New Veterinary Research Grant Aims to Help Dairy Calves and Farmers

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Michigan State University researcher Ángel Abuelo, an assistant professor of cattle health and wellbeing in the MSU College of Veterinary Medicine, has been awarded a four-year, $500,000 grant for his work with dairy calves.

The study, which is focused on decreasing the use of antimicrobials on dairy farms, while increasing farm profitability, is funded through the United States Department of Agriculture, the National Institute of Food and Agriculture and the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative.

The average mortality rate for dairy calves in the U.S. fluctuates between six and 10 percent. Most of those deaths occur during the first 60 days of life and 80 percent are due to infectious diseases. Because the immune systems of young calves aren’t fully developed, vaccinations aren’t effective. As a result, antimicrobials are used to fight off these infections, but this practice may be harmful as well.

"Antimicrobials are needed to treat animals, and their use should be encouraged on animal welfare grounds when the calves are clinically sick," Abuelo said. "However, continuous use can lead to infectious bacteria becoming resistant to the antimicrobials. Our research looks to ramp up the calves’ immune systems with the use of antioxidants instead, so earlier vaccinations can be effective.”

Working with co-author Lorraine Sordillo, Meadow Brook Chair in Farm Animal Health and Wellbeing, both researchers will offer up new and better management practices that will introduce cattle feed with higher levels of antioxidants in an effort to reduce oxidative stress in these young animals. This type of stress causes immune cells to degrade and contributes to a reduced immune system response. The antioxidants in the feed could allow the immune system to become stronger and be more responsive to vaccinations, reducing the number of sick calves.

With approximately 20 percent of total dairy production expenses going toward replacing production cows who are sick or die, Abuelo hopes his work will counteract these costs.

“If we decrease the number of female calves who die each year from diseases, then the farmer can raise more heifers and increase their profitability, all while improving the health of the animals and reducing the use of antimicrobials,” Abuelo said. “It would be a win for everyone.”

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