Since they can’t speak to us, at least not yet, gauging animal behavior is the best way to glean information for genetic selection. That’s why researchers are making behavior a focal point while they seek to use genomics for improving feed efficiency, meat quality and methane emissions in beef cattle.
“If we think about the domestication of farm animals, we can highlight the importance of behavioral aspects during this process, and as well for the development of modern animal breeding systems,” said Dr. Tiago da Silva Valente, PhD in Animal Breeding and Genetics from the Faculty of Agricultural and Veterinarian Sciences – São Paulo State University.
“We have to consider how animals adapt to the environment we impose on them at the farm or feedlot and behavioral traits have been used as indicators for that. For this project, we are taking the feeding behavior that is automatically measured by the GrowSafe feed intake measurement system – such as how long the animal spends in the system or how often they use it, to understand how animal behavior is genetically correlated with feed efficiency and carcass traits in crossbreed beef cattle.”
The weighting game
Because it is a primary goal of the project, Dr. Valente is focusing on specific growth, feed efficiency and carcass traits such as average daily gain, dry matter intake, residual feed intake, carcass weight, yield grade and marbling score. He is relating them to aspects of feeding behavior including feeding duration, feeding frequency, eating rate and length of time the animal’s head is in the feeding system.
“For example, eating patterns can be used as an indicator of feed efficiency in beef cattle. Based on previous studies we have seen that low efficiency animals tend to have a higher frequency of bunk visits, longer feeding duration and more time with the head down inside the feed bunk.”
Monitoring behavior also has implications for animal welfare. If a cow is sick or having trouble adapting to its environment, they will indicate by decreasing their feed consumption.
“In this respect, we are trying to understand how feeding duration can be used as an early indicator, so we can effectively take care of the animals in cases where problems arise at the farm or feedlot.”
The state of welfare
The impact on welfare is a critical aspect of the research.
“To develop sustainable breeding programs, we need to consider not just our interests but also those of the animals. Incorporating welfare aspects into our selection indexes along with feed efficiency and carcass traits isn’t just the ‘right thing to do’. Animal welfare is critical given the increased consumer focus on how animals are raised. Moreover, animals that are in good condition tend to have higher production, so safeguarding their welfare is in everyone’s interests.”
Taking their analysis one step further, researchers can identify genes that affect both efficiency and behavioral traits in beef cattle, aiming to understand how these genes work and interact to influence those factors.
“When we have a high genetic correlation between different traits, we expect that there are common genes affecting the expression of both phenotypes; therefore, we need to delve deeper and see how the molecular functions of the genes are important for both.”
Since data is the lifeblood of research, Dr. Valente and his team are now talking to colleagues from other countries to expand their knowledge and facilitate the application of their findings to other cattle breeds.
Though animals can’t vocalize their approval, given the potential impact of this research, if they could, they would.