Helping dairy cows transition & decreasing reliance on antibiotics

MSU researcher Lorraine Sordillo is tackling three dairy cow transition diseases: mastitis, laminitis and metritis.

Lorraine Sordillo

About 70 percent of the diseases a dairy cow may get in a lifetime will occur during the first month after giving birth, often referred to as the transition period. During this time, immune dysfunction can frequently occur resulting in a range of inflammatory-based diseases that affect the udder, hooves and uterus.

More than one-third of all dairy cows in the U.S. – more than 3 million cows – succumb to these inflammatory-based diseases every year:

  • Mastitis, an inflammation of the mammary gland and udder tissue, is often caused by a bacterial infection and can result in permanent damage to the udder.
  • Laminitis, an inflammation of the hoof wall, can cause lameness, affecting a cow’s ability to walk properly.
  • Metritis is inflammation of the uterus, which can be detrimental to fertility.

Struggling with the high costs of treating sick cows and decreased milk production, dairy farmers are desperate for a solution. Lorraine M. Sordillo, Meadow Brook Chair in Farm Animal Health and Well-Being in the College of Veterinary Medicine at Michigan State University, is tackling these transition cow diseases with a primary focus on the most common disease – mastitis.

By examining the effects of metabolic stress on the health of transition cows and identifying disease-preventative solutions, Sordillo’s work on mastitis can also be applied to laminitis and metritis.

This award-winning research program was recognized by the American Dairy Science Association (ADSA) with the 2017 Zoetis Physiology Award for outstanding dairy physiology research.

Eligibility for the Zoetis Physiology Award requires research in any area of animal physiology relating to the dairy animal published in refereed journals in the five years immediately preceding the year of recognition. Recipients must also be a member of ADSA for at least the last five successive years.

“It’s a special thing to be recognized by your peers,” Sordillo said regarding the award. “Although they honor me [with this award], research is a team effort and a reflection of the hard work by our graduate students and research assistants.”

Feeding a growing world

New industry solutions discovered by Sordillo and her team include management techniques for reducing the occurrence of mastitis. This disease, which can eliminate a cow’s ability to produce milk, causes an estimated $2 billion in losses for U.S. dairy producers every year and is increasingly becoming a global problem.

“This issue has long plagued the industry and reaches beyond our borders,” said Sordillo. “Finding new ways to keep cows healthy while reducing production losses is a win-win. Mastitis has significantly reduced global milk production efficiency, and we’re working to find better solutions to feed a growing world population.”

Fighting mastitis through improved nutrition

Sordillo said her program aims to attack mastitis by identifying the links between altered nutrient metabolism, oxidative stress and inflammation, and the effects they have on the development of mastitis.

This science is working to improve dairy cattle health and provide farmers with preventative strategies that reduce the use of antibiotics and thus, reduce the chances of developing antimicrobial resistance.

By exploring the relationship between changes in nutrient requirements and immunity in terms of a cow’s disease susceptibility during calving, the team can identify nutritional strategies to help optimize sufficient immune responses to prevent disease.

“Nutrition and immunity are integrally linked and nutritional management prior to calving can determine the health and well-being of cows throughout the entire lactation period,” Sordillo explained.

Working with several commercial dairy herds in Michigan, Sordillo is studying changes in metabolic stress and immune dysfunction during the lactation cycle to better predict when certain cows are at a greater risk of becoming sick. In 2016, Michigan was ranked one of the top five milk-producing states in the nation – with the equivalent of 1.3 billion gallons of milk produced last year.

“Nutritional interventions that enhance the cow’s immune system during the transition period improve production efficiencies and reduce the need for antimicrobials,” said Sordillo. “Increasing efficiencies is crucial to the Michigan dairy industry and worldwide for keeping cows healthy and remaining profitable.”

The ability to identify at-risk cows allows producers to proactively prevent illness. A better understanding of optimizing dairy cattle immunity and tools that can help producers identify those at risk could lead to improved disease-prevention strategies. These strategies will reduce the reliance on antibiotic use for disease control and optimize production efficiency in the U.S. dairy industry.

This article was published in Futures, a magazine produced twice per year by Michigan State University AgBioResearch. To view past issues of Futures, visit For more information, email Holly Whetstone, editor, at or call 517-355-0123.

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