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Epigenetics. © INRA, INRA

Livestock epigenetics: laying the foundation for future benefits

Diet and milk production in ruminants

Research produced at INRA and elsewhere has shown that dietary patterns and milking regimes induce epigenetic changes in ruminants. INRA scientists are particularly interested in the negative effect that once-daily milking has on milk yield.

By Pascale Mollier, translated by Jessica Pearce
Updated on 09/09/2014
Published on 05/22/2014

Bressonvillier Farms milking room. A cup is being placed on each of the cow’s 4 dugs.. © INRA, NICOLAS Bertrand
Bressonvillier Farms milking room. A cup is being placed on each of the cow’s 4 dugs. © INRA, NICOLAS Bertrand

Epigenetic modifications observed in adult cows:

- Milk production

Different studies have shown that milk production may be influenced by factors other than diet, such as milking frequency or an animal’s state of health.

Indeed, when an animal is afflicted with mastitis (1), milk yield is reduced and there is a concomitant downregulation of the genes coding for milk proteins. This lower level of expression is caused by changes in the pattern of epigenetic tags, which causes the chromatin to become more compact.

Similarly, a once-daily milking regime reduces milk yield, an effect that can be partially reversed if a twice-daily milking regime is reinstated. This drop in milk yield is associated with a reduction in the number of mRNA molecules coding for milk proteins (e.g., caseins or beta-lactoglobulin) and enzymes that produce sugars (e.g., alpha-lactalbumin) and lipids (e.g., lipoprotein lipase). Research has shown that this phenomenon results from the hypermethylation of a region that regulates genes related to milk production; these abundant methyl tags decrease gene expression.

These changes are not ephemeral. In fact, no active demethylation mechanisms have been found in mammary glands to date, and these tags will probably only be removed over the course of future cell division cycles.

- Culling-related stress

Stress affects meat tenderness, a phenomenon that has been linked to the presence of epigenetic tags on the DNA of muscle cells.

Diet-related modifications in fetuses and neonates

Numerous studies have shown that a female’s diet can affect a variety of her offspring’s traits—such as milk production or fertility—as a result of information transmitted during fetal development and just after birth. This information appears to be conveyed by epigenetic mechanisms (2). It is important to give some serious thought to these results since climate change may impact animals’ diets by affecting forage supplies, especially given the current trend towards drier summers.

- When only 60% of a female’s nutritional needs are met during the first 110 days of lactation, the fertility of her female offspring is negatively impacted: they have fewer ovarian follicles and are less fertile.

- When females consume a diet rich in methyl-donating molecules (3), their young are more likely to experience epigenetic modifications.

- The milk yield of a heifer is lower if her mother was subject to regular milking during the gestation period.


(1)  Vanselow J., Yang W., Herrmann J., Zerbe H., Schuberth H.J., Petzl W., Tomek W. & Seyfert H.M. (2006) DNA-remethylation around a STAT5-binding enhancer in the alphaS1-casein promoter is associated with abrupt shutdown of alphaS1-casein synthesis during acute mastitis. J. Mol. Endocrinol. 37, 463-77.

(2) González-Recio O.U., Ugarte E. & Bach A. (2012) Trans-generational effect of maternal lactation during pregnancy: a Holstein cow model. PLoS One 7, e51816.

(3) Folates in cattle diets and sulforaphanes in swine diets.

Scientific contact(s):

Associated Division(s):
Animal Genetics , Animal Physiology and Livestock Systems
Associated Centre(s):


Once-daily milking regime

Boutinaud M., Galio L., Lollivier V., Finot L., Wiart S., Esquerré D., Devinoy E. (2013) Physiol Genomics 45(20):973-85

Nguyen M., Boutinaud M., Pétridou B., Chat S., Bouet S., Laloë D., Jaffrezic F., Gabory A., Kress C., Galio L., Charlier M., Pannetier M., Klopp C., Jammes H., Devinoy E. (2013) 20ème Rencontre Recherche Ruminant rrr048