Sweeter alfalfa to improve milk production and dairy farm sustainability

The dairy cow, as a ruminant, has the unique ability to transform forages that can’t be digested by humans into a high-value nutritious food: milk. A multidisciplinary team of scientists across Canada are working on improving forages, especially alfalfa, to increase the efficiency of milk production and dairy farm sustainability.

“Our overall objective is to increase alfalfa’s nutritive value, yield, and persistence through crop breeding and management”, said Dr. Annie Claessens, a research scientist at the Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada – Quebec Research and Development Centre and the principal investigator of a new Dairy Research Cluster 3 project called, Increasing the production and utilization of alfalfa forages in Canada. “We are using genetics to identify and select traits in alfalfa populations for greater energy to protein ratios to develop a higher nutritive value in alfalfa-based forages fed to dairy cattle. We are also selecting for higher yield, persistence and disease resistance,” added Dr. Claessens.

Alfalfa plants at different stages of testing. Photo credit: Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada – Quebec Research and Development Centre.

Dr. Claessens, who is also co-owner of the Phylum dairy farm in Quebec, understands the importance of producing quality forage for dairy cows. Feed costs are one of the highest cost items on a dairy farm¹ and forage makes up about 50-60% of the ration fed to dairy cows. While the selection and breeding of forages take time – anywhere from 10 to 20 years to commercialize new cultivars – the return on investment can be considerable². An economic study from the University of Nevada³ on the use of a new alfalfa cultivar with a 5% yield increase was estimated to provide a 43% return on investment, showing the potential economic benefits of forage improvement on dairy farms.

Cows fed with forages with a higher sugar content use nitrogen more efficiently and have higher milk production. Previous research conducted by Dr. Claessens’ team as part of a project funded by the Dairy Research Cluster 2 from 2013-2018 identified 26 genes related to sugar concentration in alfalfa, developed two alfalfa populations with greater sugar concentrations and associated different crop management practices favouring a higher energy to protein ratio.

The team is using the results from the Cluster 2 project to select plant material with superior sugar concentration to accelerate the development of cultivars with this trait and evaluating it under field conditions. The populations are planted on research sites across Canada (Alberta, Saskatchewan, Quebec) to subject them to different weather and soil conditions and then measure yield and persistency.

In the labs, the team of scientists analyze the nutritional value of the plants at different times of harvest, in variable conditions. “We will be testing the populations to identify the crop management practices that achieve an optimal balance between readily fermentable carbohydrates and non-degradable proteins, using different alfalfa-based mixtures of forage. We then examine the effects of the energy to protein ratio on in vitro microbial protein synthesis in the rumen,” said Dr. Gaëtan Tremblay, research scientist and team member at the Quebec Research and Development Centre.

Dairy farmers can expect that when the project is completed, the data and genetic material from alfalfa evaluation trials across Canada will be available to Canadian forage breeders to select experimental populations and potentially commercialize new and improved cultivars. Ultimately, the availability of new alfalfa cultivars will help increase the production of milk from forage and improve protein utilization, thus reducing reliance on concentrates and nitrogen discharges …  significant economic and environmental impacts!

A summary of Dr. Claessens’ new research project is online at dairyresearch.ca. Forage breeding and management for improved yield, resistance, conservation, quality and digestibility is a priority area of research and investment in Dairy Farmers of Canada’s National Dairy Research Strategy.

Quick project facts

  • Project timeline: 2018-2022
  • Budget: $1,124,970
  • Funding partners: Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada and Dairy Farmers of Canada
  • Number of students to be trained: 4 graduate students and ˃ 25 undergraduate students

