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Gains for humans, cows, and the environment: breeding the socially acceptable cow

Dairy cows could be genetically selected to produce “niche” milk to improve human health, including a component that provides some benefits of human breast milk.

And this technology could deliver the dairy industry a “step-change” in terms of what it could produce with infant formula.

Agriculture Victoria principal research scientist Professor Jennie Pryce said there was “great science” behind the opportunity to breed cows to produce human milk oligosaccharides.

“They are the same as you would find in the milk of human breast milk and give children or babies protection against pathogenic infections,” she said.

“They also promote development of the intestine and help the gut microbiome to get going, obviously that’s one of the reasons by breast milk is promoted.”

Professor Pryce provided this insight as part of a presentation about breeding the “socially acceptable cow” at the 2020 Genetics Australia online conference.

She said a genetic marker explained about 80 per cent of the genetic variation in the oligosaccharide which meant it would be simple to “aggressively” select for these niche milks.

Breeding a socially acceptable cow should also consider the cow’s impact on the environment, its welfare and sustainability, according to Professor Pryce.

Sharing preliminary research data, Professor Pryce showed how selecting for bulls with both a high Balanced Performance Index (BPI) and lower methane emissions was possible without too much compromise in profitability.

Professor Pryce plotted the BPI – the dairy industry herd improvement organisation DataGene’s economic index – against a greenhouse gas index.

It showed if a dairy farmer only selected high BPI bulls with the most favourable greenhouse gas emissions, they would compromise their BPI by about 20 units. This is down from a mean of 333 BPI if they selected the top 30 BPI bulls without a consideration of emissions.

“It doesn’t seem like a huge comprise to be able to get that advance in terms of reduced emissions,” she said.

Professor Pryce also highlighted how Australia led the world with research on heat tolerance and feed saved – both traits with contributed to a socially acceptable cow.

The former Australian Breeding Value enables cows to better handle warming temperatures, the latter ABV increasing their feed to milk efficiency.

Professor Pryce said a lot of what the dairy industry was already doing was “hugely progressive”.

“Consumers need to know that we are already breeding for more environmentally friendly, resource efficient cows,” she said.

“If we focus on profit, welfare and social acceptability we will be more successful in the long term.”

Next week: Genetics Australia CEO Anthony Shelly discussing the next decade’s breeding challenges.