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SmartCow: an integrated infrastructure for increased research capability and innovation in the European cattle sector

Periodic Reporting for period 2 - SmartCow (SmartCow: an integrated infrastructure for increased research capability and innovation in the European cattle sector)

Reporting period: 2019-08-01 to 2021-01-31

Livestock production is vitally important for Europe’s future (€168 billion annually to the EU economy - 45% of the agricultural sector, employment for nearly 30 million people), with a projected 70% increase in worldwide demand for meat and dairy products by 2050. However, the need to improve resource use efficiency, reduce anthropogenic GHG emissions and improve animal health and welfare has been highlighted by the EU, the ATF, the FAO and the GRA GHG. There is also a major challenge for the EU cattle research community to maintain its global scientific leadership. In this context, coordination, harmonisation and access to European research infrastructures (RIs) are essential to support research and innovation for cattle, and to contribute to a sustainable, smart and competitive Europe.
SmartCow is the first successful attempt to integrate key European cattle RIs. Covering all the relevant scientific fields and the diversity of cattle types and production systems, SmartCow has networked RIs, is improving methods and ethics in cattle research and is providing the academic and private research communities with easy access to high quality services and resources. These are needed to develop innovative and ethical solutions for efficient use of animal and feed resources that promote animal welfare and healthy livestock, as well as sustainable competitiveness.
First, management, communication tools and efficient management procedures ensuring that overall progress of the project conforms to the work plan were established. A stakeholder platform, a scientific advisory board and an ethical board were set up from the start of the project. To ensure regular interactions during the lifetime of the project they have been involved since the kick-off meeting.
Providing TransNational Access (TNA) to SmartCow RIs required the establishment of procedures and criteria for submission and evaluation of proposals. Research priorities were discussed with stakeholders and established in line with the scope of the project. A selection panel (internal and external referees) has been set up. Eleven proposals from 7 different countries were selected after the first call launched in July 2018. Ten are led by organisations outside the SmartCow consortium and among them 5 by industry companies. The second call launched in May 2019 received 18 pre-proposals.
Networking activities have started to create a unique portal to key European cattle RIs. An inventory of RIs participating to SmartCow project has been made. Information collected to describe the RIs has been used to create an interactive map that displays selected information on those RIs and a link to their website. In order to extend the interactive map, an online survey was designed and largely disseminated across Europe. The map has currently 18 RIs and 30 organisations have already filled in the survey.
A book of methods on cattle physiology and behaviour is currently in development to provide guidelines for measurement of anatomic, digestive, metabolic, and behavioural traits. Thanks to the inventory of experimental methods and related equipment, 35 guidelines have been drafted so far. The focus is on methods that are novel, no or minimally invasive as well as less intrusive towards the animal. Links between measurements inventoried in the RIs and the animal trait ontologies of livestock developed at INRA are made to go forward using a cattle specific common language to be used by all experimental farms. In total, 94 traits were added to the ontologies. To improve data sharing and processing capabilities a prototype of a cloud-based data platform is being designed to meet the requirements of the scientists. This includes user management permissions, data set creation and sharing, data upload and download, and fine-grained access controls, whereas data linking tools are under construction.
A training course and study tour catalogue has been designed and widely disseminated. The 1st study tour took place in Scotland in March 2019 at SRUC facilities. Many participants registered for the training courses, which are planned to start in September 2019, including two face-to-face training courses on gold standard methods to assess key phenotypes in ruminant nutrition.
Joint research activities have started to work towards the use of less-invasive methods and high-throughput phenotyping. Practices for measurement of digestion and N balance and methane emission across the SmartCow RIs were discussed to consider how to reduce sources of variation and how to improve the procedures. Databases of individual animal data are being assembled for analysis of methodological sources of variation. Measurements of methane recovery are being obtained for respiration chambers at 6 SmartCow facilities to determine the variation in chamber efficiencies and identify sources of variation.
To evaluate proxies of feed efficiency and its determinants in cattle and to identify their range of applicability across diets and individuals, an inventory and a descriptive analysis of available experiments was achieved. In parallel, the collection of samples (around 1100 milk and blood samples, around 1800 faecal samples) and the associated individual phenotypes and proxies has started. Complementary analyses are undertaken and the first prediction models of digestibility and urinary N were tested.
A guideline for validating sensors for recording of animal behaviour has been developed and published on the project website. Specific protocols for testing the guidelines at 3 facilities were drafted and data collection has started. The work plan to develop novel ways of predicting animals’ characteristics based on their behaviour has been established and the inventory of the available data has been completed.
Networking of cattle RIs is developing for the first time at European scale. The mapping of RIs and the writing of guidelines for experimental methods and validation of data from sensors will help operators of related facilities to develop synergies and complementary capabilities, leading to improved and harmonised services and more ethics in experimentation.
Through the TNA, European researchers have started to have wider, simplified, and more efficient access to the best research infrastructures they require to conduct their research, irrespective of location. The involvement of stakeholders in the project and of industry organisations in the TNA projects is fostering innovation through a reinforced partnership with research organisations.
The success of the registration for the first training courses and the involvement of PhD and post-doc researchers in TNA projects are promising and will educate a new generation of researchers that will be ready to exploit optimally all the essential tools for their research.
Closer interactions between researchers in SmartCow RIs, new collaborations with other research organisations or networks (e.g. GRA FNN), and joining the Common Dissemination Booster “Fitter Livestock Farming” will facilitate cross-disciplinary exchanges and a wider sharing of information. The large databases of proxies and datasets from sensors have the potential to improve phenotyping capabilities of RIs on feed efficiency, health and behavioural traits. This will help the cattle sector to find innovative solutions to improve ethics and sustainability in cattle production.
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