The research team

RESEARCHERS ORGANIZATION ROLES
Principal Investigator (PI)
Annie Claessens AAFC – Quebec Responsible for forage breeding and genetics, coordination of activities among researchers and student training and supervision.
Co-investigators and collaborators
Bill Biligetu (Co-PI) University of Saskatchewan Forage breeding and genetics; student training and supervision.
Patrice Audy, Gilles Bélanger, Annick Bertrand, Julie Lajeunesse, Solen Rocher, Marie-Noëlle Thivierge, Gaëtan Tremblay AAFC – Quebec and Normandin Forage crop molecular genetics; assessment of the nutritive value of feedstuffs; crop physiology and agronomy; forage pathology, physiology and biochemistry; agro-ecosystem modelling and agroclimatology; site testing; student training and supervision.
Shabtai Bittman, Derek Hunt AAFC – Agassiz Nutrient management in farming systems; plant biology; site testing.
Surya Acharya AAFC – Lethbridge Forage breeding.
Édith Charbonneau, Caroline Halde Université Laval Dairy cow forage nutrition; agroecology; student training and supervision.
Ralph Martin University of Guelph Forage agronomy; site testing.
Kathleen Glover, Yousef Papadopoulos AAFC – Kentville Forage agronomy; forage breeding; site testing
Daniel Ouellet AAFC – Sherbrooke Nitrogen metabolism and nutrition of dairy cattle; student training and supervision.
Philippe Seguin McGill University Management, physiology and ecology of field crops; student training and supervision.
Vern Baron AAFC – Lacombe Forage and pasture agronomy and crop physiology.
Mike Schellenberg AAFC – Swift Current Range and forage plant ecology.
Charles Brummer University of California Forage breeding and genetics.
Josef Hakl Czech University Agronomy and forage nutritive value.
Huguette Martel Ministère de l’Agriculture, des Pêcheries et de l’Alimentation du Québec Forage crops and agro-environment.

¹https://www.milk.org/Corporate/pdf/Publications-ODFAPReport.pdf

²https://www.beefresearch.ca/research-topic.cfm/breeding-forage-varieties-13

³Kettle et al. Investing in new varieties of alfalfa: Does-it pay? Fact Sheet 99-31. University of Nevada

Scientists present new research at dairy symposium

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Dairy Farmers of Canada’s dairy research kiosk was at the Symposium sur les bovins laitiers in Drummondville, Quebec, on October 29, 2019 to provide information on the new Dairy Research Cluster 3 projects and distribute fact sheets on footbaths, water use and water quality. More than 500 dairy farmers and professionals took part in the one-day symposium.

Three scientists with research projects funded by Dairy Farmers of Canada under the Dairy Research Cluster and the Industrial Research Chair in Sustainable Life of Dairy Cattle provided findings from their projects.

Unknown.jpegDr. Benoît Lamarche, researcher and lead of the clinical nutrition investigation unit, Université Laval, gave a talk on the impact of dairy products consumption on health, providing evidence that dairy products consumption does not pose a health problem and that some dairy products could have favourable effects on health (per se, by replacing other foods or by contributing to the intake of certain nutrients) and concluding that current recommendations on low-fat dairy products should be reconsidered. His presentation included research results from his project on dairy products consumption and cardiovascular health conducted under the Dairy Research Cluster 2.

Unknown-2Dr. Annie Claessens, a scientist at the Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada research centre in Quebec, informed delegates on early findings from her project on increasing the production and use of alfalfa forages in Canada. The development of more nutritious and persistent alfalfa cultivars through genetic selection is a long and complex process, but the expected results are promising – increased production of milk from forages, better protein use, reduced reliance on concentrates and fewer nitrogen discharges – significantly positive economic and environmental impacts!

elsa_vasseur_109-1465408337-1575199832460.jpgDr. Elsa Vasseur, Chairholder of the Industrial Research Chair in Sustainable Life of Dairy Cattle at McGill University, explained how farmers can make stall bases more comfortable. Using bedding keepers to maintain deeper bedding is a practical and feasible solution for tie-stall farms. Dr. Vasseur’s results show this practice increases cow comfort and rest time while protecting cows from bodily injury. She also reported on how the first case of mastitis or lameness in primiparous cows can affect their longevity and profitability.

