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Researchers receive €7.4 million to counteract declining fertility in dairy cows

The greatest problem facing the dairy industry today, at primary production level, is the continuing decline in cow fertility. Low fertility leads to reduced milk yields, increased labour and veterinary costs, increased culling of cows due to failure to become pregnant and the resultant loss of income to dairy farmers.

It is also implicated in the decreasing competitiveness of the Irish dairy industry, which results in increased numbers of people leaving dairy farming with negative consequences to both the industry and fabric of rural communities in Ireland.

And while milk prices are at an all time high at present, the future globalisation of agricultural markets has the potential to reverse this and put increased pressure on dairy farm income. It is imperative therefore, to address the critical problem of low fertility in dairy cows in order to have a positive impact on the Irish dairy sector which is responsible for over a quarter of all food exports and is a major contributor to the prepared food sector (22% of total exports),

Low fertility is mostly a result of events before or after insemination. And to overcome these barriers we require a greater understanding of the biochemical and cellular processes behind the co-ordinated physiological regulation of ovarian, oocyte, embryo and uterine function at this important time.

With a recent grant award of €7.4 million from Science Foundation Ireland (announced on 13 November 2007), a group of internationally recognised scientists from University College Dublin (UCD) and Teagasc, along with industry partners Pfizer and Biotrin Technologies, will focus on investigating the biology of peri-ovulatory and post ovulatory events that lead to the establishment of pregnancy in the dairy cow.

“The idea is to develop approaches and/or technologies to improve fertility in dairy cows, discoveries which may also have real implications for the treatment of infertility in other species, particularly humans,” says Professor Alexander Evans from the UCD School of Agriculture, Food Science, and Veterinary Medicine, who is leading the research project.

“The intensive selection for increased milk production, coupled with improved nutrition which has led to significant improvements in milk output per cow over recent decades has resulted in a serious decline in cow fertility worldwide,” explains Professor Evans. “A decline in first service conceptions rates of about 1% per year has been reported.”

“This new research aims to enable us to counteract this decline in dairy cow fertility,” he says. “With a critical mass and using the latest technologies, our multi-disciplinary team of researchers and industry scientists will analyse a continuum of critical biological events which lead to pregnancy to find solutions to these fertility problems.”

The industry partners on the research project, Pfizer Animal Health and Biotrin have identified this area of research as having major potential for the development of new products for a global market. Both companies have already commercialised reproduction-related products and have major ongoing Research and Development programmes in the area.

Pfizer scientists will bring their scientific technologies and commercial insights and acumen to enhance the commercial strength of the project through chemical synthesis, evaluation, and screening of new biomarkers and potential therapies to modulate reproductive function. Scientists in Biotrin will assist in the development and commercialisation of diagnostic products.

The grant support received from SFI towards this research project clearly demonstrates the government’s acknowledgement of the importance of the agri-food industries and, in particular, the dairy industry to Ireland’s future prosperity. This significant investment in research and scientific training will further serve a knowledge driven agricultural industry in Ireland.

Dominic Martella | alfa
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