Mission: less emission

Alberta dairy farm joins international research study to examine feed efficiency and lower methane emissions in cattle herds

When the Brouwer family was approached to take part in landmark research for dairy improvement, they jumped at the chance.

Sunalta Dairy at Ponoka, Alta., has become part of the international efficient dairy genome project to study feed efficiency and methane emissions in thousands of dairy cows.

The Canadian-led study runs from 2015-19 and is a collaboration with researchers from Ontario, Alberta, Australia, United States, United Kingdom and Switzerland.

It is the world’s first database to routinely validate genomic predictions and provide a continuous exchange among partners.

Sunalta Dairy will be the largest dairy feed monitoring installation in North America.

The science sounds complicated, but as a commercial milk producer, J.P. Brouwer can break it down into simple terms.

“A cow that eats less and produces more is way more efficient than a cow that pigs out all the time but does not produce her money’s worth,” he said.

The family of Siebe and Froukje and sons J.P., Catrinus and Martin Brouwer was already building a new dairy barn for 450 cows, so fitting in research equipment has not changed their day-to-day work.

In return for their co-operation, they receive Grow Safe feed bins, computers to assess data and an encyclopedia’s worth of information.

“We get quite a bit of information for free that we wouldn’t have had access to before,” said J.P. Brouwer.

Each of their registered Holsteins wears an electronic ear tag and sensors are mounted above the feed bunks to capture real time data all day.

Holstein Canada classifiers visit the farm regularly and Brouwer hopes the superior ratings of his cows correlates with the genomic information. From there he can assess the cattle and make decisions on culling and replacements.

The cows at Sunalta Dairy at Ponoka have joined an international research project to measure their feed efficiency, methane emissions and other traits. The barns have been outfitted with Grow Safe feed troughs and antennae to capture information every day all day on what each animal is eating.  |  Barbara Duckworth photo

The cows at Sunalta Dairy at Ponoka have joined an international research project to measure their feed efficiency, methane emissions and other traits. The barns have been outfitted with Grow Safe feed troughs and antennae to capture information every day all day on what each animal is eating. | Barbara Duckworth photo

“It will be a whole cow picture. We will concentrate on raising offspring from the top end,” he said.

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He is a member of the Alberta Milk extension committee and is always interested in working with researchers.

“I like the interaction with the researcher. I think that is really healthy. That is what is going to move the industry forward,” he said.

Researchers also appreciate the chance to work with a commercial operation.

“This is a very unique aspect of the project in which we are working with a dairy,” said researcher Filippo Miglior of the Canadian Dairy Network.

“It is going to be the first time we are measuring feed intake with individuals in a commercial operation. This is exactly what we want to reflect, not just in the research herd but different environments in a commercial farm. That is where we want our predictions to be very much valued so we hope this is just the beginning of recruiting other farms,” he said at the recent meeting of Livestock Gentec.

Researchers hope the outcome shows how feed efficiency and lower methane emissions cam be improved using genomics.

Feed is 52 to 75 percent of the cost of production. Preliminary estimates show breeding animals with increased feed efficiency and lower methane emissions can reduce feed costs by $108 per cow per year and decrease methane emissions by 11 to 26 percent.

The benefit of selecting for these two traits for the Canadian dairy industry is estimated to be $108 million per year, according to the dairy network’s website.

The goal is to consolidate the data from 8,000 to 10,000 cows for feed efficiency and measure methane emissions from 3,500 cows.

All the cattle involved are genotyped. This involves collecting SNPs, or single nucleotide polymorphisms. A SNP is a single base that varies frequently in the population and each SNP represents a whole segment of DNA. The SNP may not have a strong relationship to the desired trait like feed efficiency but combining information from thousands of SNPs can correlate well with a trait.

Researchers expect to have a selection index ready next year for feed efficiency and methane reduction, two traits not normally selected for in the dairy sector. The information comes with a caveat.

“For the dairy cow, you have to be very careful about counter effects on health and fertility,” Miglior said.

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Researchers at the University of Guelph, Ont., are also involved and cattle are moving into a new dairy research barn at Elora, Ont.

More than 120 cattle will be measured and monitored and calves born there will go into the project as well, said Guelph researcher Christine Baes.

Data are collected weekly on milk production, fat, protein, lactose, somatic cell count and other components. Body conformation and weight is collected biweekly and methane emissions will be monitored in a tie-stall barn.

They are using Insentec feeders to monitor feed use. Cattle wear radio frequency identification ear tags that connect to information on the amount they consume. Re-searchers can also adjust the feed supply to the individual cow.

All the bulls used for artificial in-semination have been genotyped and about five percent of cows have been analyzed, said Baes.

There is already good information on the similarities among dairy cattle but it is hoped this research will provide information on how the animals differ from each other.

Residual feed intake has been a focus of study in beef breeds, which has also provided considerable information about digestion and cattle behaviour, said John Basarab of Alberta Agriculture.

Scientists have learned efficient animals have higher digestibility and can handle more dry matter.

“Efficient cattle are getting more out of each kilogram of food,” he said.

There is also a noticeable temperament difference among the animals. Feed efficient beef animals settle more quickly and seem calmer than less efficient animals.

“We do see consistently a difference in temperament and how those efficient heifers settle to grazing and new stressors,” Basarab said.

However, researchers also know RFI and growth traits are not genetically related because there are efficient animals that may be slow or fast gainers.

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They also know low residual feed intake has no effect on the following:

  • female productivity and fertility
  • pregnancy, calving or weaning rates
  • birth and weaning weights
  • cow lifetime productivity