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J Anim Sci. 2012 May;90(5):1687-94. doi: 10.2527/jas.2011-4528. Epub 2011 Oct 28.

Triennial Lactation Symposium: Opportunities for improving milk production efficiency in dairy cattle.

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USDA, Agricultural Research Service, Bovine Functional Genomics Laboratory, Beltsville, MD 20705, USA.


Increasing feed costs and the desire to improve environmental stewardship have stimulated renewed interest in improving feed efficiency of livestock, including that of US dairy herds. For instance, USDA cost projections for corn and soybean meal suggest a 20% increase over 2010 pricing for a 16% protein mixed dairy cow ration in 2011, which may lead to a reduction in cow numbers to maintain profitability of dairy production. Furthermore, an October 2010 study by The Innovation Center for US Dairy to assess the carbon footprint of fluid milk found that the efficiency of feed conversion is the single greatest factor contributing to variation in the carbon footprint because of its effects on methane release during enteric fermentation and from manure. Thus, we are conducting research in contemporary US Holsteins to identify cows most efficient at converting feed to milk in temperate climates using residual feed intake (RFI), a measure used successfully to identify the beef cattle most efficient at converting feed to gain. Residual feed intake is calculated as the difference between predicted and actual feed intake to support maintenance and production (e.g., growth in beef cattle, or milk in dairy cattle). Heritability estimates for RFI in dairy cattle reported in the literature range from 0.01 to 0.38. Selection for a decreased RFI phenotype can reduce feed intake, methane production, nutrient losses in manure, and visceral organ weights substantially in beef cattle. We have estimated RFI during early lactation (i.e., to 90 d in milk) in the Beltsville Agricultural Research Center Holstein herd and observed a mean difference of 3.7 kg/d (P < 0.0001) in actual DMI between the efficient and inefficient groups (±0.5 SD from the mean RFI of 0), with no evidence of differences (P > 0.20) in mean BW, ADG, or energy-corrected milk exhibited between the 2 groups. These results indicate promise for using RFI in dairy cattle to improve feed conversion to milk. Previous and current research on the use of RFI in lactating dairy cattle are discussed, as well as opportunities to improve production efficiency of dairy cattle using RFI for milk production.

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