The ability to properly assess and accurately phenotype true differences in feed efficiency among dairy cows is key to the development of breeding programs for improving feed efficiency. The variability among individuals in feed efficiency is commonly characterised by the residual intake approach. Residual feed intake is represented by the residuals of a linear regression of intake on the corresponding quantities of the biological functions that consume (or release) energy. However, the residuals include both, model fitting and measurement errors as well as any variability in cow efficiency. The objective of this study was to isolate the individual animal variability in feed efficiency from the residual component. Two separate models were fitted, in one the standard residual energy intake (REI) was calculated as the residual of a multiple linear regression of lactation average net energy intake (NEI) on lactation average milk energy output, average metabolic BW, as well as lactation loss and gain of body condition score. In the other, a linear mixed model was used to simultaneously fit fixed linear regressions and random cow levels on the biological traits and intercept using fortnight repeated measures for the variables. This method split the predicted NEI in two parts: one quantifying the population mean intercept and coefficients, and one quantifying cow-specific deviations in the intercept and coefficients. The cow-specific part of predicted NEI was assumed to isolate true differences in feed efficiency among cows. NEI and associated energy expenditure phenotypes were available for the first 17 fortnights of lactation from 119 Holstein cows; all fed a constant energy-rich diet. Mixed models fitting cow-specific intercept and coefficients to different combinations of the aforementioned energy expenditure traits, calculated on a fortnightly basis, were compared. The variance of REI estimated with the lactation average model represented only 8% of the variance of measured NEI. Among all compared mixed models, the variance of the cow-specific part of predicted NEI represented between 53% and 59% of the variance of REI estimated from the lactation average model or between 4% and 5% of the variance of measured NEI. The remaining 41% to 47% of the variance of REI estimated with the lactation average model may therefore reflect model fitting errors or measurement errors. In conclusion, the use of a mixed model framework with cow-specific random regressions seems to be a promising method to isolate the cow-specific component of REI in dairy cows.
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