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Climate change threatens farm animals

Climate change threatens farm animals

Although climate change is a global threat, its effects will be felt differently around the world. Livestock is an integral part of people’s social, cultural and economic existence.

Extreme heat, farm animals at risk: genomics will save them by finding the “resilience genes” to the fever of the planet Scientists of the Catholic University, Piacenza campus engaged in international research projects to discover the genetic basis of heat adaptation and humidity. Once identified, they can be transferred to homegrown breeds of cattle and sheep to make them stronger in the face of climate change and avert huge economic losses.

According to the recent research published a review in the journal Animals about livestock adaptation to climate change. Researchers are looking for genes to make cattle and sheep breeds resistant to climate change, heat waves and drought: the very survival of many local breeds is at risk, with enormous economic losses for the production chain, while the arrival of new diseases can affect the livestock.

Production loss due to climate change

“The production loss due to heat depends on the environmental conditions, evaluated by the temperature/humidity index (THI),” explains Professor Ajmone Marsan. Several studies revealed worrying estimates of the order of millions of euros in direct costs (loss of production) and indirect costs (cost of veterinary interventions, feed, etc.).

Prof. Trevisan points out that a paper, published this year in The Lancet Planetary Health, estimates global production loss from heat stress to be about $40 billion a year by the end of the century (from a low of $34 up to a maximum of $45), equivalent to about 10 per cent of the 2005 value of meat and milk.

Farm animals. Photo credit: unsplash/Annie Spratt

“Heat stress is detrimental to all animal species,” explains Professor Negrini, “particularly ruminants and high-producing dairy cattle, as well as our breeds. Unfortunately, climate projections indicate that summer weather in our country will be increasingly dry and hot. That will increase stress on the animals, despite shading, ventilation, water spraying and possible conditioning.”

Hunting for solutions

Researchers from the Catholic University, Piacenza campus, hunting for genes to make the Bel Paese’s cattle and sheep breeds resistant to climate change, scorching heat and drought: the very survival of many local breeds and huge economic losses for the production chain, as well as the arrival of new diseases that can seriously affect cattle.

At the Faculty of Agricultural, Food and Forestry Sciences chaired by Professor Marco Trevisan, the Department of Animal Sciences, Nutrition and Food – DiANA, directed by Professor Francesco Masoero, studies the genetics of adaptation. The geneticists, coordinated by Professor Paolo Ajmone Marsan and involving prof. Riccardo Negrini, Prof. Licia Colli and a large group of young PhD students and postdocs recently published a review on the theme of adapting farms to climate change in the magazine Animals. The loss of production due to heat depends on the environmental conditions, evaluated by the temperature/humidity index (THI) – explains Professor Ajmone Marsan. It depends on the breed and the management of the farms.

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Genomics to save livestock

Genomics can help save farms from climate change, explains Professor Ajmone Marsan. For some years now, national genetic improvement programs have changed the selection objectives of livestock species, favouring more robust and functional animals and not only very productive ones.

Traditional selection produces excellent results but in a long time, at least 5 years. Genomics, that is, the detailed study of the DNA of animals, has almost tripled the speed of selection.

The geneticists, coordinated by Prof. Paolo Ajmone Marsan and with the participation of Prof. Riccardo Negrini, Prof. Licia Colli said that “Many ongoing research projects are looking for other favourable genetic variants associated with adaptation to the environment in other breeds and other species. We are actively involved in some of these projects.”

“We are studying the genetic basis of adaptation as part of national and international projects,” she explains. “In particular, we are coordinating the SCALA-MEDI project that studies the genetics of adaptation in sheep and poultry in North Africa. Five countries, Italy, France, Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco, 18 partners and more than 100 researchers are involved in the project.

“The main objective is to study and improve the adaptability to extreme climates of North African landraces, particularly very hot and dry climates such as those in the Sahara. Understanding the genetic and epigenetic mechanisms of climate adaptation is important for planning genetic and genomic improvement programs that increase the production efficiency of local breeds without compromising their adaptive traits.”

Mitigation measures

Continental sampling of cattle will also allow us to study the genes of cattle adaptation along an extremely varied climatic gradient, from Patagonia to the tropics; from sea level to the altitudes of the Peruvian mountains.

Genomics is a powerful tool and will facilitate the selection of the animals most resistant to climate change, concludes prof. Erminio Trevisi, animal physiologist, but remember that it is only one of the factors that can guarantee animal welfare in the event of extreme climates and must act in synergy with company structures, farm management and precision feeding. The good news is that animals in production are increasingly being monitored closely by cameras.

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