Healthier cows for a sustainable future

Agriculture Victoria Principal Research Scientist Professor Jennie Pryce who is leading the DairyBio animal program.

Healthy cows produce fewer methane emissions, and that discovery by Agriculture Victoria scientists are helping dairy farmers to breed ‘environmentally friendly’ cows.

Emerging challenges such as climate change and a rising consumer interest in the ethical production of food and fibre has motivated the dairy sector to consider how farmers might reduce their environmental footprint, while at the same time increase profitability and maintain the Australian dairy industry’s good reputation.

The DairyBio program – a joint initiative of the Victorian Government, Dairy Australia and the Gardiner Foundation – was established in 2016 to address these challenges through research and innovation, mainly in the fields of genetics and advanced biological sciences.

Agriculture Victoria Principal Research Scientist Professor Jennie Pryce who is leading the DairyBio animal program, has identified the traits cows of the future will need to possess to increase the sustainability and profitability of dairy farms.

Dairy cows at Ellinbank SmartFarm fitted with sensors that measure methane emissions.“The cows of tomorrow will have lower methane emissions per litre of milk produced and they will live longer, produce healthier calves, have good metabolic efficiency and low maintenance requirements.," Professor Pryce said.

“These cows may not look much different to the cows you see today, but they’ll be more profitable for dairy farmers, for a longer time.”

According to Professor Pryce, breeding long-lasting cows that are more efficient and produce fewer greenhouse gas emissions is crucial, not only to the industry’s sustainability in the future, but also to improving public perception of dairying.

Victoria is a leading contributor to Australia’s dairy sector, accounting for 77 per cent of Australia's dairy exports valued at $2.1 billion with the gross value of milk produced in Victoria worth $2.7 billion (2018-19).

However, as a result of climate change and other regulatory and trade changes, Dairy Australia has estimated that dairy farmers will need to up productivity by 1.5 per cent per year to maintain profitability and the industry is looking to science to provide the solution.

“Advanced genetics underpin and directly contribute to at least half the observed changes in animal productivity,” Professor Pryce said.

“This, together with well-structured breeding programs and improved management, will result in more efficient and profitable cows of the future.”

It is thanks to cutting-edge genetic science being supported by the DairyBio program that the key genetic traits needed to breed the socially acceptable cow of the future will soon be readily available to farmers.

A potential emissions index is a tool being pioneered by Agriculture Victoria Research that will allow farmers to breed cows that produce fewer methane emissions.

The plan that will lead to a tool that farmers can use is being co-developed with DataGene (responsible for national dairy evaluations). This will enable the use of a combination of dairy cow traits that contribute to profitability and social acceptance, helping producers to make decisions about which cows from their herds and bulls or bull semen they should select to produce progeny with improved resource efficiency.

Agriculture Victoria farm staff and technicians collecting milk samples at the Ellinbank SmartFarm dairy“We think our research will help farmers identify cows and bulls with the best environmental credentials without taking a hit on breeding for profitability,” Professor Pryce said.

“This is because the traits that we found are linked to lower emissions, such as feed efficiency and longevity, are also important drivers of farm profitability.

“Our solution would be a win-win outcome.”

The development of the potential emissions index is part of an ongoing strategy to help reduce methane emissions directly while maintaining productivity.

Not only will the cow have socially accepted performance traits, but it will be opened up to more widely acceptable markets.

The improved animals will be able to feed on new climate adapted and high-quality forages being developed through the DairyBio forage program that will increase farm profitability and flexibility.

While the DairyBio program is already delivering practical solutions to emerging issues facing the dairy sector, the next iteration of the program - DairyBio21–26 – is expected to build on the work to deliver genetic gain and management tools to ensure Australian dairy cows are future-ready.

Professor Pryce said exciting work is already underway with DairyBio21–26 to harness new precision genetic improvement with next generation diagnostics (multi-omics) and information from devices worn by cows.

“Multi-omics is, in essence, turning biological big-data, genome molecular information and individual cow data into information that can be used for next generation breeding values, and even to predict and diagnose that individual cow’s status (fertility, productivity, health issues etc),” she said.

“Multi-omics is the future of farm systems, as big-data, next generation diagnostics and machine learning approaches can predict and diagnose better than the trained human brain.

“That’s the new technology that DairyBio21–26 is creating for dairy cows in a world-first to help dairy farmers make proactive management decisions for increased profitability and animal performance.”

Visit the DairyBio website for more information about the DairyBio initiative.