Genetics work aimed at livestock production efficiency

Leading U.S. animal genomics scientists have developed a blueprint for improving the future of livestock production

Researchers at Iowa State University have been part of a team designing a blueprint for animal genomics.

With a growing global population and a need to improve livestock welfare and production, researchers are looking at how to improve efficiencies in animal agriculture.

“The priorities listed in this blueprint all pertain to improving the genetic potential of livestock so that they can produce in the face of extreme weather events, increased disease resistance, increased efficiency of production, and improved animal welfare,” said James Reecy, the university’s associate vice-president for research and professor of animal science.

“Really, whatever a producer wants to select animals for. This blueprint looks to develop the technology that will be needed to achieve these increases in an animal’s genetic potential.”

The blueprint was developed at two workshops in Maryland attended by leading animal genomics scientists from the United States. Representatives from Genome Canada and the University of Alberta were also involved in the discussions.

Reecy said that university scientists have been studying sensors and bioinformatics technology.

“If this (blueprint) changes things (in livestock production), it will have ripple effects on other things as well,” said Reecy, who co-authored the report. “For example, if an animal has improved feed efficiency, it is very likely that the optimal diet for that animal will be different from the one today.

“However, a new area would be the improvement in the meta-genome of the animal, i.e. all of the micro-organisms that live on or in an animal. It may be possible to alter the composition of these organisms and improve the animal itself.”

The group looked at the priorities to improve the livestock industry and the most important research programs will be the development of new technologies.

“The priorities for trait improvement will change over time,” said Reecy. “Today’s increased feed efficiency may be of highest priority but a couple of years from now it may be disease resistance. If we can develop better technology, it will allow us to select animals faster for whatever trait(s) are of greatest importance. For example, generation interval is one of the limiting steps for beef/dairy production. Traditionally, a cow is around two years old when it can have its first calf.”

Generation interval is the average age of the parent animals at the time of birth of their offspring that in turn will produce the next generation of breeding animals.

Reecy suggested the goal would be to shorten that generation interval with birth parents having offspring at a younger age to accelerate genetic improvement goals. In addition, precision agriculture will become more widely used. Currently, producers who know how to fully use the technology are minimal, but he expects that to change.

“With the decreased labour force, it will be important to develop new technologies to automate livestock production. For example, what if drones could move cows from one pasture to another without the need of many people around? Or what if you could detect a sick animal before you as an individual recognize signs of disease?”

Reecy said that the use of genetic markers will increase given their ability to predict the genetic merit of a particular animal. When that is coupled with a decrease in the amount of time between each generation, it will increase the rate at which genetics can be improved. In the past, unintended consequences led to a decrease in genetic diversity. But he believes that, with the use of genetic markers, breeders will be able to optimize the genetics of an animal while at the same time steadily increasing genetic diversity of the population.

He expects that the new technologies should allow producers to do things that have not been previously possible. In addition to disease detection, it will be possible to collect phenotype data such as body weight multiple times a day. And in tandem with a new generation of technology will be the new expertise producers will need to interpret and use the data.

The blueprint, “Genome to Phenome: Improving Animal Health, Production and Well-Being — A New USDA Blueprint for Animal Genome Research,” was published in Frontiers in Genetics.

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