Researchers are often considered (unfairly) to be out of touch with the real world; though given the state of the world these days, who could blame them? Then there’s the research team behind the Efficient Dairy Genome Project looking to boost feed efficiency and reduce methane emissions in dairy cattle with the power of genomics. The project was spearheaded by Dr. Filippo Miglior and Dr. Paul Stothard, and is funded by Genome Alberta, Genome Canada, Ontario Genomics, ALMA, the Canadian Dairy Network (CDN) and GrowSafe..
Rather than hiding behind their test tubes, the researchers on this initiative know the real test is how their findings fare in the field. That may explain why a big part of the project is focused on the Livestock Research and Innovation Centre - Dairy Facility in Elora, Ontario.
Among other things, the new state-of-the-art facility features a 240 free stall dairy barn and 24 tie stalls for research that requires more instrumentation and monitoring.
Made to measure
“For the lactating cows we have Insentec mangers where we can measure their daily feed intake, which is important as feed efficiency is one of the traits we want to select for in this project,” said Dr. Christine Baes, Assistant Professor - Centre for Genetic Improvement of Livestock, Department of Animal Biosciences at the University of Guelph.
The centre also enables the team to track milk output and animal weights on a regular basis to inform their research. Their ultimate goal is to use milk infrared spectroscopy (MIR) data to estimate feed efficiency and methane emissions, as the data correlates well with both traits.
“Animals are weighed and sampled at birth, so we have their genotype from day one,” said Dr. Baes.
One month before the cattle are expected to calve, researchers begin measuring them regularly for feed activity, feed intake and body condition score. Later, milk production is also recorded weekly.
At 120 days of age, the “really interesting stuff” begins according to Dr. Baes.
“At that point we move a sub-group of cows to the metabolic wing to measure methane emission; that’s where the GreenFeed machine comes in.”
Another GreenFeed machine is also being used at the University of Alberta as part of this project and represents cutting edge technology.
“In the tie stall barn we can roll the machine to each cow’s stall and measure them for five minutes at a time so they aren’t in there for too long a stretch. The cow receives a small amount of pelleted food as enticement to stick their head in the machine. Every 20 seconds, more pellets are released to keep them in for the full five minutes.”
Collecting all of that information isn’t easy, but it is essential.
“The more data we have, the better we can select for certain traits. We must be able to identify those animals with less methane emission, high milk production and good body condition score. Those are the ones we want to use as parents of the next generation, with offspring that will continue their contribution to the gene pool.”
For Dr. Baes, this is a groundbreaking project as it’s the first time this kind of data has been gathered on such a large scale.
“As a geneticist, if you can’t collect enough phenotypes, you can’t genetically improve a trait. We have a great team that’s motivated to get results and I feel we can benefit not just producers but also the environment. It’s the right thing to do, and that makes it a good thing to do.”
In the realm of research outcomes, it doesn’t get more real than that.