Feeding the 9 million US dairy cows requires millions of acres of crops and accounts for more than half of total dairy farm costs. The Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research (FFAR) awarded Michigan State University a $1 million grant to improve dairy cow feed efficiency, which could improve farmer profitability and substantially reduce the greenhouse gas footprint of the dairy industry. The Council on Dairy Cattle Breeding (CDCB) provided matching funds, for a total award of $2 million. Collaborating institutions include the University of Wisconsin, Iowa State University, University of Florida, and USDA Animal Genomics Improvement Laboratory.
Dairy farmers could significantly reduce their expenses by selecting cows with the highest feed efficiency, which are the cows that produce the same or more milk while consuming less feed. In 2010, Michigan State researchers participated in a US Department of Agriculture (USDA) National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA)-sponsored study that found breeding for more feed-efficient cows could save the U.S. dairy sector $540 million a year with no loss in milk production.
The major challenge to achieving this goal has been collecting enough data on enough cows to develop reliable genomic breeding values for feed intake. This project will measure feed intake, milk production, body weight, and other information on 3,600 dairy cows to add to the existing database created as part of the earlier USDA NIFA project. In addition, the research team, led by Dr. Michael VandeHaar, will use new sensor technologies to monitor dairy cows’ body temperature, feeding behavior, and locomotion, along with milk spectral data, to predict feed intake and gather data from thousands of cows to further improve the ability of farmers to select the most efficient cows. The researchers also will evaluate whether their genetic predictions can be used to decrease methane emissions from dairy cattle.
“I am excited about this project. We have a great group of geneticists and nutritionists working together to collect intake and sensor data on 3,600 cows from 5 locations,” said Dr. VandeHaar. “Our project will enhance the reliability of feed intake breeding values and enable inclusion of feed costs as a trait in Net Merit. We also expect that our predicted feed intake index can be used for making culling and breeding decisions.”
The Council on Dairy Cattle Breeding plans to provide genomic evaluations for residual feed intake in 2020, so that dairy producers worldwide can include better predictors of feed efficiency in their genetic selection and management decisions.
Additionally, this project will help improve the sustainability of milk production. Feed production is responsible for about 20 percent of the greenhouse gas emissions for every gallon of milk, according to the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy. Reducing the amount of feed dairy cows consume will reduce this footprint and could also reduce emissions associated with manure and digestion.
“Breeding cows for enhanced feed efficiency reduces rising feed costs on dairy farms, which could increase dairy farmers profitability and improve the competitiveness of the U.S. dairy industry,” said Sally Rockey, FFAR’s executive director. “Improving dairy cows feed intake will reduce greenhouse gas emissions while producing more feed-efficient cows, more profitable herds and a more sustainable dairy sector that is prepared to meet global food demands.”
Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research
The Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research (FFAR), a 501 (c) (3) nonprofit organization originally established by bipartisan Congressional support in the 2014 Farm Bill, builds unique partnerships to support innovative and actionable science addressing today's food and agriculture challenges. FFAR leverages public and private resources to increase the scientific and technological research, innovation, and partnerships critical to enhancing sustainable production of nutritious food for a growing global population. The FFAR Board of Directors is chaired by Mississippi State University President Mark Keenum, Ph.D., and includes ex officio representation from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and National Science Foundation.