Denmark Data a Boon for Canadian Cows by: Geoff Geddes


The Danes may be best known for LEGO and Hans Christian Andersen, but to Canadian dairy researchers, it’s Denmark’s data that puts them on the map. In their efforts to improve feed efficiency and methane emission in dairy cattle, scientists on the Efficient Dairy Genome Project (EDGP) are looking to Denmark – among others – for the building blocks of genomic progress.

“It is well established that the success and long-term sustainability of any livestock breeding program is largely dependent on the amount and quality of pedigree, phenotypic and genotypic data available for genetic evaluations,” said Dr. Daniel Gustavo Mansan Gordo, Postdoc in the Department of Molecular Biology and Genetics – Center for Quantitative Genetics and Genomics, Aarhus University in Denmark.

Because feed efficiency and methane emission traits are difficult and expensive to measure, gathering sufficient data is almost impossible for one country going it alone.

Mission possible

“We have data from research farms but not commercial farms. Some countries have been collecting information for 20 years now, so if we all work together, everyone gets the benefit of a much larger data set.”

With that in mind, one of the core objectives of the EDGP project was to collate data and coordinate sharing among various groups from around the world: Denmark, Canada, Australia, United States, the U.K. and Switzerland.

In order to facilitate information sharing, a database and data exchange system was needed that was efficient and secure. Taking up the challenge were teams from the Canadian Dairy Network (CDN) and University of Guelph. In conjunction with international partners, they developed the EDGP database and arranged for hosting at Guelph.

Ensuring a meeting of the minds among far flung countries is never easy, but all seem up to the challenge. Work is underway on a joint paper with contributions from all partners that will cover what happened to the cows during trait measurement, description of the data and a brief description of each trait in the database.

Teamwork works

So apart from normal challenges of genetic research, what could possibly be a barrier to progress in a six-country effort? How about the fact that it involves six countries?

“Even though something like feed intake is one trait, it can also be considered a different trait in each country thanks to genotype-environment interaction. This is a phenomenon where two different genotypes respond to environmental variation in different ways.”

For example, you might have a sire in Denmark whose daughters exhibit high feed intake, yet daughters of the sire may not display the same high feed intake in Canada. If there’s a top bull in Australia, it won’t necessarily be a top performer in Switzerland. By employing both a single trait and multi-trait model, researchers have managed to account for those variations among countries and still produce meaningful results for the benefit of all.

If the inner workings of the database are complex, the importance and potential implications of this international partnership are crystal clear.

“Nowadays people in every country are concerned about climate change and the environment. If we can make cows more efficient, we can minimize the environmental impact of our industry around the globe. More and more consumers are opting for green products, so it’s important to stay a step ahead and find answers before they stop buying dairy products.”

Even if one of the countries in this partnership gave us Hans Christian Andersen, the idea of a greener world through genomics is anything but a fairy tale.