Exploring How Milk Production Affects Cow Health Through Genetics

Jenn Hoskins
9th April, 2024

Exploring How Milk Production Affects Cow Health Through Genetics

Key Findings

  • Study conducted on 34,497 German Holstein cows found high milk yield can cause health issues
  • Specifically, increased milk production is linked to higher risk of udder infection (mastitis) and claw diseases
  • The study suggests breeding programs should balance milk yield with health traits for better cattle welfare
Understanding the intricate relationship between milk production and the health of dairy cattle is crucial for the industry. High milk yield, while economically desirable, has often been observed to correlate with health issues such as mastitis, an udder infection, and claw diseases. These conditions not only affect the well-being of the animals but also lead to significant economic losses due to treatment costs and reduced milk quality and quantity. Researchers from the University of Hohenheim[1] have taken a novel approach to investigate whether there is a direct causal relationship between milk yield and the prevalence of health issues in dairy cattle. Previous studies have established genetic correlations between milk yield and health traits[2][3][4], suggesting that animals bred for high milk production might be more susceptible to diseases. However, these correlations do not imply causation. The new study employs a method called Mendelian randomization (MR), which uses genetic variants as proxies to estimate the causal effect of an exposure (in this case, milk yield) on an outcome (such as mastitis or claw diseases). Unlike traditional observational studies, MR can provide insights into the direction and causality of the relationship because the genetic variants are randomly allocated at conception, much like in a randomized controlled trial. The Hohenheim team analyzed whole-genome sequence data from 34,497 German Holstein cows. They focused on identifying the genetic variants associated with milk yield and then looked for causal associations with seven different health traits. Importantly, they used a refined MR approach that filters out variants with horizontal pleiotropy—those that influence multiple traits—which can bias results. The MR analysis revealed that high milk yield is indeed causally related to some health issues in dairy cattle. This finding is significant because it supports the need for a balanced approach in breeding programs. While previous research has suggested that selecting for mastitis resistance could enhance overall cattle health and longevity[2], the new study provides a genetic basis for these observations, strengthening the argument for incorporating health traits into breeding objectives. The study also builds upon earlier findings that routine recording of claw health and mastitis incidence can be valuable for genetic evaluations[3]. By establishing a causal link, breeders can make more informed decisions using these data. Moreover, the confirmation of pleiotropic effects of certain genetic variants on milk production and health traits[4] further underscores the complexity of cattle genetics. This complexity necessitates a comprehensive strategy that considers the multifaceted nature of genetic influences on these important traits. In summary, the research from the University of Hohenheim advances our understanding by demonstrating a causal relationship between milk production and the health of dairy cattle. The study highlights the potential risks associated with single-trait selection for high milk yield and reinforces the importance of considering a range of health traits in breeding programs. This approach could lead to healthier herds, improved animal welfare, and sustained profitability for the dairy industry. The findings advocate for a more nuanced breeding strategy that balances productivity with health, ultimately benefiting cows, farmers, and consumers alike.

AgricultureGeneticsAnimal Science


Main Study

1) Mendelian randomization analysis of 34,497 German Holstein cows to infer causal associations between milk production and health traits

Published 8th April, 2024


Related Studies

2) Symposium review: Novel strategies to genetically improve mastitis resistance in dairy cattle.


3) Invited review: Genetics and claw health: Opportunities to enhance claw health by genetic selection.


4) Distinguishing pleiotropy from linked QTL between milk production traits and mastitis resistance in Nordic Holstein cattle.


Related Articles

An unhandled error has occurred. Reload 🗙