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.