Dear Science Fiction Authors: You Were Right

Freddie is a disembodied creature, an animal that is more important as data than as meat or muscle. Though he’s been mentioned in thousands of web pages and dozens of trade industry articles, no one mentions where he was born or where the animal currently lives. He is, for all intents and purposes except for his own, genetic material that comes in the handy form of semen. His thousands of daughters will never smell him and his physical location doesn’t matter to anyone.

What is Freddie? The greatest sire of diary cows the world has ever seen.

While there are more than 8 million Holstein dairy cows in the United States, there is exactly one bull that has been scientifically calculated to be the very best in the land. He goes by the name of Badger-Bluff Fanny Freddie….

In January of 2009, before he had a single daughter producing milk, the United States Department of Agriculture took a look at his lineage and more than 50,000 markers on his genome and declared him the best bull in the land. And, three years and 346 milk- and data-providing daughters later, it turns out that they were right.

More here. It’s a big data story of course and they’re lucky to have great data and narrow predictive objectives:

Data-driven predictions are responsible for a massive transformation of America’s dairy cows. While other industries are just catching on to this whole “big data” thing, the animal sciences — and dairy breeding in particular — have been using large amounts of data since long before VanRaden was calculating the outsized genetic impact of the most sought-after bulls with a pencil and paper in the 1980s.

Dairy breeding is perfect for quantitative analysis. Pedigree records have been assiduously kept; relatively easy artificial insemination has helped centralized genetic information in a small number of key bulls since the 1960s; there are a relatively small and easily measurable number of traits — milk production, fat in the milk, protein in the milk, longevity, udder quality — that breeders want to optimize; each cow works for three or four years, which means that farmers invest thousands of dollars into each animal, so it’s worth it to get the best semen money can buy. The economics push breeders to use the genetics.

And on Freddie’s eventual fate:

It might seem that Badger-Bluff Fanny Freddie is the pinnacle of the Holstein bull. He’s been the top bull since the day his genetic markers showed up in the USDA database and his real-world performance has backed up his genome’s claims. But he’s far from the best bull that science can imagine…

He will be replaced very soon by the next top bull, as subject to the pressures of our economic system as the last version of the iPhone.

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