2017 M-AAA Project Summaries

From learning more about bovine leukemia virus to applying new animal housing regulations, MSU researchers are working to help producers maintain and grow their operations.


Impacts of extended pullet housing on production, behavior and welfare: Can laying hens adapt to aviaries if they have already begun to lay in a pullet housing facility?

Janice Siegford

As the 2020 deadline approaches for Michigan’s laying hen industry to transition away from conventional cages, aviary systems are becoming more common. Aviaries provide hens with more complex environments where hens can use perches to roost at night, dust bathe in litter and lay eggs in nests. Nests are designed to facilitate efficient, automated egg collection, prevent damage to eggs (and subsequent loss), and minimize risks of eggs becoming dirty or contaminated (enabling eggs to receive high grades). However, birds must learn to use resources such as nests, and pullets (young hens) are typically moved from rearing to laying housing when they begin to lay eggs to encourage nest use. Yet, there may be situations, such as disease outbreaks, that could force producers to keep pullets in rearing facilities after they begin to lay while waiting for infected hen houses to be declared safe for bird re-entry. The research team collected production, welfare and behavior data from hens that will help determine if delaying entry of pullets into aviaries is a feasible alternative to euthanizing pullet flocks in response to outbreaks of disease such as highly pathogenic avian influenza. In 2018, the research group will continue to analyze data related to individual hen responses, egg production and laying location, and the impact of closing hens into the system toward the end of the flock cycle to mitigate floor laying.

Targeted extension program to control bovine leukemia virus in Michigan dairy farms

Phil Durst

In 2010, a Michigan State University (MSU) research and extension group found an 88 percent herd-level prevalence of bovine leukemia virus (BLV) — a retro-virus that causes infection in dairy and beef cattle that can lead to more devastating diseases — in a survey of 113 Michigan dairy herds. Of these opera­tions, the average within-herd cow prevalence was 33 percent. This represents a substantial increase since the 1960s, when the U.S. and Canada reported BLV cow prevalence rates of about 10 percent. Evidence is mounting that BLV infection negatively affects milk production and longevity. In this project, the team wanted to educate producers about BLV and its po­tential effects on their operations. Producers could then identify BLV in their herds and develop control strategies with the help of veterinarians and MSU experts. The group also sought to determine if dairy herds with a lower average cow age would indicate a higher likelihood of BLV infection. In total, 38 herds were tested and 92 percent were BLV-positive. The average prevalence within the herds was 41 percent. To educate producers, members of the team visited 35 of the 38 enrolled farms and spoke via telephone with the remaining three. This education provided the basis for making informed decisions for their herd and involved the veterinarian in the development of the herd plan. While the team did not find a way to pre­dict BLV status of herds using average age, it served as a reminder that the prevalence of this disease is not easily predicted. Producers need to do systematic monitoring such as the BLV Herd Profile Test to stay on top of their operations.

Attitudes toward animal agriculture: Understanding and influencing attitudes using experiential learning

Paul Thompson

The public’s perception of production systems can strongly influence the decision making of processors, retailers and regulatory officials. Yet, the understand­ing of what elements in a production system influence attitude formation is weak. The research team sought to develop collaborative, multi-disciplinary tools and coding approaches for analyzing data that help to better understand the role personal experiences, ex­periential educational methods and specific messaging have for enriching understanding of animal welfare and livestock production. Students from Michigan State University (MSU) were provided faculty-spon­sored tours of production systems. The research team found that the students provided more substantive and actionable criteria to their judgments about sus­tainability and quality of husbandry after the farm visits. Additionally, the team created curriculum for use in undergraduate education courses to advance critical thinking related to animal agriculture. This development of curriculum has been in conjunction with undergraduates participating in the MSU Stu­dent Organic Farm and a food ethics project conduct­ed by MSU faculty. Producers were also contacted to gauge their reactions on initial findings and to discuss how this information may be effectively disseminated for greatest impact. A report on the interactions with producers is forthcoming in 2018.

Increasing the efficiency of fertility programs to allow for greater pregnancies in lactating dairy cows

J. Richard Pursley

Infertility of lactating dairy cows continues to be a critical problem limiting profitability and sustain­ability of U.S. dairy farms. Maternal fertility, de­fined as the mother’s ability to ovulate a competent egg and provide a maternal environment capable of fertilization and fetal development, continues to be the key limiting factor for profitable reproductive performance in lactating dairy cows. Conception rates of dairy cows are approximately 30 percent, compared to 60 percent in virgin dairy heifers when inseminated following a detected estrus. In response to this problem, researchers developed fertility programs to control ovarian development. These programs allow well-managed dairy farms to increase fertility of their cows to that of virgin heifers. Additionally, these programs decrease pregnancy loss and twinning, both of which are detrimental to profit of dairy farms. Our research team, including a number of MSU undergradu­ate students, shared its findings with producers across Michigan and the U.S. over the past year. Funding from the Michigan Alliance for Animal Agriculture led to studies that enhanced our understanding of the relationship between body condition of cows and fertility. Cows that lost the least amount of body weight in the first month following calving had greater fertility following a fertility program and fewer cows with metabolic and uterine problems. Utilizing these programs over time can reduce the number of cows in a herd with excessive body condition loss. These new findings may improve farm profit on an 800-cow dairy by $120,000 per year and may revolutionize reproductive management of dairy cattle.

Developing and delivering an online introduction to horse management course

Christine Skelly

This project harnessed the public’s affinity for horses to offer an online introductory horse man­agement course that can be delivered to a variety of learners, including an extension audience and postsecondary students. My Horse University — Michigan State University (MSU) Extension’s online horse management program, the MSU De­partment of Animal Science equine faculty, MSU’s Institute of Agricultural Technology (IAT) and HorseQuest collaborated to develop the online cur­riculum. The project team developed lessons that contain student learning objectives, peer-reviewed content and self-test questions. The lessons have been developed to stand alone, enabling educators to use them in different teaching and extension programs. To date, the course curriculum has been used to instruct both two- and four-year MSU students in IAT and animal science courses. Using an online platform for rating, students were asked to judge the course’s content. The evaluations showed that students felt they improved their competency in horse management as a result. In fact, a professor from the University of Nebraska is using the curriculum to teach an introductory horse management course at the institution. There are also plans to repurpose units from the online curriculum to develop courses that can be used for workforce development in many aspects of the equine industry.

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