The focus of modern dairy cow breeding programs has shifted from being mainly yield based toward balanced goals that increasingly consider functional traits such as fertility, metabolic stability, and longevity. To improve these traits, a less pronounced energy deficit postpartum is considered a key challenge. On the other hand, feed efficiency and methane emissions are gaining importance, possibly leading to conflicts in the design of breeding goals. Dry matter intake (DMI) is one of the major determinants of energy balance (EB), and recently some efforts were undertaken to include DMI in genomic breeding programs. However, there is not yet a consensus on how this should be achieved as there are different goals in the course of lactation (i.e., reducing energy deficit postpartum vs. subsequently improving feed efficiency). Thus, the aim of this study was to gain more insight into the genetic architecture of energy metabolism across lactation by genetically dissecting EB and its major determinants DMI and energy-corrected milk (ECM) yield at different lactation stages applying random regression methodology and univariate and multivariate genomic analyses to data from 1,174 primiparous Holstein cows. Daily heritability estimates ranged from 0.29 to 0.49, 0.26 to 0.37, and 0.58 to 0.68 for EB, DMI, and ECM, respectively, across the first 180 d in milk (DIM). Genetic correlations between ECM and DMI were positive, ranging from 0.09 (DIM 11) to 0.36 (DIM 180). However, ECM and EB were negatively correlated (rg = -0.26 to -0.59). The strongest relationship was found at the onset of lactation, indicating that selection for increased milk yield at this stage will result in a more severe energy deficit postpartum. The results also indicate that EB is more affected by DMI (rg = 0.71 to 0.81) than by its other major determinant, ECM. Thus, breeding for a higher DMI in early lactation seems to be a promising strategy to improve the energy status of dairy cows. We found evidence that genetic regulation of energy homeostasis is complex, with trait- and lactation stage-specific quantitative trait loci suggesting that the trajectories of the analyzed traits can be optimized as mentioned above. Especially from the multivariate genomic analyses, we were able to draw some conclusions on the mechanisms involved and identified the genes encoding fumarate hydratase and adiponectin as highly promising candidates for EB, which will be further analyzed.
Keywords: dry matter intake; energy balance; energy-corrected milk yield; genetics; genomics.
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