As human populations increase and available arable land decreases, agricultural systems are under pressure to produce more food more efficiently.
Michigan State University researchers believe that breeding dairy cows that produce milk with less feed can help meet this goal.
"We already know how to get cows to produce more than 100 pounds of milk a day -- we have the science to be able to do that," says Mike VandeHaar, animal science professor and MSU AgBioResearch scientist. "Our question now is whether some cows are genetically predisposed to produce that milk with less feed. If we find that feed efficiency is inherent in a cow's DNA, it will improve our ability to sustainably produce the milk and dairy products that our growing population consumes."
Through a $5 million grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's National Institute of Food and Agriculture, VandeHaar and his fellow MSU researchers have set goals to increase the efficiency and sustainability of milk production by:
* Educating future leaders, voters and consumers about key practices in dairy husbandry that promote feed efficiency and sustainability.
* Developing a feed-efficiency database on 8,000 genomically characterized Holstein cows.
* Determining the genetic architecture of feed efficiency and building a foundation for genomic selection of more efficient animals.
* Developing and implementing genomic breeding tools to produce cows with enhanced feed efficiency.
* Developing and implementing practical support tools to improve whole-herd feed efficiency.
"We are excited about this USDA grant program," VandeHaar says. "Improving stewardship of resources in the dairy industry has been a lifelong passion of mine. If we're going to eat animal products and feed more people, we have to do it more efficiently."
The goal is not just increasing the amount of milk a cow produces, but increasing efficiency of milk production can help improve stewardship of the planet, VandeHaar says.
"Projects like this are critically important to our planet," he says. "If we can't figure out efficient ways to feed 9 billion people in the next 40 years, we will have hungry people, political unrest and no place left for native ecosystems because we'll be using those lands to grow food."
Additional MSU team members include Rob Tempelman, Dave Beede, Richard Pursley and Miriam Weber Nielsen. Also contributing to the project are researchers from the University of Wisconsin, Iowa State University, Wageningen UR in The Netherlands, the University of Florida, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, and North Carolina Agricultural & Technical State University.
The grant was awarded through USDA's Agriculture and Food Research Initiative and administered through the National Institute of Food and Agriculture.
AFRI's global food security challenge area focuses on two intertwined issues: Food availability and food accessibility. Adequate food availability implies that the population has a reliable source of food from domestic or international production. For adequate food accessibility, the population must have sufficient resources to purchase food for a nutritious diet. The long-term goal of this program is to increase global food availability through increased and sustainable food production with reduced losses.