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Rock doc: Helping 1 billion bovines

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From page A4 | June 22, 2011 |

E. Kirsten Peters mug

Peters

You and I have our challenges and some real worries, too. There are bills to pay and doctors to visit, to say nothing of mulling over those strange sounds coming from the rear of the car.

But I confess I thought the life of a cow was rather placid. Eating and sleeping, I would have guessed, pretty much summed up the existence of the more than 1 billion bovines that share the planet with us.

But as I’ve recently learned, both beef cattle and dairy cows often have trouble just catching their breath. It’s not that they are gaily running across their pastures, frolicking joyfully in the sunlight, until they simply overdo it. It’s that they are suffering – and I do mean suffering – from serious infections of their respiratory tracts.

The problem is caused by a malady called Bovine Respiratory Disease or BRD. It kills more than a million animals each year in the U.S., resulting in a loss of about $700 million to American ranchers and dairy farmers. Those are staggering figures, well known to those involved with the beef and dairy industries but oddly outside the world of typical Americans who see the food chain on which they depend only via aisles in the supermarket.

The BRD problem has been a difficult one for researchers to address. It’s a broad category of disease, a bit like pneumonia in us humans. I might have pneumonia due to a bacterial infection that’s enhanced by the fact I’m drinking far too much and staying up all night. You might be living a healthy life but nonetheless contract pneumonia due to a virus you happened to pick up from a little old lady at church.

BRD is likewise probably caused by a variety of agents and conditions. But it’s useful to think of it as one problem because it ends up causing a similar set of symptoms, just as pneumonia does. Those symptoms lead cows to struggle to get their breath. And despite modern veterinary science, more than a million head of beef and dairy cattle in this country die each year due to BRD.

A few strains of cattle clearly have some resistance to BRD, a fact that suggests that part of the BRD picture is genetic. On the other hand, transporting cattle – which introduces stress into their lives – can increase the incidence of BRD. And if sick animals are introduced to a herd of cattle, BRD can spread from the ill animals to the healthy ones.

Animal scientist Holly Neibergs at Washington State University is one member of a team of researchers recently formed to research causes of BRD. Neibergs will work to identify genetic markers that correspond to susceptibility or resistance to BRD. Simply put, she’ll try to find the genetic signatures that are useful for cattle so they can better put up a serious fight against respiratory infections. Results could help determine the selective breeding of cows to eventually reduce or even eliminate BRD.

Neibergs and her collaborators will examine 6,000 dairy and feedlot cattle in the U.S. for their research. That’s a lot of cows – cattle that as I calculate it have a total of 12,000 hind-end hoofs to kick the researchers if they’re not careful.

“Prevention of respiratory disease will allow cattle and producers to breath easier,” Neibergs told me.

I wish Niebergs and her co-workers the best for all sorts of reasons. Clearly, limiting the wide prevalence of BRD would aid a major American industry. Beyond that, it would also help keep food prices as low as they can be for all of us. And decreasing or even eradicating BRD would lessen the suffering of the animals themselves.

Let’s hoist a glass (of wholesome milk) to that ideal.

Dr. E. Kirsten Peters, a native of the rural Northwest, was trained as a geologist at Princeton and Harvard. Follow her on the web at rockdoc.wsu.edu and on Twitter @RockDocWSU. This column is a service of the College of Agricultural, Human, and Natural Resource Sciences at Washington State University.

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