Sunday, July 3, 2022

Research adding value to product

Massey University PhD student Nicholas Sneddon is looking at how dairy farmers could be encouraged to milk cows that produce more lactose. Dairy farming in New Zealand is driven by the payment for the percentage of fat and protein content in milk and our Holstein Friesian cows produce between 10-20% more milksolids (MS) than the same breed farmed overseas, where farmers are paid on volume. However, volume and lactose production in dairy cows are linked – less volume means less lactose, so much so that 10-15% of lactose has to be added to NZ milk powder to meet international specifications. With the international price for lactose volatile as demand for it increases, buying lactose is becoming a problem for the industry. “As the price of lactose trends upwards, the economic benefits of adding lactose to milk powders are obviously threatened,” Sneddon said. He said lactose production was not part of breeding worth (BW) or production worth (PW) and part of his research was looking into what would be the effect on genetic worth if it was.

“My research is looking at two things. One is a payment system, how to reward farmers for higher lactose production and to give it an economic value. Second is how to determine the genetic parameters and the effects from selection. Among all that, lactose has both a value in milk powder and a cost – it determines volume, which adds to processing and transport costs.”

The project is partially funded by LIC’s Patrick Shannon Scholarship Programme and Dr Steve Davis, a lactation expert with LIC, is also involved.

“I’m a geneticist and both of my supervisors at Massey University, associate professor Nicolas Lopez-Villalobos and Dr Rebecca Hickson, are also geneticists, so we needed someone who knew about lactation to be on the team and that’s where Steve comes in,” Sneddon said.

Not that he doesn’t know a lot about cows himself. His parents and his four brothers all milk cows in Waikato on different farms and Sneddon funded his Massey Bachelor of Science degree majoring in animal science and genetics and a post graduate diploma in animal science by milking in his summer holidays. Dr Laurence Shalloo, from Moorepark Teagasc in Ireland, completes the research team.

A year into the three-and-a-half-year Phd, Sneddon has already discovered a link between protein and lactose yield.

“We seem to have found a quite promising correlation between the two traits, which is good, as farmers who have been chasing protein will also have been chasing lactose without realising it,” he said.

“We found it in quite a small data set, so now we have to back up our findings with a larger data set to see if it still holds true.”

He also wants to talk to farmers who supply to Synlait Milk, because the company already pays farmers for lactose production.

“I want to know what sort of breeding plans they have and are they looking for bulls that give greater lactose and if their cows are producing more lactose than the national herd.

“Also, is production suffering if they are choosing to breed for lactose? It’s quite an important question. We don’t want to lose production gains by choosing lactose over other traits and if it is added to the BWs it will have to reflect that.”

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