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.
What 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.