Genomic selection

The basis for the G-Genomic bulls of GGI is genomic selection. In the points below, you will learn a lot more about the aims, background and technique of genomic selection.

1. What is new?

The aim of animal breeding is to change the genetic endowments of the animals and – as a result – improve their traits. However, this is not a matter of the genetic manipulation of the animal itself. So far selection has been carried out on the basis of the phenotypical (recorded) production as an indicator of the congenital production potential. It would be best if the animals’ production predisposition could be extracted directly from their genetic information without going the long way round by using the indirect phenotypical way. Genomic breeding value evaluation and selection is now really close to what was once a dream.

The result is that every marker for an animal can have three combinations: homozygous option AA, homozygous option BB or heterozygous AB. Heterozygous AB means that the animal received different options from the father and the mother.

2. SNP markers

It is so-called SNP (Single Nucleotide Polymorphism) markers that are used. They are composed of only one genetic letter and there are two different models for every marker in the entire population. Every animal has the genetic information in the form of a double chromosome set; one set from the father and one set from the mother.

The result is that every marker for an animal can have three combinations: homozygous option AA, homozygous option BB or heterozygous AB.
Heterozygous AB means that the animal received different options from the father and the mother.

3. Marker testing or typing

Many hundreds of thousands of such SNP markers of cattle are known. 54,001 of them are shared equally in the entire genome i.e. all chromosomes, can now be extracted through a relatively cheap lab method in a one step process. This process is called “typing“. The unit used in the laboratory for testing the 54,001 markers is called a chip or 54K chip to indicate the number of markers simultaneously tested. 

A little of the animal’s genetic material is used for the typing. As all cells of an animal have genetic material, blood (approx. 2 ml) or semen (approx. 2 doses) can be used. You can also extract enough gene material for the typing from approx. 30 roots of hair. However, the danger of contamination of hair samples with genetic material of other animals is higher and the result could be incorrect. 


The typing’s result is 54,001 times AA or BB or AB.

4. From the marker to a genomic breeding value; the training sample

As a result of the equal spread of many markers over the entire genome, it is assumed that close to every gene, which influences the production of one of the transmission traits, is one of the 54,001 markers. This means that the marker is transmitted almost every time, together with the appropriate combination of genes. We do not know however, the different genes and their effect. In order to be able to evaluate an animal’s genomic breeding value using its markers, certain advanced tests are first necessary. 

Figure 1: Origin of the more than 17,000 Holstein bulls in the German training sample (March 2010). The German training sample is the biggest and the best structured worldwide:

DFS = Denmark Finland Sweden

To find out which SNPs, i.e. which markers are connected with which trait, the SNP samples first have to be compared with known (genetic) production traits of selected animals. Animals, with known genetic production are daughter proven bulls. From the comparison of the SNP sample with the genetic production of these bulls, it can be determined which SNP has how much influence on the trait, so the genomic evaluation formulas are conveyed that way. The more reliably proven bulls you have available for this formula, the better you can allocate the SNP to a trait and indicate the extent of the influence. Proven bulls that are included in this analysis are the so-called “training sample“. The genomic evaluation formulas conveyed from the training sample are then used for the calculation of the genomic breeding values of other (usually younger) animals without their own reliable conventional breeding value information. 

5. Reliability

The reliability of genomic breeding values mainly depends on the extent and structure of the training sample as well as the reliability of the daughters’ breeding values in the training sample bulls. The complexity and the reliability of the conventional breeding vales for all – as well as for all functional traits – are No 1 in the world. The size and structure of the German training sample is also unique worldwide because of the exchange of information with three European partners from France, Scandinavia and The Netherlands. None of the other training samples worldwide is so well-structured, i.e. represents the entire, latest Holstein genetics from Europe and North America. The genomic formulas can only convey reliably the breeding values of younger cows when their genetics (SNP sample) are well-represented via preferably many related animals (sire, dam’s sire, paternal half brothers and sisters...) in the training sample. So the training sample has to be continuously expanded and updated alongside the population development. 

The reliability of breeding values for younger animals based solely on genomic data (SNP typing) is shown by the figure in the middle column. The reliability shown is the actual reliability; i.e. it has already been corrected for the overestimation observed in all genomic evaluation methods. 

Figure 2: Reliabilities of genomic breeding values compared to the reliability of the pedigree’s breeding values:

CEpat. = calving ease paternal
CEmat. = calving ease maternal 

6. Combined genomic breeding values

The direct genomic values (dGW) are calculated from the typings (SNP samples) for all traits. There is also more conventional breeding value information for all animals with known pedigree, namely the pedigree’s breeding value. In order that every animal has only one breeding value with maximum information and reliability at a particular time, the direct genomic value is not published but the genomically improved breeding value (gZW) which is a combination of the direct genomical value and the conventional breeding value is given. 

The weighting is done on the basis of the reliability of both values; i.e. for young animals with only a pedigree breeding value, the direct, genomical value counts the most and the unreliable pedigree breeding value can increase the reliability of the genomically improved breeding value ([ZW] gZW) by only approx. 3-5% (please see right column of the figure). Once the conventional breeding value is clearly more reliable from daughter information than from the direct genomic value, it has a higher weighting in the combined gZW. So the combined gZW of daughter proven bulls is usually little different from the purely conventional breeding value.

7. What are genomic breeding values able to do?

The actual reliability of genomically improved breeding values of young bulls – approx. 75% for the milk yield traits and 50% for daughter fertility – is clearly higher than the reliability of the current pedigree breeding value of test bulls. So young bulls with their official gZW qualify formally as sires, and there are no longer test bulls as they were previously known. 
The comparison of the reliabilities of daughter proven sires (Figure 3) shows however, that even bulls with only test daughters in first lactation have higher breeding value reliabilities for high heritability and important traits like production, conformation and udder health. 

Figure 3: Reliabilities of genomically improved breeding values (gZW) of young bulls compared to the reliability of daughter proven bulls:

Even though German genomic breeding values are the most reliable when compared internationally, because they have the biggest training sample with more than 17,000 bulls, the genomic breeding values are more unreliable than those of the daughter proven sires’. With stronger emphasis on the functional traits, the significance of sires with thousands of second crop daughters has increased over the past years because they also offer high reliability for traits like longevity and daughter fertility. The actual reliability of genomic breeding values for those functional traits is still limited to approx. 50%. So if you normally think that the reliability of the firstly published daughter breeding values of new sires are too low, young bulls, only genomically tested, may not be an option for you. On the other hand the young generation of genomically tested bulls provides a new breeding opportunity. When using those young genomic-bulls, you should always be aware of the limited reliability, so the risk should be spread by using several such bulls. The reliability calculations and data for genomic breeding values are not yet standardized internationally. The data of the German genomic breeding values are realistic however, and the quality of the German genomic breeding values is the best internationally. For correct evaluation of the German breeding values, as well as reliability expressed in percentages, the number of daughters with production information will still be given. This means that everybody is able – on an impartial basis – to select a suitable sire with a choice between a young genomically tested bull or the latest, proven bull with test daughters or even a proven second crop sire.