Interview: Leonel Leal on the LifeStart Research Program

LifeStart sat down with Leonel Leal, Project Manager and Ruminant Nutrition Researcher at Trouw Nutrition, to discuss the goals and scope of the LifeStart Research Program

LifeStart: Can you explain the LifeStart research program in terms of the goals of the project?

Leonel Leal: The LifeStart research program seeks to evaluate the effects of pre-weaning nutrient intake and body weight gain on lifetime performance of dairy cows. In order to assess that, we have planned a long- term study that is following more than 70 female calves throughout their entire lifespan. Since slaughtering the animals for further understanding of their development is not an option, we are applying a set of non-invasive/less-invasive techniques (such metabolimics), which will allow us to monitor the metabolic development of the calves at several points in time and during their entire life. With such an approach, we expect to get closer to the answer of our most basic question at LifeStart which is why it is that calves who grow faster in the first 6 to 8 weeks of life become more productive in their adulthood?

LifeStart: What is your specific role in the project?

Leonel Leal: My role is multi-dimensional. I am responsible for all scientific activities related to the project which, of course, include: trial design, writing and revision of protocols, decision-making regarding sampling, the scope of treatment definitions and the reporting of results, as well as many other things.

LifeStart: What is the biggest "unknown" that you are most interested in knowing through this research?

Leonel Leal: Although there is plenty of data pointing to a relationship between pre-weaning average daily gain and future milk production, there is still a lack of understanding about the mechanisms that orchestrate this response. Therefore, our main objective with this project is to further understand those biological mechanisms and try to promote them.

LifeStart: What is or could be the biggest obstacle in getting the information you want with this research study?

Leonel Leal: There are always risk factors associated with this type of research. For instance, in our current project, we may fail to create enough of a difference between the two groups which may mean we won't be able to detect production differences later on. Another possibility is that the effect may not be picked up with the techniques that we choose to use. In spite of these risks, we remain optimistic and are excited to see the results!

LifeStart: Why do you think this research hasn't been done before? Has it been because of theoretical reasons or due to practical limitations?

Leonel Leal: The major limitation for this type of research is the time investment that it necessarily involves, not only from the researcher's perspective, but also from the entire research unit, including farm staff, technicians, etc. There have been other experiments that have followed the effects of pre-weaning nutrition on later life milk production. However, there has been no other study that has monitored the animals as closely as this one, and that has looked into so many aspects at the same time.

LifeStart: What insights do you hope this research provides, in terms of achieving the goal of feeding the growing worldwide population?

Leonel Leal: Hopefully, it will be proof of our guiding principle, that feeding pre-weaned calves better will positively affect their future performance. Moreover, we expect to gain a better understanding of the main biological mechanisms that are triggered by early nutrition which affect the animal's future performance. And, last but not least, we expect to be able to bring some of that knowledge into our product development and formulations in order to further enhance the effect.

LifeStart: If the research is successful in terms of proving that the LifeStart concept does indeed produce greater amounts of milk in the first and subsequent lactations, what's next? Where do we go from here?

Leonel Leal: In my opinion, if cows do produce more milk in their first and subsequent lactations, the next logical step will be to study the impact of such pre-weaning programs on overall health parameters, on fertility and on longevity of dairy cows. We will need to take a holistic approach to better understand both the short and long term implications of such strategies. While keeping the focus on both animal welfare and efficiency, we will need to make sure that taking care of our young calves is also going to bring economic benefits at the farm level.

If those figures all come together as we expect, they may present enough evidence for dairy farmers to at least "rethink" their entire calf/heifer rearing strategy.

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