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Going Global Makes World of Difference for Dairy Research

Despite the rhetoric from many parts of the globe, cooperating with other countries is a good thing. For proof, look no further than the “Efficient Dairy Genome Project” and its approach to data collection. In targeting feed efficiency and methane emission traits in dairy cattle using genomics, researchers knew that to construct a proper database, they first had to build bridges with partners around the world.

“In order to successfully implement genomic selection for improved feed efficiency and reduced methane emissions, individual phenotypic and genotypic records for a large number of animals are of utmost value. The main challenge in reaching that goal is the elevated costs of data collection,” said Dr. Luiz Brito, postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Animal Biosciences at the University of Guelph.

Researchers without borders

Since the project already had research partners in Australia, Denmark, the United States, the U.K. and Switzerland, Dr. Brito and his colleagues felt that combining data from these countries was a path worth exploring.

“All six countries share similar production systems and breeds. Given the genetic connectedness among our dairy populations and the fact that we each have researchers measuring animals for feed efficiency and methane emission, sharing data just made sense.”

As NAFTA negotiators can attest, getting three countries on the same page can be challenging enough, let alone six. Thus, it fell to Dr. Brito’s team to find a (relatively) seamless method for facilitating this collaboration.

Speaking the same language

“For us to make sense of the data, we needed to put it all in a similar format. Because each country is doing its own work, we had to create an efficient and secure data exchange system where every partner collects data and provides it to us, as Canada is the project leader. We would then format the information and prepare the joint datasets to go back to the partners, so they could use the collective data for their own purposes.”

Though it may sound like a logistical nightmare, Canadian researchers dreamt up a comprehensive database to make it all possible. The database contains six main sources of information: pedigree, calving (reproductive data), production, events (feed efficiency and methane emission records and related variables), genotypes (all the genetic information for each animal) and milk mid-infrared (MIR) spectral data (information that helps predict other traits like feed efficiency and methane emission).

The database was a huge undertaking, but since its completion in August of 2017, it has been working smoothly and efficiently. As each country submits its data through a secure system, the Canadian team processes it and performs quality control to confirm that it’s in the proper format and meets the standard of quality required for inclusion in the database.

“We want to ensure that we’re getting both quantity and high quality with this data, and that has been the case thus far.”

While the “Efficient Dairy Genome Project” concludes in 2019, the database will live on for the benefit of the dairy industry.

“We have created a pipeline where the data will continue to flow over time. As it does, it will lead to even more accurate genomic predictions for feed efficiency and methane emission. For producers, that means they can make better breeding decisions and enjoy faster progress on these key traits.”

For Dr. Brito, the evolution of the database has been gratifying to say the least.

“It’s exciting to see how everything is coming together. At the start, we didn’t know which variables we should focus on and we had to confer with our partners and make adjustments before even starting to collect the data. It took a lot of effort from several corners, but the hard work is paying off.”

Going Global Makes World of Difference for Dairy Research

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