Genetic analysis of phenotypic indicators for heat tolerance in crossbred dairy cattle

R. D. Oloo*, C. C. Ekine-Dzivenu, R. Mrode, J. Bennewitz, J. M.K. Ojango, G. Kipkosgei, G. Gebreyohanes, A. M. Okeyo, M. G.G. Chagunda

*Corresponding author for this work

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Climate change-induced rise in global temperatures has intensified heat stress on dairy cattle and is contributing to the generally observed low milk productivity. Selective breeding aimed at enhancing animals’ ability to withstand rising temperatures while maintaining optimal performance is crucial for ensuring future access to dairy products. However, phenotypic indicators of heat tolerance are yet to be effectively factored into the objectives of most selective breeding programs. This study investigated the response of milk production to changing heat load as an indication of heat tolerance and the influence of calving season on this response in multibreed dairy cattle performing in three agroecological zones Kenya. First-parity 7-day average milk yield (65 261 milk records) of 1 739 cows were analyzed. Based on routinely recorded weather data that were accessible online, the Temperature-Humidity Index (THI) was calculated and used as a measure of heat load. THI measurements used represented averages of the same 7-day periods corresponding to each 7-day average milk record. Random regression models, including reaction norm functions, were fitted to derive two resilience indicators: slope of the reaction norm (Slope) and its absolute value (Absolute), reflecting changes in milk yield in response to the varying heat loads (THI 50 and THI 80). The genetic parameters of these indicators were estimated, and their associations with average test-day milk yield were examined. There were no substantial differences in the pattern of milk yield response to heat load between cows calving in dry and wet seasons. Animals with ≤50% Bos taurus genes were the most thermotolerant at extremely high heat load levels. Animals performing in semi-arid environments exhibited the highest heat tolerance capacity. Heritability estimates for these indicators ranged from 0.06 to 0.33 and were mostly significantly different from zero (P < 0.05). Slope at THI 80 had high (0.64–0.71) negative correlations with average daily milk yield, revealing that high-producing cows are more vulnerable to heat stress and vice versa. A high (0.63–0.74) positive correlation was observed between Absolute and average milk yield at THI 80. This implied that low milk-producing cows have a more stable milk production under heat-stress conditions and vice versa. The study demonstrated that the slope of the reaction norms and its absolute value can effectively measure the resilience of crossbred dairy cattle to varying heat load conditions. The implications of these findings are valuable in improving the heat tolerance of livestock species through genetic selection.

Original languageEnglish
Article number101139
Issue number5
Early online date15 Apr 2024
Publication statusPrint publication - May 2024

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  • Climate change
  • Heat stress
  • Livestock
  • Reaction norms
  • Sub-Saharan Africa


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