Improving resilience in livestock

Published on
February 11, 2019

​Resilience of animals means that animals can cope with changes in the environment. Researchers of Wageningen University & Research propose that resilience of animals can genetically be improved by smart use of automation of measurements in livestock husbandry ('big data'). As a result, animal health and welfare are improved, economic losses are limited, and job satisfaction of farmers is increased.

Resilience of animals is essential for normal functioning of an animal: an animal must be able to deal with temporary changes in the environment, such as heat stress and disease outbreak. Animals with a higher resilience are less affected by these environmental changes. As a result, these animals show fewer fluctuations in production characteristics, such as milk production or growth/body weight. Genetic improvement of resilience in livestock farming is therefore important.

Measuring resilience

The current automation in livestock farming leads to more measurements and more data on animals, so-called 'big data'. Fluctuations in daily production can therefore be determined. The researchers propose that these fluctuations can be used to measure resilience. "The automation offers possibilities for genetic improvement of resilience," says researcher Tom Berghof, "because to determine genetic effects, you need a lot of data from many animals. Manually this would never be possible, but with machines this is!" By making smart use of data, the daily fluctuations can be used to determine the genetic basis of resilience.

By already investigating how we can determine resilience on the basis of big data and how to apply this in breeding, we prepare ourselves for the new possibilities for other animal species
Tom Berghof

The impact of genetic improvement

In addition to being able to measure resilience, it is also important to include resilience in the breeding goals of livestock farming. But for this the importance must be determined, the so-called economic value. The researchers show that the economic value can be determined on the basis of, for example, extra labor costs that are necessary to check on animals with a lower resistance. Two simplified breeding scenarios were further investigated to determine the impact of breeding for improved resilience. Principle investigator Han Mulder says: "The outcomes were as expected: breeding on improved resilience is beneficial for both job satisfaction of farmers, because they waste less time per animal on average, as well as the resilience of animals. We do see, however, that breeding for improved resilience can result in lower genetic progress in animal production, nevertheless the overall progress at farm level improves!"

Applications and future plans

Much of the current automation in livestock farming has been limited to dairy cows and pigs, such as milking robots and feeding stations. But technological developments are made every day, and in the short term such developments are also expected for laying hens, broilers, meat cows and even fish. "By already investigating how we can determine resilience on the basis of big data and how to apply this in breeding, we prepare ourselves for the new possibilities for other animal species," says Tom Berghof. Han Mulder adds: "At this moment, we are investigating fluctuations in milk production of dairy cows, in feed intake of turkeys, and in body weight of laying hens. In the future, we also want to investigate how improved resilience works at the physiological level to understand why some animals handle changes better than others." Ultimately, this research should result in improved animal health and welfare, lower economic losses, and more job satisfaction for farmers.

Read the complete article in Frontiers in Genetics for more information.

This research was financially supported by Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research Earth and Life Sciences (NWO-ALW; project ALWSA.2016.4), and by the Dutch Ministry of Economic Affairs (TKI Agri & Food project 16022) and the Breed4Food partners Cobb Europe, CRV, Hendrix Genetics and Topigs Norsvin.