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New Project Breeds Cows Better Suited to Organic Dairy Production

06 February 2015

DENMARK - A new project is set to benefit organic dairy production, partly by developing breeds of cows that are better suited to organic production and partly by creating niche dairy products based on knowledge of the cows' breeding characteristics.

We are used to hearing about the differences between conventional and organic dairy productions Cows on organic farms receive special feed, must be kept on grass for most of the year and generally have different living conditions than cows on conventional farms. But there is no genetic difference between the animals in the two types of production. Organic farmers choose breeding material from the same group of bulls as their conventional counterparts.

A new project, SOBcows, led by scientists from Aarhus University, will be examining whether it is possible to develop special breeds adapted to organic milk production and to develop new dairy products from cows with specific genetic traits.

The opportunity to develop organic breeds is the result of the new genomic selection technology, where the animal's genetic potential is determined from a blood sample.

"There are strong indications that specifically organic breeding material would be optimal for the organic dairy farmers, since cows in this production category ought to have different traits from cows in the conventional production, and with genomic selection we’re now able to develop lines with these special qualities," said project manager and senior consultant at the Department of Molecular Biology and Genetics, Morten Kargo.

He explains that cows on an organic farm, for example, would need to be more robust since organic farms wish to rely less on antibiotics.

"It’s also conceivable that the strength of the cow's limbs is important because the cows spend more time outdoors. There is also evidence that fertility is less important than in conventional production," said Morten Kargo.

Niche products to promote organic product lines

Since the ultimate beneficiary of the new breeding lines is the organic farmer, the project intends to extensively involve the farmers. A number of visits to ‘Naturmælk’ suppliers are therefore planned and all organic farmers will be able via a questionnaire to contribute to the discussion on the characteristics that are deemed to be important for a cow in an organic production.

Should it for example be prioritised that the cow suffers less from mastitis, although this has an adverse effect on milk yield, or is it the priority a higher milk yield?

By developing organic breeds, it may also be possible to develop new products for the benefit of the organic sector. Because the diet in organic dairy production contains a lot of grass, hay and grass silage, the milk is characterised by a higher content of specific health-promoting fatty acids, and an aspect of the project is to examine whether some cows are genetically disposed to producing high contents of these fatty acids in milk. The organic market can thus be revived with products that can be sold as being particularly healthy.

The scientists will also be looking into the feasibility of including the indigenous dairy breeds in organic production. This will be done by examining whether milk from these breeds differs from other breeds, and whether it is therefore possible to develop new products that will appeal to certain consumer segments.

Morten Kargo is optimistic on the project’s part and believes that there will be important results to show at the end of the four years: "My hope is that we will have proven that it makes sense to divide the three Danish breeds into a conventional and an organic line, and that we will have two business concepts that dairies would like to use."

The project has received 7.4 million DKK from the Green Development and Demonstration Programme and from the commission for the conservation of Danish livestock breeds (Bevaringsudvalget) and co-financing from the involved partners. The project has a total budget of just over 10 million DKK.

The project is an Organic RDD2-projekt and is coordinated by the International Centre for Research in Organic Farming Systems (ICROFS).

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