Enhancing dairy farm performance through a focus on calf health

One area that needs more attention is calf health, according to Angel Abuelo, assistant professor in the MSU College of Veterinary Medicine.

Angel Abuelo

Michigan is home to more than 1,500 dairy farms that have about 428,000 cows. According to the United Dairy Industry of Michigan, those cows produced more than 11.2 billion pounds of milk in 2017, which ranks the state fifth in the U.S. in terms of total production.

Given the value of the industry, extensive research on dairy cattle health and productivity is a necessity. One area that needs more attention is calf health, according to Angel Abuelo, assistant professor in the MSU College of Veterinary Medicine.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Animal Health Monitoring System estimated that the deaths of cattle and calves cost the industry $3.8 billion in 2015. Most deaths occur within the first 60 days of life, with 80 percent of losses attributed to infectious diseases.

Abuelo and his research team have received a four-year, $500,000 grant from the USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture to increase vaccine responsiveness by limiting oxidative stress in calves. This is an imbalance between the production of free radicals and the ability of calves’ bodies to counteract their harmful effects.

“I want to know from a nutrition standpoint what we can do to help calves develop in a healthy way,” Abuelo said. “Calves are extremely vulnerable in the early stages of life. Their immune systems are not strong yet, and that doesn’t allow for vaccines to work efficiently. That often means we end up using antibiotics, sometimes at inappropriate times, and there is a problem with resistance development.”

In an effort to lessen the use of antibiotics, Abuelo is searching for possible diet additions – including specific micronutrients – that can enhance calves’ response to vaccines. He is also exploring how the cow’s nutrition during pregnancy effects the calf over the long-term.

“If we can understand the immediate and future benefits of certain nutrients, it might change the way we approach cattle nutrition,” Abuelo said. “We’re trying to position cows to remain successful after rearing, and calves to grow up and be productive cows.”

Now studying infectious diseases, Abuelo was interested in dairy farms long before delving into his research career. His family operated a dairy farm in Arzúa, Galicia, Spain, where he spent a lot of time as a child. His inquisitive nature blossomed there. After high school, Spanish students are able to apply directly to veterinary school.

Abuelo earned a veterinary medicine degree and a doctorate from the University of Santiago de Compostela. He then participated in a clinical residency in Munich, Germany. He also received a master’s degree from the Royal Veterinary College at the University of London. Abuelo is board certified in bovine health and had planned to pursue clinical veterinary work, but during his training, he became more interested in research.

“I have always loved animals, especially cows. I knew I wanted to work with them for my career,” Abuelo said. “Once I started my training, I began to wonder why we have so much data about the cow and not much on the calf. It can relate to the fact that the cow is producing now and is valuable to the farmer now. But we have to remember that the calf of today is the producing cow of tomorrow. If we set them up for failure early in life, we’re setting ourselves up for failure as producers.”

Q&A: Angel Abuelo

Title: Assistant professor, MSU Department of Large Animal Clinical Sciences

Joined MSU: 2017

Education: Veterinary medicine degree (DVM equivalent), Ph.D., and master of research in veterinary medicine and animal health, University of Santiago de Compostela; M.S., Royal Veterinary College, University of London; diplomate, American Board of Veterinary Practitioners – Dairy Practice Specialty; diplomate, European College of Bovine Health Management; postgraduate certificate in veterinary education, Royal Veterinary College, University of London

Hometown: Santiago de Compostela, Galicia, Spain

Influential or inspiring person: Lorraine Sordillo (MSU professor and Meadow Brook Chair in Farm Animal Health and Well-being in the College of Veterinary Medicine) is definitely someone who supported me and was inspirational. I got to see how she manages her lab. She was definitely one of my best mentors.

If I weren’t a researcher, I would be: If I wasn’t doing research, I would still be a veterinarian. I really enjoy that type of work, and that’s why I like my research program to be primarily applied. I like to get my hands dirty and interact directly with producers.

Favorite food: Of course I love Spanish food, but I’ve also discovered Thai food in recent years. I really enjoy many of those dishes.

Book I’d recommend: Cathedral of the Sea, by Ildefonso Falcones. It came out when I was in high school (2006). It takes place in Barcelona in the 14th century and follows the story of a character who starts off in poverty and eventually becomes wealthy and powerful. It’s now a series on Netflix.

Ideal vacation: My ideal vacation is to relax and go to the beach.

Where I see myself in five years: I really like the work I’m doing right now, so I hope to build on that and continue to serve the producers of Michigan. It’s a really dedicated community of producers. I thoroughly enjoy interacting with them. It was surprising to see how close they are and how supportive they are in trying to solve problems, having one collective mission. I haven’t always experienced that in all of the places I’ve worked.

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