 

New video available on bedding management to improve animal comfort

A new video produced by Novalait explains how dairy farmers at the Ferme René Dupuis Inc. in Quebec successfully applied research results to improve cow comfort on their farm. Adding a bedding keeper helps farmers maintain deeper bedding to reduce injuries and increase the comfort of their herd. Changes were made following science-based recommendations from the research carried out under the Industrial Research Chair in the Sustainable Life of Dairy Cattle. The Chair is funded by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council, Novalait, Dairy Farmers of Canada and Lactanet.

10 Years of Genomic Selection: What’s Next?

{The following is an extract from an extension article by Brian Van Doormaal, Chief Services Officer, Lactanet}

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It’s been 10 years since the introduction of genomic evaluations in August 2009 and the dairy sector has seen an unprecedented annual rate of increase in the average genetic merit of young bulls entering artificial insemination (A.I.) throughout North America, which now exceeds 120 Lifetime Profit Index (LPI) points and $200 Pro$ per year.  With such a continuous year over year boost in the genetic makeup of genomic young sires offered through A.I. companies, these bulls now represent two-thirds of the total semen market share in Canada.

Figure 1 shows the impact of genomics on the increased rate of genetic progress very clearly. The steady rate of annual gain before genomics, which was 46 LPI points and $79 Pro$ per year, suddenly switched after 2009.  During the past five years, the average rate of genetic gain has increased by 2.2-fold, reaching 102 LPI points and $180 Pro$ annually. The dashed lines since 2009 in Figure 1 reflect the expected genetic progress that would have been achieved for both LPI and Pro$ in Canadian Holsteins if genomics had not been introduced.

Figure 1: Rate of Genetic Progress Achieved in Canadian Holsteins With Genomics

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Genomics provides an unprecedented opportunity to realize selection objectives for lower heritability traits even if they have negative genetic correlations with traits of moderate or higher heritability. Figure 2 shows the impact that genomics has had on genetic progress for individual traits. The first key point to notice is that positive genetic gain is now being realized for all of the major production, conformation and functional traits in addition to Pro$, LPI and its three components. Before genomics, in addition to losing ground for Daughter Fertility, Persistency, Milking Temperament and the Health & Fertility component of LPI, very little genetic progress was being made for other traits including Fat and Protein Deviations, Milking Speed, Daughter Calving Ability and Metabolic Disease Resistance. For all of the other eleven traits in Figure 2, the average rate of genetic gain realized with genomics has increased two-fold.

Figure 2: Genetic Gain Achieved in Canadian Holstein During the Past 5 Years Compared to 5 Years Before the Introduction of Genomics

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What will the future of genomic selection look like?

We are at just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to genomic selection. Given the experience over the past ten years, we can expect to see the following over the next decade:

  • The introduction of a vast array of new traits of economic and social importance, most of which have not yet even been considered by dairy farmers;
  • Increased use of sexed semen, in-vitro fertilization and other advanced reproductive technologies, which also promote the increased use of beef semen to breed dairy cows;
  • Use of DNA genotypes for improved selection strategies balancing genetic gain with maintenance of genetic diversity, including the use of genome-based mating programs;
  • A significant restructuring and consolidation of the A.I. sector, leading to a handful of larger, multi-national breeding companies;
  • Significant value-added benefits from DNA genotyping including automated parentage discovery and recording as well as traceability of dairy animals and food products.

It’s time to register for Dairy Farmers of Canada’s Nutrition and Health Symposium!

2019

Dairy Farmers of Canada’s nutrition and health symposium will focus on Sustainable Diets.

Attendees will have the opportunity to listen to internationally recognized speakers on this topic from the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations, McGill University, the University of California, Davis and Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada.

The symposium will provide participants:

  • A better understanding of the definitions and goals for sustainable diets;
  • An expanded understanding of the impact of animal agriculture on environmental sustainability, particularly as it relates to Canadian food production; and,
  • Provide insights on the nutritional implications of plant-based or ‘’flexitarian” diets as proposed by EAT-Lancet.

