December 22, 2014

USDA research aims to boost Nebraska dairy industry

Nebraska’s dairy industry is worth about $200-million a year and research by the U.S. Department of Agriculture could help dairy producers in the state boost production while reducing costs.

USDA research geneticist Tad Sonstegard says the key is understanding the genome, or genetic material, of dairy cows.

“We know where the location of the genes are now because we have genome assemblies and we know some of the functions of those genes,” Sonstegard says. “So we can just ask the question where in the genome are the genes that affect milk production?”

Erin Connor, Research Leader with the USDA Agricultural Research Service, says understanding cows’ genotype helps farmers breed more cows that eat less feed but produce the same amount of milk.

“Most of their production costs are related to feeding of the animals. So if we can reduce the amount of feed that the animals need to maintain the herd then we’ve substantially reduced their feed costs,” Connor says. “You’re identifying cows that can produce the same amount of milk as their herd-mates, but they use less feed to produce that milk.”

The USDA’s Dr. Chavonda Jacobs-Young says the innovative research being done by Connor and Sonstegard could result in solutions to many of the world’s agricultural challenges.

“Productivity in agriculture is critical to feeding the world’s population, which we know is going to grow from about 6.6 billion today to almost 9 billion by 2050,” Jacobs-Young says.

Nebraska has 200 licensed dairy producers with some 55,000 head of dairy cows, producing more than 1.2-billion pounds of milk a year. Nebraska ranks 26th in U-S in dairy production.