Genomic Selection And Herd Management For Improved Feed Efficiency Of The Dairy Industry

Title Genomic Selection and Herd Management Tools to Improve Feed Efficiency of the Dairy Industry
Team VandeHaar, M., Weigel, K., Armentano, L., Moody Spurlock, D., Tempelman, R., Veerkamp, R., Cabrera, V.E., Worku, M., Hanigan, M., Staples, C., Beede, D., Shaver, R., Wattiaux, M., Dijkstra, J., Pursley, R., Weber Nielsen, M.
Term 60 months, 2011-2016
Amount $5,000,000
Sponsor Integrated Solutions for Animal Agriculture
Agriculture Food and Research Initiative
National Institute of Food and Agriculture


The US dairy industry has improved its stewardship in use of feed resources considerably in the past 100 years. In 1910, the average US dairy cow produced 1600 kg milk/year; today the average is 9600 kg/year, and top herds average 15000 kg. With greater productivity, cows eat more feed but the amount needed for body maintenance stays the same; thus, on a percentage basis, the amount of feed needed for maintenance is diluted out by that needed for milk. Per unit of milk produced, today's dairy farms use 70% less feed, excrete 70% less nitrogen and phosphorus waste, and emit 75% less greenhouse gasses than those of 1910. Efficiency will continue to improve as production per cow continues to increase beyond 9600 kg/year, although the correlation between the two will gradually decrease. Current models predict that increasing productivity above 15,000 kg milk/cow/year will have no impact on feed efficiency. Thus, in the past, feed efficiency increased as the indirect result of farmers and scientists focusing on how to produce more milk per cow. However, to improve feed efficiency in the future, we must begin to focus specifically on how to produce more milk per unit of feed. Through new developments in the science of genomics, we will conduct research that will enable selection of animals specifically for the trait of feed efficiency. Through new developments in computer modeling, we will implement tools for selection and management that will enable farms to consider the value of feed efficiency when making complex decisions. PURPOSE. Our overall goal is to increase the efficiency and sustainability of producing milk.


Our goal is to increase the efficiency and sustainability of producing milk. We have 5 specific aims

  1. Develop a dairy feed efficiency database seeded with genotype and phenotype data for 8000 Holstein cows.
  2. Determine the genetic architecture of feed efficiency and build a foundation for genomic selection of more efficient animals.
  3. Develop and implement genomic breeding tools to produce cows with enhanced feed efficiency.
  4. Develop and implement practical decision support tools to improve whole herd feed efficiency.
  5. Educate future leaders, voters, and consumers about key practices in dairy husbandry that promote feed efficiency and environmental sustainability.

Our project includes research (Aims 1, 2), extension (Aims 3, 4) and teaching (Aim 5) and is fully integrated with funding allocated at approximately 63% research, 30% extension, and 7% teaching. Through the completion of the proposed work, we will generate novel feed efficiency breeding values suitable for immediate incorporation into genetic improvement programs, as well as a suite of decision tools to aid farmers in managing dairy herds for improved overall feed efficiency and novel educational materials for K-12 and undergraduate students. Our team of scientists is imminently qualified to do the work, with many who are the world leaders in their discipline. Undergraduate students will be engaged throughout the project, as will 1890 Landgrant University and international partners. Our Logic Model and Management Plan were carefully developed. We include plans for dissemination of results, including providing public access to our feed efficiency database.


AIM 1. We will collect data on feed composition and intake, milk composition and output, body weight (BW), change in BW, health, and fertility in 5300 Holstein cows. Of these cows, 2800 will be observed specifically for our project for 2 months in peak lactation. This new data, along with suitable data for another 2500 cows that are part of other experiments, will be combined with feed efficiency data that already exists for 2700 cows. Half of the cows will be genotyped with a genotyping platform of 50,000 single-nucleotide polymorphisms (SNP) and half with a 3000 SNP platform. The primary measure of feed efficiency will be Residual Feed Intake (RFI), which identifies the most efficient cows in a group after adjusting for confounding factors. Cows with negative RFI are most efficient.

AIM 2. Employing standard methods, the heritability of RFI and covariances among RFI, production, health, and fertility traits will be determined, and then combined with genotype data to estimate individual and additive effects of SNP alleles. We then will identify loci in the genome that influence RFI, begin to identify causal genes, and determine if RFI is altered by interactions between genetics and diet composition or environment.

AIM 3. We will work with the USDA-ARS Animal Improvement Programs Laboratory and with AI companies to include genomic breeding values for RFI into the Lifetime Net Merit Index used in selecting the best sires and cows for future generations of dairy cattle. We will be careful to ensure that improved RFI does not cause negative impacts on health, fitness, and fertility. The final impact of aims 1, 2, and 3 will not be observed within the life of the project, because the genetically-improved animals will not begin lactating until almost 3 years after the new selection index has been initiated. Thus, we will rely on simulation studies coupled with data on actual usage of genomic RFI values to predict expected impact.

AIM 4. We will use the feed database to determine the optimal level of milk production per cow to maximize whole herd feed efficiency. Working with stakeholders, we will use dynamic programming techniques to develop and deploy user-friendly herd decision support tools that enhance feed efficiency of whole herds. These tools will enable identification of farm-specific major impediments to better feed efficiency and provide expected returns from management changes in cow grouping, feeding, culling, and reproduction. We will deliver workshops and educational materials and demonstrate these tools on commercial dairy farms. We will survey farms in years 1 and 5 to discover the current situation and the adoption and impact of our new tools.

AIM 5. We will develop and implement new educational programs for K-12 and undergraduate students. We will work with stakeholders and make use of existing courses and programs whenever possible to maximize cost-effectiveness. Undergraduate students will be mentored and involved in all aspects of the project so that they have a deeper appreciation for methods to enhance feed efficiency and environmental stewardship. Evaluation of impact will be developed in conjunction with stakeholders.



Questionnaire: This is the instrument used to collect data on 400+ dairy farms in Wisconsin and Michigan regarding nutritional feeding grouping strategies.