To view the program and register:

–  Montreal, on October 29, 2019 – also available via webcast in French
–  Edmonton, on October 30, 2019 – also available via webcast in English

For more information, visit www.dairynutrition.ca.

Dairy Research Cluster 3: FEATURED RESEARCH PROJECT

In the coming months, we will be featuring one of the 15 new Cluster 3 research projects in each blog, providing our followers the opportunity to learn more about the research underway, how it’s associated to dairy farmers’ research priorities, why it’s important for dairy innovation and provide more information about the scientists involved in the projects.

We hope you enjoy the read!

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Optimizing health and production of cows milked in robotic systems

New research started in 2018 under the Dairy Research Cluster 3 is investigating ways to maximize the efficiency of robotic milking systems and optimize cow health within those systems. The project, led by Dr. Trevor DeVries of the University of Guelph, is very timely – about 11% of farms enrolled in a milk recording program in Canada use robots and the adoption of this technology continues to increase.

The scope of the new research is impressive. This is the first study of its kind to investigate robotic milking technologies on farms across all provinces, using data collected in collaboration with Lactanet. The research team includes top Canadian experts in the fields of dairy cattle health, farm management and nutrition, spanning across Canada: Drs. Greg Penner and Tim Mutsvangwa (University of Saskatchewan), Drs. Karin Orsel and Ed Pajor (University of Calgary), Dr. Todd Duffield (University of Guelph) and Richard Cantin, Débora Santschi and René Lacroix (Lactanet).

The research team will be identifying cow and herd-level factors that influence milk production, cow health and the efficiency of robot use in a large-scale sample of dairy farms. The information will be used to identify best management practices to help farmers using robotic systems produce milk more efficiently and maintain excellent dairy cow health, with a specific focus on health in early lactation and feeding practices in robotic barns, based on barn design and layout, for all stages of lactation.

“Considering the number of farms using robotic technology and the potential for growth, there are still gaps in our knowledge on the best strategies farmers can use to address some of the challenges we identified in the Dairy Research Cluster 2 research. This new research will build on those results,” said Dr. DeVries.

In the Dairy Research Cluster 2 project on automated milking systems, the researchers demonstrated that lower milk production and issues with cow health, especially in early lactation, impacted the profitability of adopting robotic systems. Lameness, for example, was one of the primary factors identified with an overall negative impact on milk yield per cow and per robot. Clinically lame cows (gait score of 3 out of 5 or greater) were 2 times more likely to be fetched and produced 1.6 kg of milk less per day than healthy cows and milked 0.3 fewer times per day. Severely lame cows (gait score of 4 out of 5 or greater) were most likely to turn into chronic fetch cows.

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Watch the video about some of the findings from the Dairy Research Cluster 2 project prepared by Meagan King.

Over a 12-month period, this group of researchers will be collecting data on housing, feeding and management by farm and by robotic system, and extract milk recording data for each herd. The data will be analyzed to assess cow and herd level impacts on milk production, health and robot use.

“The extent of the dataset collected by farm and by region will allow us to assess robotic system performance. We will then be able to make some associations or differentiations and develop benchmarks dairy farmers can use if they are already milking with robots or are thinking about installing the technology on their farm. We look forward to developing some very practical independent information for Canadian dairy farmers that is science-based and supports their application of the technology in the most efficient way,” concluded DeVries.

Quick project facts

  • Project timeline: 2018-2022
  • Budget: $300,000
  • Funding partners: AAFC, DFC, with an in-kind contribution from Lactanet
  • Number of farms involved: 200+
  • Number of students to be trained: 8+

 The research team

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Dr. Trevor DeVries (Professor and Canada Research Chair in Dairy Cattle Behaviour and Welfare) is the Principal Investigator, project coordinator, and the primary advisor for the Ph.D. student and undergraduate summer research assistants at the University of Guelph. Dr. DeVries will coordinate all the data collection, particularly the data collected in Ontario and Quebec.

