Genomics and Feed Efficiency: Local research with global implications

By Emilie Belage, University of Guelph in collaboration with Dr. Filippo Miglior, Canadian Dairy Network and co-PI on the project entitled, Increasing feed efficiency and reducing methane emissions through genomics: A new promising goal for the Canadian dairy industry.

The field of genomics has the potential to not only improve the dairy industry at the herd level, but it has implications at national and global levels. A cutting-edge Canadian initiative, led by Dr. Filippo Miglior, of the University of Guelph, in collaboration with Dr. Paul Stothard, of the University of Alberta, seeks to understand how genomics impact feed efficiency and reduce methane production in dairy cattle in a 10-year project launched in 2015. Thanks to the relationship between producers and researchers involved in this project, the researchers and industry expect producers will be able to select for more efficient, less costly animals, while preserving the environment for future generations.

original_424459801What is genomics? 

Genomics is the study of the entirety of genes in a living organism. It helps us understand how genes interact to produce growth and development in an animal or plant. In dairy cows, it helps producers identify which cows have desirable traits, like high production, good reproduction or longevity, which can be passed onto offspring.

 

Importance of genomics and feed efficiency for producers and the planet

Feed is one of the main costs on a dairy farm. Having cows that can convert feed into milk more efficiently is beneficial for the bottom-line and the environment: farmers can select and breed for cows that produce more milk with less feed. What this also means, is that fewer crops need to be grown to feed the same number of animals, potentially freeing cropland for other purposes. Cows that eat less also produce less manure and less methane, an important greenhouse gas (GHG). This is not only important for manure management, as there is less manure that needs to be stored, but it also has implications on the environmental footprint dairy farms have today.  Food production that is environmentally sustainable is becoming more and more important for consumers. There is increased concern and awareness of how the agricultural sector contributes to GHG emissions like methane, and its role in global warming. Dairy farmers’ investment in this research is innovative – by selecting for cattle that produce less methane, dairy farmers can do their part in addressing climate change now and in the future.

Data collection for accuracy of predictions

To be able to select for the feed efficiency trait, investigators needed to collect a lot of different phenotypes (i.e. the observable characteristics) and genotypes (i.e. genetic constitution) from cattle to be able to distinguish which animals are more efficient at converting feed into milk. Using prediction equations, they can look at the genotype from a young animal and predict early on whether that animal will be feed efficient or not. Feed efficiency and methane emissions are expensive traits to measure. It requires highly specialized equipment to accurately measure these phenotypes. With the arrival of genomics, researchers can measure those traits on a small number of animals, and then extrapolate the results on all genotyped populations, which reduces the costs.

Researchers also need a large amount of data to make accurate predictions in genomics, which is why they are collaborating with other countries for this project. The funding provided by Genome Canada, in collaboration with dairy farm organizations and other funders, gives the Canadian dairy sector the ability to measure these phenotypes, but also has the input of expertise from other countries that are also collecting data on these traits, allowing Canada to test its prediction equations for accuracy. Thus, without genomics and without the data consolidation from other countries, it would be impossible to consider feed efficiency and methane emissions in genetic selection strategies.

Real-time farm involvement in the research

 SunAlta Dairy in Ponoka, Alberta is a participating dairy in this project. The Brouwer family was in the middle of building a new free-stall barn for 450 cows and agreed to install the necessary research equipment that measures feed intake for each of the cows. By collaborating with researchers, the Brouwers are able to get a first-hand impression of the value of the research and the value of genomics. “It brings research to the farm so producers can see that the work researchers do has real-life applications and benefits. Producers get to observe these benefits first-hand”, says Dr. Filippo Miglior. Getting data from a commercial herd also allows “real-life” data to be included in the analyses. This allows investigators to get more data (since a commercial herd is often bigger than a research herd at a university research station), and gives them data from a different environment than a research herd, an environment where cows are managed in “real-time” on a dairy farm. Results from this type of research are therefore directly applicable to other commercial herds.

Future application of results for the Canadian dairy industry

Results from this research can also be applied to herd management. The plan is for selection indexes to be produced, so that farmers can select for animals that are more feed efficient and lower methane emitters. Genomic evaluation for the novel traits will be developed at the Canadian Dairy Network. This research group believes that the addition of those traits will increase the rate of genotyping of young females at the herd level for replacement decisions. The amount of time needed to collect data is significant, which explains the length of the project (10 years). However, the investment is so unique, producers will see results over the long term and for generations to come. The benefits of this research also align with the proAction environmental targets: reduce GHG emissions related to milk production, and the impact on land needed to produce milk. The usefulness of this research will become more relevant over time by breeding for dairy cows that are much more efficient than the ones we have today.

 

Dairy research in the spotlight at the 2017 Western Canadian Dairy Seminar

The Dairy Research Cluster sponsored this year’s student presentations at the Western Canadian Dairy Seminar in March. Over 900 people, including dairy farmers, researchers, students and stakeholders attended the Seminar in Red Deer, Alberta from March 8-10, 2017. Visits at the dairy research booth were high and the DFC “squeeze cow” giveaway was a popular item with our visitors!

 WCDS Student Presentation Competition Results 

On March 9th, five graduate students presented their research findings in a special session at the Seminar. A panel of judges selected the best presentations as follows. To access a copy of the student’s abstract, click on the link provided. (NOTE: Abstracts are available in English only).

