement.

Detailed information is provided on the practical application of scientific theories for breeding and selection decisions, breeding methods, breeding practice, breeds, breed structure; with a focus on cattle, sheep, pigs, and poultry.

As a student in the early 1950s at King’s College, University of Durham in Newcastle upon Tyne in the UK, I developed a great interest in animal breeding.  Those were the days of text books which we students revered, and they were relevant for decades.

I also worshipped my Kiwi Prof,  M.M (Mac) Cooper who did more for practical animal breeding in UK than anyone before or since.   After my PhD in sheep breeding in North Wales, I went on to teach animal production at Leeds University and do breeding research with laboratory mice. Farm animals were not available which had many advantages in terms of quick turnover of generations.

So by this stage I had seen every textbook on the subject and had ‘tried’ to read them all. They would have made a stack about a metre high and the vast majority of them although editorial masterpieces were terrible to read.

They all started off saying the book was designed for students, and some would even add farmers to the intended audience.  All went well for the first chapter or maybe two, until you hit Mendel and his peas.
Then soon after this, you hit algebra and calculus, and that was the end for most folk who were desperate to know what to do after you had the sheep into the pens, or the cows in the yard. Then what?

How did you sort out the best ones for breeding and the worst for culling?  Students rarely got to this point, and even if they did, they were so switched off by Mendel and algebra that they gave it all away.

Lecturers killed animal breeding for most students.  Having suffered the pain of listening to hours of this as a student, and being very conscious of the pain I inflicted on my students when covering the syllabus to get them to pass exams, frustration motivated me to try to keep things simple.

When I moved into animal breeding research in New Zealand, I really enjoyed the relief of not having to bore students to death any more with genetics and animal breeding.  It was over - so I thought.

Then as our research developed, we had regular groups of farmers and university students coming to the research station to see what was going on, and asking not just the ‘what’ questions, but the more important ‘why’ ones too.

We initiated large scale breeding schemes with 280,000 sheep and 16,000 beef cattle where the staff involved wanted to know the background theory to the programmes.

So I was back in the business of explaining genetics and animal breeding all over again - but this time, the ‘students’ couldn’t get enough of the subject, and drove us to exhaustion with their searching questions.  It was an incredibly rewarding time.

So this book really came from those years. It was written in 1980 and a lot has changed since them in the high-tech end of genetics, and with computers having so much more power to analyse massive amounts of field data.  But not much has changed down at the sheep and cattle yards where we are still looking for the best stock, and deciding what  to mate them to, to bring about improvement.  The book became a recognised text book in English speaking countries and was translated into Japanese and Spanish.

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