 

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Dr. Todd Duffield (Professor, Ontario Veterinary College) is a Collaborator and an advisory committee member to the Ph.D. student at the University of Guelph, and is assisting in project design, analysis, and interpretation.

 

Unknown-2Unknown-3Dr. Gregory Penner (Associate Professor in Nutritional Physiology) and Dr. Timothy Mutsvangwa (Professor of Ruminant Nutrition and Metabolism), University of Saskatchewan, are providing expertise in dairy cattle nutritional physiology. As Co-Investigator, Dr. Penner is responsible for advising the undergraduate summer research assistants who will collect data on farms in Saskatchewan and Manitoba. Both researchers will contribute to data interpretation and manuscript writing.

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Dr. Karin Orsel (Associate Professor Veterinary Epidemiology, University of Calgary) as Co-Investigator, is responsible for advising the undergraduate summer research assistants who will collect data on farms in Alberta. Drs. Orsel and Dr. Pajor (Collaborator) will contribute to data interpretation and manuscript writing.

 

UnknownThe project involves key collaborations from Lactanet:  Richard Cantin, Débora Santschi and René Lacroix. They will provide assistance in the identification and recruitment of herds, expertise in data management, as well as provide access to their milk recording data (subject to producer agreement and consent to participate in the study).

 

Lactanet Forum for Dairy Cattle Improvement

Unknown.pngThe first Dairy Cattle Improvement Industry Forum under the new Lactanet organization was held in Victoria, B.C. last September 17-18, 2019. Hosted by WestGen, which is celebrating its 75thAnniversary, more than 65 dairy farmers, advisors and other dairy stakeholders took part in the forum. The Dairy Research Cluster had its banners on location and distributed the latest information on Dairy Research Cluster 2 results and new Dairy Research Cluster 3 projects.

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Barbara Paquet, Chair of Lactanet (Photo Credit: Daniel Lefebvre, Lactanet)

Attendees heard from Lactanet Chair Barbara Paquet and CEO Neil Petreny on the vision and actions for the new organization. Several experts spoke on the development of existing and novel traits for dairy cattle improvement, genetic trends in western Canada, the history of artificial insemination in the West and a panel of dairy farmers provided their perspectives on new genetic traits needed for the future.

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Dr. Christine Baes, University of Guelph

Dr. Christine Baes of the University of Guelph gave an overview of the status of research on traits and new developments, including an introduction to her new research underway in the Dairy Research Cluster 3.

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Bonnie Cooper

The 2019 Dairy Cattle Improvement Industry Distinction Award was also presented to recipient Bonnie Cooper. As editor of the Holstein Journal, Ms. Cooper was recognized for her excellence in communicating to producers the events, people, animals and developments that have helped shape the Canadian dairy industry over the span of her 45-year career. She was thanked for her work to help make the Canadian Holstein Brand the envy of the world and for communicating breed improvement developments on behalf of Holstein Canada, the Canadian Dairy Network and key industry partners.

 

Summaries of 15 new research projects launched under the Dairy Research Cluster 3 now available online

DRC3Optimizing health and production cows milked in robotic systems

Fifteen new research projects targeting dairy farm efficiency and sustainability, cow health and welfare, milk quality, and dairy and cardiometabolic health were announced under the Dairy Research Cluster 3 in July 2019. Joint industry and government commitments to the Dairy Research Cluster 3 total $16.5 million, including the contribution from major partners Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, Dairy Farmers of Canada, Lactanet Canada and Novalait. Moreover, 1,300 individual dairy farms and 10 dairy processors will be investing their time in the proposed research activities by collaborating with the research teams.

A summary of each research project is now available online at dairyresearch.ca for download. The summaries contain the list of researchers working on the project, the amount invested in the project, the objectives, a brief overview, as well as the expected outcomes.

Copies of the summaries will be distributed at upcoming conferences where the Dairy Research Cluster kiosk is installed.

