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Idaho Falls, ID 83402-1575

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dairy cattle

It is in the blood

University of Idaho Extension dairy specialists, in collaboration with faculty from Washington State University, will lead the outreach component of a project to help producers address cow infertility in their herds.

Caldwell-based Joe Dalton, together with WSU scientists Tom Spencer and Holly Neibergs, is overseeing the collection of thousands of blood samples from dairy heifers. The blood samples will provide the genetic    information to better understand the origins of infertility.

Big money at stake

Part of a $3 million grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture, the project is based at WSU. Other collaborators in the five-year project include scientists from the University of Florida and USDA Agricultural Research Service. The goal is to uncover the many genes involved in fertility and reverse the fertility decline in dairy cattle. The conception rate for dairy cows has dropped from 50 to 35 percent since the 1980s.

The financial implications for dairy producers are enormous. A cow that doesn’t conceive in a timely manner costs the producer additional dollars in feed and care, costs that cannot be recouped until  the animal bears a calf and starts producing milk again.

Fertility, like milk production and other genetic traits, is controlled by many genes. And just as in our families, UI Extension dairy specialist Dalton said, the same parents can produce children that look and respond to their environment very differently.

The study will be the largest effort so far to look at the genome, essentially the genetic catalog of all genetic traits, in dairy cattle to find the group of genes influencing fertility. The genetic analysis will be conducted by Spencer and Neibergs.

University of Florida scientist Pete Hansen will work with John Cole, a USDA Agricultural Research Service scientist, on the second portion of the project, identifying factors contributing to daughter pregnancy rate. Ultimately this should enable the selection of sires that transmit high-fertility genes to their daughters.

First tests focus on Idaho heifers

Dalton and Spencer, together with a team of associates, have already collected blood from thousands of southern Idaho dairy heifers. Blood sample collection from lactating cows will begin in 2014.
 
Dalton; Dale Moore, WSU Veterinary Extension director; and Mireille Chahine, UI Extension dairy specialist based in Twin Falls, will work with dairy producers to explain the implications of the study. Workshops are planned in numerous states along with the development of web-based materials, by Albert DeVries of the University of Florida.

Dalton said the study will likely not produce a single answer about whether a cow is suitable for a dairy operation.  Some producers, for example, may be willing to accept a cow that produces a lot of milk but may not have optimal fertility.

“Nevertheless,” Dalton said, “imagine having the ability to look into the future to see if particular   animals have specific genes enhanced for fertility and production. Genomics offers one more piece of information on which to make a decision. For some folks, it will provide a tipping point in their decision about whether to spend $1,700 or $1,800 for two years to raise that animal and then find out if she is what they thought.”

Find more stories in Programs & People magazine.