Feeding Behavior Gives Science Something to Chew On

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Source: Alberta Genome, Geoff Geddes

Spend some time in a food court, and you’ll see that feeding behavior says a lot about people, for better or worse. Could such behavior also play a role in genetic prediction for beef cattle? That’s one of the questions being addressed as scientists apply genomics to improve key beef industry traits such as carcass quality and feed efficiency.

“Part of my thesis is looking at feeding behavior and seeing if it has predictive value for traits related to cow fertility,” said Cameron Olson, PhD student in the Faculty of Agricultural, Life & Environmental Sciences at the University of Alberta.

Fertile ground for research

Finding such a connection would be significant, as fertility traits are expensive to measure and take years to collect. For example, predicting longevity involves a 10-12 year wait until the cow dies. Fortunately, Genome Alberta researchers have already collected data on feeding behavior via GrowSafe bins at the Lacombe Research Centre.

“I am focusing on 412 cows born between 2004 and 2014 that began a GrowSafe trial shortly after weaning,” said Olson. “We are collecting data points on a number of traits including longevity, body condition scores, birth weights and lifetime productivity. We want to ensure that in targeting greater fertility, we don’t also select an animal that is smaller, less productive or needing a great deal of feed to maintain its fertility.”

Though it’s too early to draw conclusions, preliminary research suggests a low to moderate correlation between feeding behavior and traits like age at first calving, which is a pleasant surprise for those involved.

“We didn’t expect to see so many significant correlations at this stage. They aren’t all strong or useful, but they suggest there may well be a relationship to explore further. This wasn’t an area that we were asked to look into; Dr. Basarab and I just came up with it and decided to see where it went. It’s kind of nice when a hunch pays off.”

The progress thus far means that feeding behavior might be included in a selection index, enabling producers to look at one number and select for improvement in fertility.

Getting to the points

“If producers are using the GrowSafe feeding equipment with their heifers, they may be able to take some of these data points and pare down their selections. They can hone in on animals exhibiting feeding behavior that indicates they may be more fertile or productive over their lifetime.”

Though short term progress is nice to see, Olson and others have one eye on the big picture, and they like what they see.

“As we get further into discovering how fertility works and how we can select for it, the prospects are exciting in terms of total beef production capability in Canada. In 15 or 20 years when these tools have been adopted by the industry, it will be fascinating to see the impact on herd productivity. Are we maintaining similar herd sizes but increasing production? Are beef farmers more profitable as a result? Have we increased the number of calves weaned per cow over her lifetime?”

From an environmental standpoint, if Canada can produce more beef from the same number of animals thanks to enhanced fertility, the system becomes more efficient and its impact on the environment should decrease.

For consumers, this cutting edge research is good news. Anything that helps sustain the Canadian industry ensures that the public will continue to enjoy the world’s best beef raised in their own backyard, whether they dine at a food court or an upscale restaurant. Given a choice, however, opt for the latter.

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