A program that has worked to create an elusive feed efficiency genetic index for dairy cattle has new funding to add more traits.
The Resilient Dairy Genome Project (RDGP), to be co-led by University of Guelph-based Canada Research Chair in Livestock Genomics Dr. Christine Baes, is funded through Genome Canada, and directly involves researchers in Guelph, Alberta, Prince Edward Island, British Columbia and Quebec, as well as internationally in the United States, Switzerland, Germany and Brazil.
Why it matters: The dairy sector lags behind its hog, poultry and beef counterparts when breeding for feed efficiency, but Baes aims to ensure that dairy geneticists don’t sacrifice health and environmental traits in their pursuit of feed efficiency.
Feed efficiency can help farmers reduce feed costs – usually the largest expense on a dairy farm – but also it reduces cattle greenhouse gas emissions.
The project will be the first time that traits for calf health, fertility and feed efficiency will be collectively implemented into a genetic evaluation program for dairy cattle, said Baes in a University of Guelph news release. “This will definitely improve how we breed cattle in Canada.”
The project’s website says it is a follow-up to the Efficient Dairy Genome Project, which tracked feed intake on research farms in Guelph and the University of Alberta, along with one commercial operation in Alberta and with some additional data from international sources. One product of that work is a feed efficiency index to be implemented in Lactanet’s dairy genetics programs across Canada in April, 2021.
Baes says Lactanet is also a big supporter of the expanded RDGP goals, and will roll out what’s expected to be a “resiliency index” once it’s developed.
Baes defines resiliency, for the purposes of this project, as “the capacity of the animal to adapt rapidly to changing environmental conditions, without compromising its productivity, health or fertility while becoming more resource-efficient and reducing its environmental burden.”
Consumer perspectives inform a portion of the new project’s goals. Of eight planned study spheres, one is dedicated, Baes said, “solely to societal acceptance of dairy production in a volatile environment.”
Among the topics to be tackled include whether breeding for particular traits “may be misaligned with public concerns about the industry.”
Other researchers will examine if “the Canadian public may have a role in supporting public policies to encourage adoption and acceptance of traits to achieve higher productivity, resiliency and improved environmental outcomes.”
But it’s clear from speaking to Baes, who grew up on a dairy farm, that her passion isn’t driven by public image. She simply aims to improve the profitability of Canadian dairy farms through increased feed efficiency, without compromising the health of calves and cows, or the impact dairy cows have on the environment.
“We can’t neglect the long-term effects that breeding for efficiency might have on other important traits,” she said.
About 3,500 animals in the Efficient Dairy Genome Project were tested for feed intake and around 1,100 animals for methane emissions. The new project will add another 14,000 feed efficiency records and another 7,000 methane records, along with data collected from activity monitors (including estrus strength and duration) and from herd health visits or reason-for-death records (such as fertility disorders, scours and respiratory disease in calves, or Johne’s disease).
Ideally, Baes said, additional records on health traits will be made available through collaboration with veterinarians, breeding organizations, and farmers. She said southwestern Ontario-based Tavistock Vets do “a fantastic job collecting calf health data” from clients, and challenging the Resilient Dairy project to find ways that smaller-scale data collection activities might be incorporated into the national scale.
“So often, farmers are recording this stuff, but it’s not making its way into the national database. And that’s an absolute shame.” It’s a similar situation with Johne’s Disease, with many farmers tracking prevalence in their herds, “but it stops at the lab.”
“The logistics of this are challenging, because we want to make sure we get the most out of the current projects being done without adding unnecessary burden to our producers,” she said. “At the same time, we really need (dairy producers’) input to make sure what we develop is in line with their needs.”
Incorporating calf health outcomes, Baes insists, makes this project stand apart from all previous dairy genetic efforts. “Think about the Holstein cholesterol deficiency haplotype that (dairy bull Maughlin) Storm and his popular sons, grandsons, and even great grandsons spread throughout the Holstein population globally. If we had been collecting information on calves, we could have identified that haplotype much earlier.”
Consideration of epigenetic factors, too, are new to dairy breeding studies. Baes said previous work on epigenetics – the effect of the mother’s environment on the genes of the offspring – “has been limited to research (but the EDGP’s) collaboration with Dr. Marc André Sirard and his team at Université Laval will attempt to provide a pipeline for including cutting edge, state of the art research on epigenetics into routine genomic evaluations. If we are successful, Canada will be the only country in the world with this kind of advanced breeding program.
“This activity poses the largest challenge for the project.”
Although the official announcement of government funding only came in early December, the RDGP actually started its work back in January, 2020. Baes says the timing is perfect, though, for getting the message out about the RDGP because Lactanet started publishing bull evaluations for resistance to fertility disorders (including retained placenta, cystic ovaries and metritis) this month, and is on track to release the feed efficiency index in April, 2021.
“We expect the novel traits for fertility and health to come out in 2022, with the overall resiliency index in 2023 or 2024,” she said.