For humans, burps are like convicts: We only worry about them when they escape. In dairy cattle, though, burps are the focus of some cutting edge research, and for good reason. A prime example is the new Genome Alberta research project “Increasing feed efficiency and reducing methane emissions through genomics”. It puts dairy cattle burps squarely in the spotlight, as they produce the methane that poses a great risk to the environment.
For project leads Dr. Filippo Miglior with the Canadian Dairy Network and the University of Guelph, and Dr. Paul Stothard from the University of Alberta, their two primary goals complement each other nicely.
“Selecting for feed efficiency will, in turn, decrease methane emissions,” said project manager Mary De Pauw.
In fact, this project aims to reduce those emissions in two ways: First, by developing breeding values for feed efficiency, as more feed efficient cows produce less methane. And second, by directly selecting for the methane emission trait itself.
It sounds simple enough, but success requires measuring genetic variation in these two traits to optimize the breeding values used in that selection process. Because that measurement is extremely difficult and expensive, the project is working with other countries to pool resources and expertise. One such partner is the Government of Victoria in Australia.
“In Australia, we have breeding values for feed efficiency called ‘Feed Saved’ that are expressed in kilograms of feed,” said Dr. Jennie Pryce, Senior Scientist for the Department of Economic Development, Jobs, Transport and Resources with the Government of Victoria and La Trobe University.
"Measuring methane emissions presents a whole new set of challenges. You can measure feed in kilograms but methane is a little trickier,” said Dr. Pryce. “We are doing a pilot trial right now combining data for emissions from different countries and each group measures in its own way. The goal is to build on our experience working with feed intake traits and apply it to genetic prediction of methane emissions.”
Move it or lose it
Last year, her department teamed up with the Netherlands and the United Kingdom to develop the "Feed Saved" breeding value. Although they were satisfied with what they found for the moment, success with genomics is akin to survival for Australia’s Great White Shark: Keep moving or die.
“In order to maintain and improve our breeding values, collaboration is critical,” said Dr. Pryce. “The chance to be part of the Genome Alberta project was perfect for where we wanted to go next and for ensuring that our breeding values remain reliable for farmers.”
That focus on the farmer is shared by all project participants. While the most tangible economic benefit will be seen in the boost to feed efficiency, the environmental impact of methane reduction could be priceless.
“These emissions are a huge contributor to greenhouse gases and global warming. Plus, as the planet gets warmer, cows have to adapt to higher temperatures, so we are also working on breeding values for heat tolerance.”
Going to work
Being a scientist, Dr. Pryce is nothing if not realistic.
“The challenge of combining data and getting it to work is very difficult to pull off,” she acknowledged.
“But Dr. Miglior has assembled a fine group of scientists; that gives me a lot of hope. If we’re able to generate good breeding values that Canadian producers and others around the world can actually use, it will be quite an achievement.”
Like a prisoner on the run, methane emissions will always pose a threat. But in both cases, the more we can keep them in check, the better we’ll sleep at night.