Dairy industry seeking biological breakthrough in reproduction

AgResearch scientists are taking part in a DairyNZ-led seven year research study to improve dairy cow fertility that could deliver an estimated annual increase in on-farm profit of $500 million.

​The study aims to improve dairy cow fertility, by delivering cows that are genetically more fertile as well as new management tools to take advantage of these better genetics.

The cow fertility research programme is part of a partnership programme with matched co-funding from DairyNZ and the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE). Additional funding and resources will be provided by AgResearch, Fonterra, LIC and CRV Ambreed.

The research will be led by DairyNZ senior scientist Dr Chris Burke and along with other scientists from DairyNZ, and along with AgResearch’s Animal Reproduction team, involves internationally recognised science teams from University of Victoria-Wellington, University of Queensland, Cognosco (a division of Anexa Animal Health), New Zealand Animal Evaluation Ltd. and genetics research company AbacusBio.

The research programme aims to lift the six-week in-calf rate from the current 65 percent to 78 percent.  Achieving this would deliver an estimated annual increase in profit of $500 million.

“This is a challenging target that cannot be achieved using current knowledge and technologies alone,” says DairyNZ’s Dr Chris Burke.

“A biological breakthrough is required.”

“The research herd will help us to unravel the underlying biology that differentiates genetically fertile cows from infertile cows. The programme has assembled some of the best scientists in New Zealand and Australia to work together with this research herd.”

The fertility programme’s biggest challenge is reducing the apparent 30 percent of conceptions occurring in the first 35 days after insemination that are not sustained as a pregnancy.

The magnitude, timing and possible reasons for pregnancy failure in commercially-operated herds will be measured by an AgResearch team.

“Many AgResearch people have worked really hard to make this happen,” says Science Team Leader for Animal Reproduction Sara Edwards.

“Robyn Dynes and Shane Devlin bought the whole thing together. They have both done excellent work interacting with DairyNZ and developing of the contract.

“We will shortly begin our component of the research. While I will be handling the administration and management, Animal Reproduction senior scientist Debbie Berg will lead her team in a 30 plus day trial investigating the timing of conception failure on four North Island farms.”

The overall project will also require a purpose-built herd of 700 Holstein-Friesian heifer calves with low and high fertility attributes, created from carefully-selected contract matings in spring 2014.

“More than 2800 contract matings will be required and we need the support of dairy farmers to ensure that we are able to achieve the required number of animals,” says Chris.

LIC and CRV Ambreed are supporting the establishment of this research herd with LIC managing the contract mating programme. LIC has already started contacting 1600 selected dairy farmers.

Cow fertility is fundamental to dairy farm productivity with the goal to get as many cows as possible in-calf in the first six weeks.

“More cows in calf means more milk in the vat before Christmas, fewer replacements required, more flexibility when making culling decisions to improve herds and better returns overall for dairy farmers,” says Chris.

The fertility research programme also aims to increase the power to select for improved fertility genotypes through use of novel phenotypes (new ways to measure fertility for selection purposes), improved recording and enhanced statistical analysis models.