Genetically superior cows can be more sustainable and productive, new data says

19 August 20223 min reading

A new study helps show the positive effect genetic selection in the dairy industry can have on environmental sustainability outcomes.

In a study analyzing genomic data and on-farm records, the top 25% of cows with superior genetics demonstrated 10% less enteric methane emissions1, 44% less antibiotic usage for their lifetimes and 5% less feed for maintenance purposes as compared to the inferior 25% group. These reductions were achieved while also producing 35% more milk and generating an average $869 more profit lifetime per cow than those cows in the inferior genetics group.

“These study results using the Zoetis Dairy Wellness Profit Index® (DWP$®) predictions demonstrated that selecting for more profitable cows had a positive effect on production, health and lifespan outcomes while allowing for more efficient and sustainable production practices,” said Dr. Fernando Di Croce, director of global technical services for the Zoetis Precision Animal Health business. “This means dairy producers can be confident that focusing on selecting for health can also improve efficiency and environmentally sustainable production practices.”

Dr. Di Croce was part of the team of experts that analyzed 9 years of performance, genomic and financial records from nearly 13,000 Holstein dairy cows in 11 dairies across the U.S. in a comparative review of internal and farm level data.  The DWP$ predictions were used to rank cows and assign them to at least 2 different genetic groups representing the inferior 25% and superior 25% cows. The team compared production efficiencies and sustainability outcomes to demonstrated genetic selection for health and found profitability was positively correlated to improvements in sustainability.

“The data shows that dairy producers can improve sustainable production practices over time without sacrificing animal health or profitability,” said Dr. Di Croce. “Improvements we make in animal health and genetics pays off not only economically but from an environmental sustainability perspective as well. Another key benefit is that these gains can be permanent and add up over time.”

Dairy farmers have long played a critical role in sustainable food production through innovations in nutrient and waste management, genetic improvement, superior animal husbandry, and improved health. Additionally, recent National Agriculture Statistics Service numbers show dairy cow numbers are holding at 9.3 million, but milk production continues to increase. This means that dairy farmers are producing more with less. These study results underscore that when dairy farmers invest in the health, profitability, and efficiency of their animals, they see an increasingly significant contribution to improving sustainable milk production.

The Precision Animal Health team at Zoetis is taking the first steps to empower the dairy industry to measure the impact of production efficiency on environmental outcomes.  Analyzing this large database of real-world genetic and phenotypic information provides proof of the positive correlation between animal-level production and health data to environmental sustainability outcomes.

“This is the start of a plan to help dairy farmers and the industry understand and measure the impact of animal health on sustainability outcomes,” said Dr. Di Croce. “Our goal is to equip dairy producers and veterinarians to meet their ambitious environmental, social, and animal welfare goals.”

1Methane production was estimated based on Energy Corrected milk production using the formula described by Niu et al, Prediction of enteric methane production, yield, and intensity in dairy cattle using an intercontinental database, Glob Chang Biol, 2018 (v1.0)

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