Researchers at the University of Guelph are working with scientists from across the country, industry partners, and international collaborators on a $12 million dairy genomics project. Dr. Christine Baes, a professor of animal biosciences at the University of Guelph, is the project lead.
“The overall aim of this project is to develop genomic tools to enable implementation of selection to increase dairy cow resilience, defined as the capacity of the animal to adapt rapidly to changing environmental conditions, without compromising its productivity, health or fertility, while becoming more resource-efficient and reducing its environmental burden,” Baes told Farms.com.
“We’ve been thinking a lot about how we measure fertility,” she explained. “Management practices have such a large role in what we record today, that we’re not giving the animals a fair chance to show their own true fertility.”
Additionally, calf health is another area of focus.
“In the industry we’ve had a history of not looking at the animals that closely from birth to breeding age,” Baes said. “In Canada we’re really fortunate because we have a really nice system and infrastructure in place already. … But we can do better, we can always do better.”
The four-year project is targeting three resiliency factors, including cow fertility, health, and environmental efficiency, she explained. The researchers will “develop new tools to enhance cow resilience by increasing the rate of genetic progress for traits that directly affect it. An integrated genomic approach (genomics, epigenomics) will be developed to harness key genetic and genomic features of resilience traits and facilitate selection for resilience components through development of a resiliency index.”
The project is highly collaborative
“There are 5 Canadian Universities directly involved – University of British Columbia, University of Alberta, Guelph, Université Laval, and University of Prince Edward Island- as well as both university and industry institutions in the USA, Brazil, Denmark, Spain, Germany, Switzerland, and Australia,” Baes said.
“This project aims to coordinate our research efforts so we all benefit from the expertise of other fields, without losing the granularity of the individual studies being conducted,” she explained. That process is “complicated, but necessary, because the dairy industry has become very complicated, and we need to work together now more than ever.
Scientists began their work at the beginning of 2020, and the research is ongoing
“The fertility disorder evaluations came out in December. The feed efficiency evaluations are coming out in April (of 2021). The calf health stuff is going to take a little bit longer, but I would expect sometime in 2022,” Baes said. “And the resiliency index, the actual overall goal of the entire project where we combine those three phenotyping pillars, that should be 2023 (or) 2024.”
Overall, the project hopes to deliver five main outcomes. First, “new data management and bioinformatics tools and pipelines to collect, process, analyze and transfer data on new traits – fertility, health and environmental efficiency records – from Canadian farms to Lactanet,” Baes said. Lactanet is the dairy herd improvement and genetic evaluation centre for the project, and for many Canadian producers.
The researchers also aim to deliver “single step genomic evaluations for novel traits included in the resilience index (and incorporate) key genomic data, and potentially epigenomic data, into existing genotyping panels to improve tools currently employed by the dairy industry,” she explained.
Finally, the scientists will develop models to predict the socioeconomic impact of investment in new technologies “to enable industry to address investment strategies, and to enable policy makers to predict returns on R&D investments (and) quantify the non-market value of resilience traits to the farmer and the consumer,” Baes added.
“This project will provide the industry with innovative tools for selection, resulting in estimated annual net savings of $200M starting from 2026 for the Canadian dairy industry coupled with health and environmental benefits to society,” she said.