Interview: Genus CIO is mobilising the science business herd

In the closing weeks of 2013 David Cameron made pig semen a headline topic. However, this was not another PR stunt by the prime minister, but a £45m export deal between China and the UK. As ever the political classes are way behind the business community, and the UK is already a significant provider of pig semen and husbandry services in China.

Genusis a UK-based global business that offers animal breeding and genetics services across the UK, Europe and the US, and has been rapidly expanding into Asia in recent years.

“It has been a satisfying journey transforming the IT and helping the business expand,” explains Keith Hopkinson, CIO at Genus, about the past three years.

“We apply biotechnology to advance the science of animal breeding,” he says of the business model of Genus. “Over the past 10,000 years all animals have been evolved by humans.” After all, the Friesian cow with its distinctive black and white patched hide is a world away from the bison and buffalo that once roamed the world. The Friesian, like every animal in the fields of the rural world is a man-made creation.

As we meet Hopkinson at the Basingstoke headquarters of Genus, the organisation is completing a $40m acquisition in the US, the latest in a series of expansion moves. “The US is the most developed porcine business, with Europe catching up,” he says of the important pork market.

“We have joint ventures in China and more planned. On the UK/China trade deal, we were approached but declined to be involved. We are already on the ground in China with nucleus herds, a large investment in technical expertise and developing relationships. Exporting elite genes in the form of semen would be logistically challenging and doesn’t fit our business model. It is telling that not a single dose of semen has yet left the UK for China.”

Global operations

Genus can trace its origins to the Milk Marketing Board of the 1930s. Today, the company has two divisions that focus on beef and pork genetics. Operating in 30 countries, it has non-genetically modified breeding stock; its porcine business sells breeding male and female pigs as well as semen from nine pig lines; and its bovine business has a breeding selection programme that tests around 400 dairy bulls per year on a five-year rotation. Genus has bovine studs across the world in the UK, Italy, Canada, Brazil, China and Australia. From these studs, around 13 million doses of semen are collected every year, frozen in tanks of liquid nitrogen and sold globally.

It also has one of the most sought-after bovine lines, a Holstein bull in Wales who has sired over 250,000 sons and daughters and is still going strong.

“For our customers that means they can meet the demand for pork, beef and milk. Growth in the Asian economy means the demand for protein is a multiple of the growth of income. Vietnam, South America and Korea are all seeing high rates in population, living standards and income. These countries need to be more efficient as farmers. In China, the herd sizes are very, very small. So they want to improve their genetics,” he explains. Hopkinson adds that Genus breeds are animals that not only deliver high yields of beef or milk, but are also healthy and don’t have problems in birthing, for example.

“Agriculture is moving to a model of DNA-based genetic evaluation. Instead of waiting for a bull to grow up, you can look at its DNA and predict from its birth about how it will perform.” In the past, farmers had to wait five years, now Genus can provide that insight in months.

“We have seven billion people on the planet and they have to be fed and this way you can do more for less,” he argues in the mantra of CIOs to achieve increases at less cost.

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