Researchers using big data to find feed-efficient dairy cattle

The goal is to develop a prediction tool for breeding cows that will eat less with no loss in productivity

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Researchers at the University of Alberta are looking to give producers a bit of a boost by isolating feed-efficient traits in dairy cattle.

“We have an estimate that breeding for increased feed efficiency and reduced methane emission can reduce feed costs by about $100 per cow per year,” said Paul Stothard, an assistant professor of genomics and bioinformatics and co-leader of a research team drawn from his university and the University of Guelph.

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The study will collect data from the universities’ two herds and a pair of large Canadian commercial herds and look for cattle that easily convert feed into increased milk production.

“In order to get the most powerful data set possible, we’ll be incorporating data from other countries like Australia, Switzerland, the U.K. and the United States,” said Stothard.

This will result in the world’s largest data set on these two traits.

Step two will be to develop prediction tools so more efficient animals can be selected for breeding based on a simple DNA test.

The Canadian Dairy Network currently provides genetic evaluation for dairy cattle, but hasn’t looked at these traits because the data hasn’t been available.

“Through measuring feed efficiency and methane emissions in thousands of animals, we’ll be able to build the prediction equations needed to deliver those genetic evaluations,” said Stothard.

The project team just received a $10.3-million grant from Genome Canada, Genome Alberta and the Ontario Genomics Institute and is partnering with the Canadian Dairy Network. GrowSafe, an Alberta company that uses radio frequency ID technology in feed bunks, will help collect the feed-efficiency measurements. It will take the project team about four years to go from data collection to completion.

“We’re hoping we can start providing genetic evaluations to producers before the end of the project,” said Stothard. “But it does take time to collect the data, build the prediction equations, and validate them.”

Once the information is available, dairy producers could receive genomic estimated breeding values on feed efficiency and methane emission for any cattle that are in the Canadian Dairy Network. The network already hosts a national database of all the dairy performance data collected in Canada.

About the author

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Alexis Kienlen

Alexis Kienlen lives in Edmonton and has been writing for Alberta Farmer since 2008. Originally from Saskatoon, Alexis is also the author of two collections of poetry, a biography, and a novel called "Mad Cow."

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