Dr. Fernando Soberon, Technical Services Manager for Nutreco Canada, has been involved in dairy cow research since 2005, when he began his studies for his Master’s Degree at Cornell University. He then continued onto his Ph.D. track, also at Cornell, under the mentorship of world renowned researcher, Professor Mike Van Amburgh. In that doctoral research, Soberon focused on the effect of early life management and nutrition on the long-term performance of heifers. It is his continued research and significant findings in this area, over more than a decade, that has distinguished Dr. Soberon, and has made him one of the go-to experts in the field.
Ultimately, what Dr. Soberon has found is that if certain stimuli are present in the early life of an animal, those stimuli can change the way that particular genes are expressed, and will actually, therefore, change the potential of that particular animal throughout its life. He notes that while this idea is not new and goes back to 1953, when the first non-genetic effect that had permanent consequences on the life or performance of a given animal was described, it wasn’t until 2008 that a mechanism that directly affected gene expression was found. While this direct link was discovered in a swine study, this effect has been proven in seven different species since then, including bovines. While the timing of the stimuli varies according to species, with some animals requiring the stimuli within the first few days of life, and with others the stimuli need only be present within the first month or months of life, the consistency is with the fact that it is factors external to the genes that in a sense, “switch the genes on.”.
In the case of dairy cows, Dr. Soberon explains that it’s certain feeding and management practices prior to weaning that have been shown to influence eventual lactation production, three to five years after they are implemented. He relates that the whole purpose of the LifeStart programme is to better understand the stimuli and nutritional factors involved in creating this long term effect in the performance of animals. The hope is that with this understanding, it will be possible to utilise these practices in order to increase on-farm profitability, as well as help the next generation of farmers feed the future.