Virginia professor working to slash calf mortality rate
BLACKSBURG, Va. — Ongoing research at the Virginia Tech Dairy Science Center is trying to find if genes carried by some cows enable them to have healthier offspring. The lead researcher believes this knowledge can change the dairy industry.
Dr. Rebecca Cockrum is leading the research and said she hopes it will decrease the current 8 percent mortality rate in dairy heifers by helping farmers select cows based on their genetics.
Cockrum talked about her work during an interview at the center located on the University’s Kentland Farm. Baby calves sunned themselves outside in front of hutches and inside in the calf barn.
This Arkansas native is seeking “to develop tools and strategies that can be used to select traits of economic relevance in dairy cattle,” the university reported when she joined the dairy science faculty.
The research she talks about begins with the understanding that most deaths for dairy calves are the result of respiratory illness or the scours.
She said that her team is looking into reproductive physiology and breeding and genetics. The study is titled “Maternal Influence on Calf Health and Productive Production.”
The team includes Cockrum, four graduate students, and a lab technician. She said undergraduates also help with collecting samples from time to time. Some are dairy science students working in class and some are volunteers looking for a break in their academic day.
The researchers are looking at what environmental factors in the cow contribute to a calf’s health or lack thereof. In the research they are studying bacteria in the uterus, vaginal canal and colostrum to determine how it impacts the development of the calves.
Cockrum said she is trying to focus on reducing or preventing scours in calves by identifying moms that produce the optimal bacteria that act like probiotics. If a bacterial profile can be created that helps identify cows having these traits, cows can be selected using them to pass the traits on to their daughters.
“The optimal profile will lend itself to shared genetics within a family,” Cockrum said.
The families identified by the research will have the best chance of passing these traits along, she continued.
She noted that the field of genetics has really grown with scientists looking at the genetics of all kinds of creatures. She said the technology is complex. She sees it helping farmers making the selection of dairy cows in ways that will benefit them and the industry economically.
“I think it’s an exciting field we are in right now,” Cockrum said. “If we can take this complex technology and use it to predict whether an animal will be likely to get sick or not that will essentially change the face of the industry.”
She reported that the deaths of pre-weaned dairy heifers currently cost the industry $100 million annually. This is just the value of the calves themselves.
“These losses are really indiscriminate because they strike randomly,” Cockrum said. “The research is complex but the results have the potential for helping individual dairy producers.”
Cockrum said her research is a joint effort with the agencies that fund it.
These include USDA’s Hatch funds, the Virginia Ag Council and the National Jersey Association.
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