Researchers from the Moredun Research Institute and Scotland's Rural College have received a major funding award to develop a project that could ultimately lead to an early warning system for poor health and welfare in dairy cattle. Initial work by the team has found that easily recordable immune traits could be used to predict an individual farm animal's susceptibility, and recovery from, a range of health conditions.
Being able to use immune traits to identify health and welfare problems - such as lameness - could be of huge benefit to the industry as they can be used to measure and monitor the health challenges that dairy cows face and develop prediction and prevention tools that could help reduce the incidence of ill health.
Current recording of health and welfare events is costly and highly labour intensive. Furthermore, such events are often missed as the signs in the cow can be subtle and difficult to detect. In contrast, immune traits can be measured in a high throughput manner in easily obtainable biological samples such as blood and milk, and may identify more subtle changes in health or welfare status.
Professor Melanie Welham, BBSRC's Director of Science, said: "As pressure increases on producing more food for a growing global population on less land, we need to ensure the highest welfare standards of the animals we farm. We need projects such as this to develop a thorough understanding of what constitutes good animal welfare and to develop accurate tools for measuring it. Being able to identify potential problems in dairy cows at the very earliest opportunity would not only save the cows from unnecessary suffering but would also prevent lost productivity associated with poor health, so representing a significant economic benefit too, for individual farmers and the dairy industry as a whole."
The results of the team's initial study - funded by the Scottish Government - on immune traits were published last night (10pm GMT 12 June) in the leading scientific journal PLOS ONE ( dx.plos.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0065766 ). This study was the first to evaluate multiple immune traits (e.g., levels of white blood cells, antibodies or inflammatory markers in the blood) in dairy cows on a repeated basis and relate them to common health and welfare challenges such as lameness, udder health and poor fertility. The results demonstrated that immune measures are useful as predictors of health and welfare states, and that further work would be valuable.
They have now begun a three year project (value = £700,000) funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) to expand this work. The aim of the new project is to further develop these immune markers to understand how they relate to the initiation and recovery from health and welfare events. The team will also examine the feasibility of developing rapid milk based immune indicators to help predict health and welfare more routinely in dairy farms.
Dr Eileen Wall, Reader in Integrative Animal Breeding at SRUC who is leading the project, said: "Health and fitness traits are a key requirement for the development of selective breeding programmes and research in this area is lacking largely due to the difficulty of recording complex traits such as lameness and mastitis in large populations of animals. We are very excited about the prospect of using easily measured immunological traits that may allow us to predict an individual's susceptibility to a variety of health and welfare challenges".
Dr Tom McNeilly, a principal investigator at the Moredun Research Institute, said: "This study represents the largest simultaneous analysis of multiple immune traits in dairy cattle to date and demonstrates that a number of immune traits are associated with health events and can be associated with susceptibility to diseases such as mastitis and lameness".
Notes to editors
Current figures show that financial losses from lameness equate to nearly £15,000 a year for an average herd while the average cost of a case of mastitis is £180. Nationally is this means an economic loss of around £500,000 a day in the UK, an annual loss of £170M.
The BBSRC award falls into their Animal Welfare Measures and Assessment category the purpose of which is to encourage more research in the field of measures and assessment of animal welfare, as applied to laboratory animals, livestock species, and companion animals: www.bbsrc.ac.uk/funding/opportunities/2011/animal-welfare-measures-and-assessment.aspx .
The difficulties in systematic recording of complex health and fitness traits in farmed animals present formidable limitations to the development of selective breeding programmes or other biological studies aimed at improving animal health. Recording such traits requires close monitoring of large populations of animals which is both time consuming and costly. Consequently, large scale recording of health and fitness is lacking. This new project involves the identification of easily measurable immune traits which may predict an individual's susceptibility to disease or give an indication of an individual's general immune fitness. The outputs from this work will have important implications for selective breeding programmes to improve dairy cattle health and welfare.
About Moredun Research Institute
Moredun Research Institute conducts internationally recognised research on the infectious diseases of livestock, caused by important viruses, bacteria and parasites. It employs 170 scientists, vets and support staff who continue to help find solutions for major challenges to modern farming such as the consequences of a changing climate; ensuring safe and sustainable food and water supplies conserving biodiversity and finding solutions to infectious disease. Today, many of the veterinary medicines and vaccines that are routinely used on farm have either been researched, developed or tested at Moredun. More information about the work of Moredun Research Institute can be found at www.moredun.org.uk .
About Scotland's Rural College (SRUC)
The SRUC is a leading agricultural and rural research, education and consultancy college.
SRUC was formed by the merger of Barony, Elmwood and Oatridge Colleges with SAC (Scottish Agricultural College). For more information visit: www.sruc.ac.uk .