If you ever asked for a raise in your first month on the job, you may have learned the hard way that timing is everything. It’s a concept that’s well understood by those behind the Efficient Dairy Genome Project (EDGP). In using genomics to enhance feed efficiency in dairy cattle, optimal timing can ensure that this vital research runs like clockwork.
“Feed efficiency is recognized as a complex trait that may be defined in different ways, but it generally describes units of product output per unit of feed required,” said Tatiane Chud, Post Doctoral Fellow, Department of Animal Biosciences at the University of Guelph.
Specifically, researchers are focused on three traits to develop a feed efficiency index: dry matter intake, metabolic body weight and energy corrected milk (the amount of energy in milk corrected for fat and protein). These three traits are the basis for development of breeding value estimation procedures and a subsequent selection index for feed efficiency that will incorporate genomic information.
To understand the importance of timing in selecting for those traits, dry matter intake (DMI) is a prime illustration.
“We don’t want to select for reduced DMI at the beginning of lactation,” said Chud. “At that point, the daily energy requirements of a cow cannot be met by what it consumes, as it must expend energy for maintenance and to produce milk, creating a negative energy balance that can be hazardous to her health.”
“In early lactation, the cow needs to eat for energy, and her DMI is already decreased, so we don’t want to lower it further. If we do, she could have problems with fertility or metabolic diseases; we must be very careful about that. The goal is to consider the three feed efficiency traits in mid to late lactation for optimal results.”
While the right timing is key to success with genomic selection, having enough data to inform selection is equally vital. Unfortunately, collecting that data is both expensive and time consuming. That was the impetus for the EDGP database, which was developed in 2017 to allow data sharing among the project’s international collaborators. Currently, the database contains genotypes and records on feed intake of 5,289 cows, and on methane emissions of 1,337 cows, from eight research herds in six countries: Australia, Canada, Denmark, Switzerland, United Kingdom and United States.
Really relevant research
Of course, for research to be relevant, it must reflect the conditions and challenges of the real world.
“Until now, we have just been using data from research herds, but because the information is gathered in a very controlled environment, you can’t always extrapolate from that for commercial herds. In two or three months, we will also receive data from a commercial herd to help fill out the picture.”
Though the project’s current focus is feed efficiency, the database includes records for methane emissions as well, which scientists can draw from in the future as they seek a correlation between the two traits.
“Genetically selecting for improved feed efficiency has been recognized by the dairy cattle industry as an important economic and environmental goal. If we can succeed in that goal, it could greatly reduce costs for dairy farmers and enhance profitability. In the process, it allows industry to minimize impact on the environment by reducing nutrient loss in manure and methane emissions.”
With financial and environmental health as the goals, it all begins with making the right selections at the right time. No wonder industry is excited at the prospects; after all, if proper timing is like money in the bank for farmers, it’s bound to generate interest.