Improving milk production – the Buffalo Edition. A Canadian first!


Published: 20Aug2018


Cheese lovers rejoice! Researchers at Mac are helping Canada’s craft buffalo milk industry build capacity to meet the ever-growing demand for buffalo milk products long enjoyed by Italians and South East Asians – milk that transforms into delicious, fresh, rich, creamy buffalo milk cheeses like burrata, mozzarella di bufala and paneer, as well as yogurts and butters such as ghee.
Buffalo farmers wanting to expand their operations are faced with sanitary regulations that mostly prohibit their ability to import additional live animals. As a result, they are turning to assisted reproductive technologies to improve production per lactation and to reduce the time to first breeding.

Says Animal Science researcher HERNAN BALDASSARRE, PhD’09, “Artificial insemination using semen from elite Italian bulls is the most common breeding method practiced by Canadian water buffalo producers, but productivity increase can be a lengthy process when genetic improvement is only coming from the sire’s side and the offspring requires about two years to mature before they can be bred for the first time.”

It was Animal Science professor VILCEU BORDIGNON’s research in prepubertal reproduction of cattle and laparoscopic ovum pick-up technologies that led Martin Littkemann and Lori Smith, owners of the Ontario Water Buffalo Company, to Macdonald. The pair are highly innovative and enthusiastic, industry-leading buffalo producers, always in search of new technologies that can be applied to improve herd productivity.

Our Strategy
Says Bordignon, “If there are rather few buffalos in Canada, and many of them are not great milk producers, one part of the strategy is to use those underperformers as “foster mothers” to carry the embryos produced from the females with the best milk production genetics in the herd using Italian semen. If the herd manager is doing his work properly in choosing the semen, the newborns are genetically superior to their mothers. If we can start having progeny from those animals before they can carry their own pregnancy, these genetics will be available faster, thereby accelerating the speed of increased productivity.” He adds, “We now have genomic markers that allow prediction of phenotype of dairy animals from the moment they are born, including how much milk they can produce. So it makes sense to start reproducing those animals as soon as possible.”

As explained by Baldassarre, the team collected oocytes from the female calves born from the Italian semen lines when they were only two to six months of age, fertilized them in vitro and then implanted the resulting embryos in adult cows that carried the pregnancies to term. The process shortened the generation interval by at least one year, accelerating the genetic progress. This has translated into having the improved lineages of animals available sooner, thereby increasing the average milk production of the herd faster. All procedures except the transfer to recipient cows were conducted at the Large Animal Research Unit (LARU) at the Macdonald Campus Farm, as part of a University-Industry Collaborative Research program sponsored by an NSERC grant and the industry partner.

The Results
Jeanette (pictured with her surrogate mother) is the first calf to be born in North America using this technology. The ecstatic research team are now in the early stages of expanding this collaboration to include two buffalo breeders/dairies in Quebec. Says Baldassare, “The results so far reflect a quick adaptation of cattle procedures for use in buffalo, but we feel we can do much better by creating buffalo-specific conditions for in vitro embryo production. We are excited about the prospect of achieving that. Hopefully, in the not too distant future, we won’t have to look too far for farm-fresh buffalo milk products.”