Study finds heat-tolerant cows could boost dairy milk production

The researchers have identified five genes strongly associated with heat tolerance in dairy cows
calendar icon 4 January 2022
clock icon 2 minute read

As weather begins to heat up across Australia, milk production in dairy cows will likely decline. Ground-breaking research from Agriculture Victoria aims to change that, though.

Researchers at Agriculture Victoria are supporting dairy farmers in their response to extreme temperatures through a study on heat tolerance in dairy cows. They are now one step closer to unlocking the genetic code to breeding more heat-resistant cows.

Agriculture Victoria Research Director Ben Cocks said researchers have identified five new genes strongly associated with heat tolerance in dairy cows.

The findings come after studying almost 500,000 milk records from approximately 30,000 Holstein cows — a six-fold increase in sample size from prior comparable studies.

“This large increase in sample size has helped the team pinpoint the specific regions in the cow’s DNA that controls heat regulation, helping us better identify which cows are more heat tolerant than others,” Professor Cocks said.

When temperatures and humidity rise, dairy cows reduce their feed intake, resulting in a decrease in milk production. In areas such as Northern Victoria, this means more than 100 days a year are considered too hot for dairy cows to produce optimal amounts of milk.

“By breeding cattle that can adapt to rising temperatures, we are helping create a more resilient dairy industry under a changing climate,” Professor Cocks said. “This gives farmers the support they need to minimise the impact of heat on their herds and maintain milk production.”

Researchers also discovered that genes associated with the nervous system were critical for heat tolerance — an important finding as the nervous system connects the inside of the animal to its outside environment.

The research team at Agriculture Victoria is using the results from the study to begin a five-year research project — testing and comparing the newly found heat-tolerant genes with DNA from dairy cows across Australia to find new ways to identify the most heat-tolerant cows for farmers to breed.

As temperatures increase across Australia, heat-tolerant dairy cows are fast gaining the attention of scientists and farmers to help maintain consistent milk production and create a more efficient and competitive dairy industry.

This world-leading study is part of the DairyBio program — a $55 million research partnership between Agriculture Victoria, Dairy Australia and the Gardiner Foundation.

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