A major animal trial in Hawera is looking for dairy cows that convert their feed into milk most efficiently.
In research started in 2007, DairyNZ scientists Kevin Macdonald and Garry Waghorn, of Hamilton, are seeking to pinpoint gene markers that identify cows which eat less than expected to produce milksolids and to maintain body condition.
Selecting cows with the marker will allow farmers to boost milk production because the animals will eat less.
The trial at the Westpac Taranaki Agricultural Research Station (WTARS) near Fonterra's Whareroa site near Hawera is due to be completed at the end of the 2013-14 dairy season. Data from it is being combined with similar research in Australia.
In the initial stages of the trial, the amount of feed calves consumed was measured.
Pens holding eight calves contained a single feed bin so only one animal could eat at a time. Electronic identification allowed the amount each animal ate to be recorded automatically, so its liveweight gain could be measured against the energy it consumed.
Calves measured as the most or least efficient were retained for further study as lactating cows.
They are now on four different farmlets at the station and their response to varying amounts of feed is being tested. The different stocking rates on the farmlets allow the cows' milk production in relation to the amount of feed they receive to be analysed.
In 2011, 3700 Taranaki and Waikato holstein- friesian cows were sampled to determine whether they had the set of gene markers. From this group, 214 cows were purchased and transferred to the research station so the markers could be validated.
The Livestock Improvement Corporation also identified sires with the markers.
This month 96 six- month-old calves will go into the research station's pens for 60 days to test whether they have inherited the markers from the sires and dams. The calves will be weighed three times a week.
In earlier tests, the same liveweight gains were achieved by the most efficient calves, which ate 20 per cent less than the others, while the least efficient ate 20 per cent more.
Similar results from the current intake of calves will validate the earlier data.
Among the research station's four technicians assisting with the trial are Matt Simpson, with a BA in geography and environmental science, and Dianne Bailey, who has a diploma in dairy technology.
"Some calves eat 20 per cent less than others for the same liveweight gain, while some eat more yet have the same liveweight gain," Simpson said. "The trial wants the extremes, not the middle-of-the-road animals."
The technicians measure cows' daily and weekly pasture intakes and milk production through weekly herd-testing to calculate the ratio of production to food intake.
They also weigh and condition- score the cows every fortnight.
The technicians collect data for Macdonald and Waghorn and for scientists conducting research at Waimate West Demonstration Farm, near Manaia.
There, they harvest crops and weigh and condition-score the herd.
Other duties include assisting WTARS manager Brett Thomson when he undertakes his weekly pasture walk on the 110-hectare farm.
They peg out areas of low, medium and high pasture covers for visual scoring before cutting and drying the grass for accurate measurement of the dry matter content.
Analysis of dry matter in pasture is also a service they offer to farmers.
The research station was established at Normanby in about 1974 and moved to its present site near Fonterra's Whareroa plant about 12 years ago after government support of regional agricultural research was discontinued.
The Taranaki Agricultural Research Station Trust leases the farm from Fonterra and owns the 340 cows milked there.
DairyNZ manages the farm under contract to the trust.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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