The best that I can be

It was while studying Animal Science as an undergraduate that the concept of ‘how characteristics are inherited across generations’ struck Dan Hailemariam’s curiosity. He pursued that curiosity in a Master’s program in Applied Genetics at Addis Ababa University, Ethiopia. However, it was at the University of Bonn, Germany, where he completed his PhD on cattle molecular genetics that his ideas about his career and research coalesced.

“I see myself as always researching to understand more about animal science,” he says. “My goal is to help solve the challenges of modern dairy cattle production, specifically, improving feed efficiency and reducing greenhouse gas emissions.”

A post-doc position at UAlberta, screening biomarkers for dairy cow diseases under Dr. Burim Ametaj, brought Dan to Edmonton. When that project ended, he sought out Gentec as a centre with a good reputation in carrying out genetics research. In fact, he credits Gentec with helping him understand and define himself. He tells it this way:

“At one of my first group meetings, Graham [Plastow, Gentec CEO] talked about Gentec’s core values: trust, excellence, learning and leadership. He said, ‘if you’re not learning, come and see me.’ I thought, this is where I want to be. These are the values I share. I’m ambitious and I believe in hard work. Here, I can be the best of myself. His words changed my life, the way I think, and the way I do. I make sure I learn every day.”

Currently, Dan is a Research Associate working on a project out of UoGuelph with Gentec-associated researcher Christine Baes to develop genomic tools to enable implementation of selection to increase dairy cow resilience. The project is a 4-year international collaboration. As part of UAlberta’s dairy group, Dan is involved in expanding the reference population for feed efficiency and methane emissions, and developing methods to utilize milk spectra data.

Dan’s own research focuses on identifying biomarkers of feed efficiency, and understanding the metabolic adaptations of feed-efficient lactating dairy cows. He uses a systems biology approach that integrates multi-omics data (genomics, metabolomics and proteomics) to understand the physiology of feed efficiency. This approach also helps identify reliable, cost effective and easily-detectable biomarkers of feed efficiency, which could lead to tools that facilitate the selection for feed-efficient cows, and help dairy farmers save on feed costs and reduce the carbon footprint of dairy production.

One interesting result that has been published is “Comparative analyses of enteric methane emissions, dry matter intake and milk somatic cell count in different feed efficiency categories of dairy cows” in the Canadian Journal of Animal Science. In that research, the team showed that the most efficient cows consume 12.9% less feed and emit 15.5% less methane compared to the least efficient cows for the same level of milk production. The most efficient cows also had lower milk somatic cell count, indicating desirable correlation between subclinical mastitis and feed efficiency in dairy cows.

“At Gentec, every day is exciting,” concludes Dan. “I like my work because the more I engage, read, write, design and conduct experiments, analyze and interpret data, the better I am becoming, and the more I find myself. I feel good about it. I’m optimistic that I will be part of an accomplishment that develops tools to improve feed efficiency and reduce GHG emissions from dairy cattle.”

Consistent genetic selection for RFI brings economic and environmental results!

“Success isn’t always about greatness. It’s about consistency. Consistent hard work leads to success. Greatness will come.” -Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson

This quote from “The Rock” especially resonates in the area of genetic selection in beef cattle. But goals are one thing. Putting in place a plan to meet those goals, and sticking to this plan, is what yields results.

To this end, researchers from Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada and UAlberta conducted a breeding and selection program for residual feed intake (RFI) in the crossbred cattle herd at UAlberta’s Roy Berg Kinsella Research Ranch. The 1st years of selection were supported by grants from the Alberta Livestock and Meat Agency, and the Beef Cattle Research Council. To start, the main crossbred herd was split in two based upon cattle age, and calving date the previous year, to yield equal herds. Then one herd was subjected to a traditional selection scheme, which was growth from birth to one year of age for both replacement heifers and bulls, including a cut-off for birthweights. This was the “Control” herd. For the other herd, replacement breeder selection was based on a selection index that included EPDs for maternal weaning weight, and genomically-enhanced breeding values for RFI (but still including the cut-offs for birth weights). This herd was named the “Efficient” herd.

Even after project funding ended, researchers maintained these Control and Efficient herds, and continued selection for RFI in the Efficient herd though their replacement bulls. They also continued testing all potential replacement breeding animals for RFI through funding from other projects. Replacement heifers in the Efficient herd have slowly decreased their RFI values, and in winter 2019-2020, Efficient heifers consumed 4.8% less feed than the Control heifers during their RFI test. This is an improvement of 0.7%/year for RFI, which is in line with the 0.5%-0.8%/year improvement rate as reported at the end of the formal projects.

To put this in an economic context, we can compare the difference in feed costs for these heifers:

For example, a crossbred heifer at Kinsella consumes on average 8.71 kg DM (dry matter)/day. The difference in intake between the Efficient vs Control heifers is 0.42 kg DM/d or 4.8%. Therefore, feed savings would be $0.15/kg DM x 365 days x 0.42 kg DM/day = ~$23/heifer/year.

Would any cattle producer like to save $23/head/year in feed costs? Of course, they would! Multiply that by 100 head of cattle, the savings could reach $2,300. And the savings increase as more feed efficient cattle are fed.

Now, what about environmental benefits? Well, a heifer of the same size and genetic background as the above Efficient heifers at Kinsella emits ~179 g CH4/day as measured by Manafiazar et al (2020). The same study found that heifers with a difference in DMI of 8% also had a difference in CH4 emissions of 2.5%/day. Therefore, a difference in DMI of 4.8% as a result of selecting for RFI as described above would be associated with a difference in daily CH4 emission of 1.5%. This equates to 2.69 g CH4/day, or 0.98 kg/year. The global warming potential of methane is its grams emitted multiplied by a factor of 28, which, in our example, equals a difference of 27.4 kg CO2e/year. Thus, enteric CH4 emissions from an Efficient heifer would be predicted to be 27.4 kg CO2e/year lower than from a Control heifer. Multiply that by 100 heifers and now you have a difference of 2,740 kg, or 2.74 tonnes. So what?

To put this in context, we will compare these emissions to GHG emissions from an average car, which emits ~404 g of CO2/mile. The reduction in enteric methane emissions brought about by selection for RFI in these 100 cattle is equivalent to a car driving 6,782 miles. Whoa! Can we do that? Yes, we can. 🙂