Dairy product consumption is associated with lower risk of mortality and cardiovascular events: Findings from the landmark PURE study

shutterstock_55879525Researchers at the Population Health Research Institute (Hamilton, Ontario), led by Dr. Andrew Mente, are part of a landmark 21-country multinational cohort study (the PURE study) of individuals aged 35-70 years old. They tracked dietary intakes and consumption of milk, yogurt, and cheese of 138,484 individuals over time. They also tracked mortality and total major cardiovascular events (i.e. major CVD, stroke, myocardial infarction) to assess any associations between total dairy and specific dairy product consumption with mortality and CVD events. In a scientific paper published in November 2018 in the prestigious journal, The Lancet, the team of researchers found dairy consumption, especially of regular fat dairy, was associated with a lower risk of mortality and major cardiovascular disease events in a diverse multinational population.

Additional research by Dr. Mente associated with the PURE study, and funded in part by Dairy Farmers of Canada, aims to:

  1. Assess the association of dairy product intake, dairy fat content, types of dairy foods, and dietary saturated fatty acids, with blood lipid levels; and,
  2. Investigate the association of dairy product intake, dairy fat content, types of dairy foods, and dietary saturated fatty acids, with obesity (central and overall), diabetes, blood pressure, and hypertension.

Watch Dr. Mente’s presentation on the PURE study delivered at the International Dairy Federation conference on The Role of Ruminants in Sustainable Diets of June 21, 2019 (starts at 05:00): Recent findings from the PURE study:  the case of saturated fat, dairy, meat.

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Update on the Industrial Research Chair in the Sustainable Life of Dairy Cattle

Improving the comfort and longevity of dairy cows can improve dairy farm sustainability and profitability. This is the premise of the Industrial Research Chair in the Sustainable Life of Dairy Cattle, launched in 2016 and led by Dr. Elsa Vasseur of McGill University. Preliminary results of multiple studies presented in May 2019 by the scientist and her team show promise for new and innovative approaches to cow comfort and longevity.

Preliminary results to date:

  • Existing tie-stalls at the Macdonald Campus barn were adjusted to deepen bedding using a bedding guard, increase the volume of straw used in bedding to 3’’ and increase the stall length, which resulted in increased lying times, less hock injuries, thus improving overall cow comfort. The study team cautions, however, that individual barn conditions like ventilation and humidity must be considered and management adjusted for a successful deep-bedded stall system.
  • Increasing the tie-stall tie length from 1 metre to 1.4 metres allowed for more opportunity for cow movement within a stall. The study team noted that the change in tie length should be done gradually by choosing which cows benefit most from it and assess how the animal gets used to the change in tie length.
  • Cows are using a variety of resting postures in wider stalls resulting in better cow rest, confirming that current recommendations for stall width must be met at a minimum.
  • Housing dairy cows in loose pens during the eight-week dry period was beneficial for rest and locomotor recovery. These benefits can be attributed to a combination of factors: fewer obstacles in the environment (by eliminating the stall itself), a larger rest area, and a more comfortable lying area. This study established references to broaden the implementation of dry-off pens.
  • Measuring the impact of early cases of mastitis and lameness on the productive life of a cow show that a healthy beginning ensures a higher profit lactation. Identifying at risk stages of production and at-risk cows enables farmers to select the best candidates for a next lactation.
  • Key data is being collected on cost/profit variables farmers can use in their decision-making to develop an interactive herd management tool that will help improve the profitability and longevity of the herd.

Watch the video testimonial from the Roy family of Coaticook, Quebec, as they explain how they used some of the research recommendations to make changes on their farm to improve their cows’ comfort.

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elsa_vasseur_109Dr. Elsa Vasseur obtained her Ph.D. in Animal Science from Université Laval in 2009, looking at on-farm assessment tools for the welfare of young dairy animals. Following an NSERC Postdoctoral Research Fellowship where she worked with some of Canada’s leading researchers in dairy cattle welfare at the University of British Columbia and Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, she took up a research position at the University of Guelph’s Organic Dairy Research Centre on the Alfred Campus, before joining McGill University in January 2016.