The European research project RobustMilk was looking for ways of breeding cows that will produce healthy milk, e.g. packed with healthy fats, without drawing on the health of the dairy cows themselves. A special edition of the journal Advances in Animal Biosciences containing all the results of this EU project was recently published to mark the end of the four-year project.
Milk analysis of the fatty acid composition and energy balance
The methods developed can be used to obtain detailed information about the milk quality and the energy balance of the cow by examining the composition of the milk. The energy balance is an indication of how much energy a cow uses to produce milk, and how much it retains for itself. This information can be gleaned from the infrared spectra obtained from the milk. “Our challenge is to find a way of producing milk that contains healthy fatty acids for an increasing number of consumers, without affecting the health or lifespan of the cows”, explains Roel Veerkamp, who works for Wageningen UR Livestock Research and Wageningen University. The project therefore focused specifically on breeding robust cows that produce high-quality milk.
European partners share data on food intake
Researchers from five European countries worked together in the RobustMilk project, using a database in which they shared expensive phenotypical records on feed intake, and genotypes of the cows. They also devised statistical models as a reliable and cheap way of providing information on robustness of cows and genomic tools to optimise breeding with care. Breeders’ organisations are already using the methods developed for more effective breeding.
Being ‘robust’ does not only mean that cows will use their energy wisely. Robust dairy cows are healthy, fertile and profitable, adjust easily to new farming systems and are fit, with little need for medication. “We want to produce a lot of milk in relation to the amount of feed, but not at the expense of the cow’s own robustness”, explains Veerkamp. RobustMilk has shown that more expensive feed intake data on dairy cows need to be combined before the concept ‘feed efficiency’ can be incorporated into the breeding programmes. “A follow-up has already been launched by an international consortium headed by Wageningen UR”, says Veerkamp. “More parties have now joined the original RobustMilk partners in sharing their feed intake data. This project, called Global Dry Matter Initiative, will involve fifteen partners from ten countries, including Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the US.”
Results of RobustMilk
In July 2013, the results of RobustMilk were compiled and published in the scientific journal Advances in Animal Biosciences. The publication (soon to be available via Open Access) is entitled ‘ROBUSTMILK - Innovative and Practical Breeding Tools for Improved Dairy Products from More Robust Dairy Cows’.