Using DNA to build better bovine a win-win

Increasing feed efficiency improves sustainability, producers’ bottom line and reduces greenhouse gas emissions

DUBLIN, Ireland — Building a better bovine that eats less and still thrives in a variety of production systems is an international goal.

Research is showing feed efficient animals are cheaper to keep and they may be more environmentally friendly. As well, feed efficiency is highly heritable.

“We want to introduce animals that are more feed efficient and more environmentally sustainable so they need to produce less methane and at the same time ingest less feed,” said researcher Sinead Waters who works with Teagasc, the Irish agriculture research institute.

Collaborating with scientists at the universities of Guelph and Alberta among others, Waters’ work looks at cattle performance on grass and forage and what happens when they digest feed.

Most cattle and sheep in the United Kingdom are raised on grass. Waters is looking for DNA markers to see if the feed efficient individuals do equally well in different countries, diets and rearing systems.

In Ireland, the dairy herd has advanced thanks to genomic selection but beef progress has been slower, she said.

There are a number of breeds, a lot of crossbreeding and artificial insemination is not widely used so they can track sires.

However, the Irish Cattle Breeding Federation has embarked on an ambitious program to encourage farmers to register and DNA test every animal born, then record all the performance data.

“The system allows us to facilitate DNA to be collected on farm with associated performance data,” she said.

Every purebred and commercial animal is registered and tracked with all data attached to its unique identification number. It is a stringent goal to improve the national herd, said Joe Burke, beef and livestock sector manager for Bord Bia, the Irish food agency.

“Unfortunately, there are a lot of passengers that are kept in different herds because they look nice or she was a bit of an old pet,” said Burke.

Information coming back to producers is providing better selection measures to improve the beef herd.

“It is a different way of looking at the herd than what farmers were used to and it is a bit more rigid. It has changed the way farmers think a bit and that’s no harm,” he said.

When calves are tagged, a small bit of tissue is taken where the tag goes into the ear. That is sent for genetic testing to the Irish Cattle Breeding Federation and farmers are paid about 60 euro per calf.

Information is flowing back on crossbreds and purebreds. In addition, farmer records like birth, weaning and mature weights, sires, dams, milk yield and fertility are submitted.

Feedback from meat plants is sent back on age at slaughter, carcass weights, yield, conformation and fat scores to create a large database that farmers can correlate with information on bull selection and progeny performance in the field and at the meat plant.

The program started in 2015 and runs until 2022.

Waters’ specialty is ruminant nutrition and she wants to improve nutrient digestion from feed. That means she needs to understand what is happening inside the animal as she tries to figure out how the rumen microbiome could be manipulated.

The rumen contains microbes that are responsible for the breakdown of feed for energy and production for the animal.

“We are trying to enhance that process,” she said.

Feed is expensive in Ireland, where it accounts for 75-80 percent of the operational costs.

“What we really want to do is reduce feed costs and at the same time under really strict guidelines reduce environmental impacts in producing these animals,” she said.

New SNP chips include DNA markers for parentage analysis, coat colour, genetic defects and diseases, fertility, milking ability, enhanced meat and milk production so better breeding animals can be selected.

Regulators want environmental sustainability while farmers are seeking fertile cows and calving ease bulls. All that information could be available when looking at DNA information. It can also prevent selecting for a single trait like calving ease.

“Single breeding for traits can be quite dangerous. We want the best way forward by bringing together maternal and paternal traits. If you are breeding for certain traits, you need to make sure it is not at a cost of a reproduction trait.

“Feed efficiency goes hand-in-hand with environmental sustainability. If you are going to feed less to your animals, there is going to be less waste and less methane produced.

“It is sensible to bring those two traits together,” she said.

The information is available online and has led to breed im-provement but it also has saved people money.

“That incentive, we find in Ireland, has to be a monetary incentive,” she said.

The research and data collection is also due to organizations like the beef improvement federation, Teagasc, government agriculture department and farmers working together.

“The success of the breeding program in Ireland is due to the collaboration between the industries,” she said.

“If Canada wants to be successful in this whole area, it is about processors, researchers and the breed societies and government agencies getting together with one central database.”

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