1st Place: Amanda Fischer, University of Alberta Effect of Delaying Colostrum Feeding on Passive Transfer and Intestinal Bacterial Colonization in Neonatal Male Holstein Calves

2nd Place: Meagan King, University of Guelph – Fresh Cow Illness Detection Using Milk and Rumination Data in Robotic Milking Systems

3rd Place: Tony Bruinje, University of Alberta – Milk Progesterone Profiles Before and After AI and Their Association with Pregnancy and Pregnancy Loss in Alberta Dairy Farms

Runner Up: Augusto Madureira, University of British Columbia –  Early Post-Partum Physical Activity and Estrus Expression and their Associations with Fertility and Ovulation Rate in Lactating Dairy Cows

Runner Up: Katarzyna Burakowska, University of Saskatchewan – Use of Canola Meal and Micro-Encapsulated Sodium Butyrate in Starter Feed for Dairy Calves

Students’ posters showcase extent of scientific knowledge in dairy 

Listed below are a selection of student posters from the Universities of British Columbia and Calgary, that received financial support from DFC investments in research. A complete copy of the WCDS proceedings will be available online soon and include all student poster abstracts.

Dairy Cattle Health

Reproduction

Celebrating women in dairy science on International Woman’s Day at the WCDS

The Dairy Research team tweeted photos of some of the many women working in dairy science in Canada to celebrate International Women’s Day at the WCDS on March 8th. It was a pleasure talking to many women studying and working in the areas of animal welfare, reproduction, infectious diseases, and mastitis to advance Canadian dairy knowledge and innovation!

 

Controlling bovine infectious diseases: Canadian research teams aim to produce beneficial results for farmers

image010.png

Dr. Herman Barkema, Industrial Research Chair in Infectious Diseases of Dairy Cattle (IRC-IDDC) at the University of Calgary Faculty of Veterinary Medicine has been the Senior Industrial Research Chairholder since April of 2014. The research program of the IRC-IDDC focuses on Johne’s disease and mastitis.

Industrial Research Chair – An industry partnership

Dr. Barkema ensures that every facet of this prestigious research partnership funded by the dairy industry (Alberta Milk, Dairy Farmers of Canada, Westgen Endowment Fund, CanWest DHI, Dairy Farmers of Manitoba, the BC Dairy Association, and the Canadian Dairy Network) and the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) of Canada will maximally benefit Canadian dairy producers.

Johne’s prevention and control

image008.jpg
MSc. student Dominique Carson is investigating Johne’s disease in young stock.
image007
PhD. student Carolyn Corbett is investigating calf-to-calf transmission of Johne’s.

A key element in the strategy to achieving eradication of Johne’s disease from the Canadian dairy herd is the adoption of prevention and control practices by dairy farmers. The results of a recent study by Dr. Barkema and his team reveal that “one-size-fits-all” recommendations for these practices will rarely be sufficient for farmers, and that more personal approaches are needed to tailor recommendations to a farmer’s specific situation.

Moreover, Dr. Barkema’s studies indicate that calf-to-calf transmission of the disease-causing pathogen Mycobacterium avium subspecies paratuberculosis (MAP) can occur, especially in calves housed in groups.

Better understanding the bacteria causing mastitis

In his work as lead of the environment research theme in the Canadian Bovine Mastitis and Milk Quality Research Network (CBMQRN), Dr. Barkema realised that although coagulase-negative staphylococci (CNS) comprise the most common group of bacteria found in udders of lactating cows in Canada, little is actually known about them. Preliminary results from Dr. Barkema’s research indicate that the total prevalence of this group of bacteria is 10%. Some CNS isolates actually inhibit growth of major Gram-positive mastitis pathogens such as Staphylococcus aureus, which might be able to be exploited commercially to reduce mastitis in dairy cows.

Research Chairs – A training ground for the next generation of scientists

image011
Left to right: Students Diego Nobrega, PhD.,  Larissa Condas, MSc., and Dominique   Carson, MSc.

The training of the next generation of researchers and extension personnel represents an additional benefit to the dairy industry from the IRC-IDDC. The graduate and summer students and postdoctoral fellows working with Dr. Barkema’s team are the boots on the ground and the gloves in the lab carrying out the numerous experiments needed to produce beneficial results for producers.

For the remainder of the 5-year IRC-IDDC, Dr. Barkema and his team will complete the projects currently underway in Johne’s disease and mastitis and will share their research findings in Canada and across the globe with dairy farmers, extension practitioners and government representatives.

Dr. Shannon L. Tracey is from Cross the “T” Consulting. Dr. Herman Barkema is professor of epidemiology of infectious diseases at the University of Calgary’s faculty of veterinary medicine, and holds a joint appointment in the Cumming School of Medicine. He is also a guest professor at Ghent University in Belgium. Barkema leads the environment research theme in the Canadian Bovine Mastitis and Milk Quality Research Network, the Alberta Johne’s Disease Initiative, the Alberta Inflammatory Bowel Disease Consortium, the Clinical Research Unit of the Cumming School of Medicine, the University of Calgary Biostatistics Centre, and the technical committee of the Canadian Voluntary Johne’s Disease Program.