As plausible concepts go, “getting more for less” is right up there with the chocolate diet: Too good to be true. But a notable exception is the Genome Alberta research project “Increasing feed efficiency and reducing methane emissions through genomics”.
Led by Dr. Filippo Miglior with the University of Guelph and Dr. Paul Stothard from the University of Alberta, the four year project encompasses seven research activities, and one of the most promising for dairy producers is focused on boosting feed efficiency.
More breeding, less feeding
“In the dairy industry, feed efficiency refers to how much a cow eats versus how much milk she produces,” said Project Manager Mary De Pauw. “So you can have two healthy and fertile cows producing the same amount of milk, but if one eats less to produce it, that animal is more feed efficient.”
As Dr. Miglior explained it, “there is a natural genetic variation that exists for this trait that runs as high as 35 per cent.” While feed management is one way to improve efficiency, “we can also use genetic tools to select for animals that excel in this area.”
Apart from an ego boost for the more efficient cow, this genetic selection process can pump up the producer’s bottom line.
“Feed represents over 50 per cent of a dairy producer’s costs,” said De Pauw, “and with rising feed prices over the last few years, efficiency has become even more critical; its impact on profits and sustainability for producers cannot be overstated.”
Made to measure
Of course, if measuring feed efficiency was easy, everyone would do it.
“It’s a hard, expensive trait to measure,” said De Pauw. “You can’t just weigh the animal, you have to collect information daily on their feed intake, and the average farm has no way to measure what each animal eats every day.”
That’s why the Genome Alberta project is partnering with GrowSafe, an international company based in Alberta that developed advanced systems to acquire data for livestock research and production.
“They put these bins into research farms that track an individual animal with an RFID (radio frequency identification) tag. When a cow goes into the bin, she is tracked for what she eats on a daily basis.”
The system also gives information on feeding behavior such as how long the cow eats and how many times she comes to the bin.
The GrowSafe system is installed in a research farm at the University of Alberta, and the project is also working with two commercial farms to collect on-site data. Additionally, a system from a different manufacturer is installed at the research herd of University of Guelph. Like chocolate, you can never get too much data.
“To make our genetic selection accurate, we need large amounts of data, so we need to start now and be collecting it for the entire 4 year period of the project.”
Similar to polling data, the more they gather, the more accurate the selection decisions will be.
“In that respect, there really is strength in numbers.”
A world of difference
Not content to gather data from across the country, this project is going around the globe, teaming up with institutes in Australia, Switzerland, the United Kingdom and the United States.
“By combining their data with our own, it will not only increase accuracy, but also help ensure that we have a standardized method of data collection among countries,” said Dr. Miglior.
At the same time, since different countries have different growing conditions, a prediction equation that selects for feed efficiency in Switzerland might be less effective in Canada. For this reason, Dr Miglior stressed that “there must be enough Canadian animals involved so they are sufficiently represented in the database”.
Ultimately, the goal is to produce a data base for feed efficiency that will be housed at the Canadian Dairy Network and used to produce these prediction equations for the benefit of producers and industry.
While better health through chocolate might never come to pass, the days of more feed efficient dairy cows and a better outlook for producers may be just around the corner.
How sweet it is!
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This is part of a new series of blog posts by Geoff Geddes. He is the communications coordinator for Alberta Pork in Edmonton and also works as a freelance writer/editor for a number of industries, with a particular interest in agriculture. He will be writing about Genome Alberta's latest agricultural research projects.