This is the first in a series of blog posts by Geoff Geddes. He is the communications coordinator for Alberta Pork in Edmonton and also works as a freelance writer/editor for a number of industries, with a particular interest in agriculture. He will be writing about a new Genome Alberta research project looking at the use of genomics to boost disease resilience and reduce methane emissions in dairy cattle. In the coming months, we will have more details on this project and updates on its progress.
Burp less. It may sound like the world’s weirdest New Year’s resolution, but it’s really the focus of a new Genome Alberta led research project. The initiative is aimed at harnessing genomics to boost feed efficiency and reduce methane emissions in dairy cattle.
“We have a $16.2 billion dairy industry in Canada, so it’s critical to keep it competitive both at home and abroad,” said Project Manager Mary De Pauw.
To that end, and to meet the demands of a growing world population, this project looks to improve two key genetic traits: Feed efficiency and methane emissions, the latter produced when cows burp.
“Feed efficiency measures the ability of an animal to convert feed into milk,” said De Pauw. “Two animals may produce the same amount of milk, but one must eat much more to produce it. The other one is considered feed efficient and can greatly reduce feed cost, which is a producer’s largest expense.”
It’s this naturally occurring variation that the project wants to understand so it can link these traits to DNA sequence information and develop the genomic tools to select for feed efficient animals.
Making it easy to be green
Another significant benefit of feed efficient animals is that they produce less methane, which is the second important trait that this project measures.
“Methane is a major greenhouse gas, so reducing methane emissions from cattle will reduce the industry’s environmental footprint,” said De Pauw. “In addition, animals that are fed efficiently produce less manure, thereby further reducing the environmental impact.”
Follow the leaders
For De Pauw, who just finished managing another Genome Canada project on the cattle industry, this one was a natural next step.
“I think the two leads on this project are world renowned and very well respected in the scientific community.”
She’s referring to Dr. Filippo Miglior, Associate Professor at University of Guelph and Chief of Research & Strategic Development with the Canadian Dairy Network and Dr. Paul Stothard, Associate Professor and bioinformatics expert with the Department of Agricultural, Food and Nutritional Science (AFNS) at the University of Alberta.
“They’ve gathered many outstanding research and industry people from Canada and overseas and will have no problem achieving their goals.”
With $10.3 million in funding from Genome Canada, Genome Alberta, Ontario Genomics, ALMA and CDN, along with in-kind co-funding from GrowSave and several other countries, the project has four years to complete its mandate. De Pauw said that’s a big advantage over other research efforts that often are only covered for one year, giving this team ample time to achieve its goals.
That money will also be useful in addressing one of the project’s biggest challenges.
“These two traits are hard to collect data on as they’re expensive to measure,” said dDe Pauw. “Traits like calf weight are the low hanging fruit, as they’re important but relatively easy to measure. Feed efficiency and methane emission are much more complex and require expensive equipment to gauge.”
While the traits targeted by this study may be hard to pin down, the benefits of doing so are crystal clear.
“Greater feed efficiency is a major cost saving to producers and it also makes the entire industry greener as they have to use fewer resources overall; for example, less grain needs to be grown to feed cattle. As well, when you select for feed efficiency, there’s a corresponding decrease in methane emissions, so the two traits go hand-in-hand.”
In fact, estimates show that breeding for increased feed efficiency and reduced methane emissions can lower feed costs by $108 per cow per year and decrease methane emissions by 11-26%.
As De Pauw pointed out, methane is a major greenhouse gas that is said to have 25 times the potential of carbon dioxide for global warming.
Okay, so maybe the research project entitled “Increasing feed efficiency and reducing methane emissions through genomics” won’t make for great bedtime reading. But where the dairy farmer’s story used to be a matter of “feed’em and weep”, this is one tale that’s bound to have a happy ending.