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Dairy Genome Researchers: Working Together Sets Them Apart

While some teams make you long to “go it alone”, an effective team can be much more than the sum of its parts. For proof, look to Genome Alberta and its efforts to apply genomics in positively impacting feed efficiency and methane emissions in dairy cattle. Researchers on the project understand the power of collaboration and have included several partners in their quest. One associate playing a big role is the Dairy Research and Technology Centre (DRTC) at the University of Alberta.    

“Feed efficiency and methane emission are hard, expensive traits to measure by most methods,” said Dr. Dagnachew Hailemariam, a research associate with Livestock Gentec at the U of A.

That’s where genomic selection comes in. For that, however, you need a reference population for the two target traits and information on phenotype and genotype for this reference group.

“Our contribution at the DRTC is generating data on feed efficiency and methane emissions that will help the project achieve its goals.”

And doing so is no small feat.  With feed efficiency, the centre is focused on residual feed intake, something that can’t be measured directly. Instead, they compile numbers on aspects like milk production, feed intake and body weight.

As for measuring methane emission, that’s a science in itself.

Giving GreenFeed the green light

“We use the GreenFeed system to measure greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from dairy cows. It’s an automated ‘bait’ station where a cow puts its head in and pellets drop into a feeding trough. As the animal feeds on the pellets, the machine quantitatively measures emission of methane and carbon dioxide from the breath of the cow.”

To maximize the efficiency and accuracy of the sampling, researchers measure each cow at two different times each day for 12 days, thereby gleaning data for a full 24 hour cycle.

In the first year of the Genome Alberta project, the DRTC gathered numbers on feed efficiency for 75 cows and on methane emission for 47 cows, and they hope to maintain that pace going forward.

From this data, they can then estimate the genetic breeding values needed to make an optimal genetic selection of cows that will excel in the two target traits. And because the data is being collected on cows in Canada, Dr. Hailemariam said it should be more applicable to Canadian-grown animals than numbers gathered elsewhere.

Milk spectra data for all its worth

But the centre’s contribution to the project doesn’t end there. They are also looking at how feed efficiency and methane emission correlate with milk spectral data (MSD) which is routinely collected from dairy farms.

“If we can prove that MSD will predict those two traits, we can make the genetic selection faster and less expensive as that data is readily available.”

That’s important because a big focus of the Genome Alberta effort is to give dairy producers and companies practical tools for use in their operations.

“Nowadays, feed is the largest variable cost for a dairy production system. If you can reduce the amount of feed consumed for the same amount of production, you will lower feed cost without compromising the final product.”

By improving feed efficiency and reducing methane emission, success with this project will improve the competitiveness and sustainability of the Canadian dairy industry.

To that end, Dr. Hailemariam is proud of the role that the DRTC is playing in all of this. He sees the centre as part of a winning team, and why not? If you can improve feed efficiency and lower methane emissions for the benefit of all concerned, what have you got to lose?

Dairy Genome Researchers: Working Together Sets Them Apart

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