Are some cows better at weathering climate change?

New research could help cattle — and beef producers — cope with more extreme temperature swings year-round.

EDMONTON — An ongoing University of Alberta study — one of the first to compare cold and heat extremes using the same animals in naturally occurring conditions — hopes to shed light on whether cattle that are good at converting the food they eat into weight gain can also successfully cope with climate change. 

Gleise Silva, an assistant professor in the Faculty of Agricultural, Life & Environmental Sciences, and a small team of graduate students are monitoring 49 head of cattle at the U of A’s Roy Berg Kinsella Research Ranch for the next year.

The issue is a pressing one, considering Alberta is home to 40 per cent of Canada’s beef herds — and to big temperature swings, says Silva. 

Adjusting to extremely hot or cold weather requires cattle to make stressful behavioural, physiological and metabolic changes, she notes. Beef producers also pay a price when the thermometer changes drastically — for example, having to provide more winter feed or seeing herd reproduction rates fall due to heat exhaustion.

As a possible way to improve herd resiliency, Silva’s research will test the theory that feed-efficient cattle — those that eat less than expected but still gain the same weight as other cows — are also better at burning less energy to stay warm or cool. 

The results will show whether the heifers maintain their weight, immunity level and breeding success compared with their less efficient herdmates. 

Knowing that their feed-efficient cows are also weather-resilient would confirm to producers which animals to retain for breeding, building in herd sustainability and resilience.

“It would mean the animals don’t need to change their behaviours a lot, that they can live in a constant way throughout the year,” Silva says. “This is especially important in cow-calf operations where cows are kept in the herd for years.”

“Having animals that can maintain and sustain more productivity, regardless of what’s going on outdoors, would be great for the industry,” says Silva.

The full story can be found here. To speak with Gleise M. Silva, please contact:

Debra Clark
U of A communications associate