Effects of nutrition and genetics on fertility in dairy cows

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Published on: April 17, 2019


Reproduction, Fertility and Development 31(1) 40-54 https://doi.org/10.1071/RD18364
Published online: 3 December 2018

Alex Bach

Institucio´Catalana de Recerca i Estudis Avanc¸ats (Barcelona 08007, Spain) and Department of Ruminant Production, Institut de Recerca i Tecnologies Agroalimenta`ries (Caldes de Montbui, 08140 Spain). Email: alex.bach@icrea.cat

Optimal reproductive function in dairy cattle is mandatory to maximise profits. Dairy production has progressively improved milk yields, but, until recently, the trend in reproductive performance has been the opposite. Nutrition, genetics, and epigenetics are important aspects affecting the reproductive performance of dairy cows. In terms of nutrition, the field has commonly fed high-energy diets to dairy cows during the 3 weeks before calving in an attempt to minimise postpartum metabolic upsets. However, in the recent years it has become clear that feeding high-energy diets during the dry period, especially as calving approaches, may be detrimental to cow health, or at least unnecessary because cows, at that time, have low energy requirements and sufficient intake capacity. After calving, dairy cows commonly experience a period of negative energy balance (NEB) characterised by low blood glucose and high non-esterified fatty acid (NEFA) concentrations. This has both direct and indirect effects on oocyte quality and survival. When oocytes are forced to depend highly on the use of energy resources derived from body reserves, mainly NEFA, their development is compromised due to a modification in mitochondrial b-oxidation. Furthermore, the indirect effect of NEB on reproduction is mediated by a hormonal (both metabolic and reproductive) environment. Some authors have attempted to overcome the NEB by providing the oocyte with external sources of energy via dietary fat. Conversely, fertility is affected by a large number of genes, each with small individual effects, and thus it is unlikely that the decline in reproductive function has been directly caused by genetic selection for milk yield per se. It is more likely that the decline is the consequence of a combination of homeorhetic mechanisms (giving priority to milk over other functions) and increased metabolic pressure (due to a shortage of nutrients) with increasing milk yields. Nevertheless, genetics is an important component of reproductive efficiency, and the incorporation of genomic information is allowing the detection of genetic defects, degree of inbreeding and specific single nucleotide polymorphisms directly associated with reproduction, providing pivotal information for genetic selection programs. Furthermore, focusing on improving bull fertility in gene selection programs may represent an interesting opportunity. Conversely, the reproductive function of a given cow depends on the interaction between her genetic background and her environment, which ultimately modulates gene expression. Among the mechanisms modulating gene expression, microRNAs (miRNAs) and epigenetics seem to be most relevant. Several miRNAs have been described to play active roles in both ovarian and testicular function, and epigenetic effects have been described as a consequence of the nutrient supply and hormonal signals to which the offspring was exposed at specific stages during development. For example, there are differences in the epigenome of cows born to heifers and those born to cows, and this epigenome seems to be sensitive to the availability of methyl donor compounds of the dam. Lastly, recent studies in other species have shown the relevance of paternal epigenetic marks, but this aspect has been, until now, largely overlooked in dairy cattle.

Additional keywords: Amino acids, Epigenetics, Fat, Glucose, Minerals, Reproduction, Vitamins

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