Predicting Cattle Infertility Through Machine-learning

For cattle farmers, maximizing reproductive rates of their heifers is critical to the economic sustainability and viability of their farms. Infertility and pregnancy loss are common problems that decrease reproductive efficiency in beef heifers.

To combat this issue, researchers in the Virginia Tech College of Agriculture and Life Sciences are working on a method to effectively identify which heifers will be able to successfully reproduce, saving farmers resources, time, and money. They are using big data and cutting-edge analytics to find genetic markers in heifers that have become pregnant — and ones that haven’t — as the backbone of their research that is driven by machine-learning algorithms.

These algorithms were applied on data from two breeding sessions, allowing for a significant amount of input data points and a strengthening of the ability to predict those markers associated with pregnancy outcome.

“This will help farmers to adequately allocate resources in their farms and increase the cow-calf production efficiency while minimizing potential loss,” said Fernando Biase, an assistant professor in the Department of Animal and Poultry Sciences. “Fifteen percent of heifers that do not get pregnant in their first breeding season cause a considerable amount of financial loss that the producer will not bring back to the farm.”

Biase recently received a $475,000 grant from the United States Department of Agriculture National Institute of Food and Agriculture to conduct the research on how early these genetic markers could be identified and whether there is a means for a farmer to determine early on if that animal is going to produce a calf.

Heifers return value to farmers by the amount of calves they produce over lifetime. For example, an 11-year-old cow that produces a calf at 2 years of age is more valuable than a cow that failed to do so just once in its lifespan. In order for a cattle farm to be sustainable, heifers need to produce one calf each breeding season.

Farmers spend significant energy and resources to have a calf gain enough weight in order to be at a healthy reproduction level in order to produce a calf at around two years of age. Even with their efforts, sometimes that just doesn’t happen.

Many management procedures have been utilized to maximize the reproductive potential of beef heifers, including controlled weight gain, identification of reproductive maturity by physiological and morphological indicators, and the implementation of an estrous synchronization program.

Biase and the other researchers are working to understand the potential gene transcripts that circulate in the animal’s bloodstream that can potentially predict the likelihood of a pregnancy occurring, with the goal of finding out how early these transcripts can be identified in a calf.

This research opens the door for better resource allocation for farmers. Through a simple blood test, heifers could have the likelihood of their reproductive rate determined. Through the integration of advanced technology, Biase and his team are solving age-old problems to help improve economic efficiency of cattle farms.

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