MSU scientist works with Michigan dairy farmers to address urgent animal health issues

MSU's Angel Abuelo troubleshoots dairy cattle challenges for Michigan dairy farmers through research and MSU Extension appointments.

Angel Abuelo 2022
Angel Abuelo, associate professor of dairy cattle health and well-being.

EAST LANSING, Mich. — As a dairy cattle health researcher in the Michigan State University College of Veterinary Medicine, Angel Abuelo examines innovative methods to bolster the well-being of adult dairy cows and calves. In particular, he is interested in how improved nutrition can boost immune function.

As a dairy extension veterinarian with MSU Extension, he regularly interacts with Michigan producers, providing insight into the latest tools that can improve the economic viability of their operations.

It’s these two roles that intertwine to give Abuelo a front-row seat to the challenges facing dairy farms, while providing producers access to the scientist tasked with solving them.

“This is a really dedicated community of producers in Michigan,” said Abuelo, whose position is also supported by MSU AgBioResearch. “I thoroughly enjoy interacting with them. When I first started at MSU, it was surprising to see how close the industry is and how cohesive they are in trying to solve problems. I haven’t always experienced that in all of the places I’ve been.”

Luckily for Michigan’s dairy industry, Abuelo has the passion to match. He was recognized by the American Dairy Science Association with the 2022 Cargill Animal Nutrition Young Scientist Award, which goes to scientists in the field conducting outstanding research during the first 10 years of their professional careers. His partners in the dairy community have taken notice.

Green Meadow Farms in Elsie, Michigan, has one of the largest herds of registered Holstein dairy cattle in North America with 9,500 cows. The farm has a longstanding relationship with MSU researchers, including Abuelo.

Darcy Green, who owns the farm with her husband, Craig, said Abuelo is a great resource.

“Angel is a one-of-a-kind guy who always goes above and beyond,” she said. “We’ve worked with him for years. When he’s doing research on the farm, he makes it super easy on us. He’s very good at communicating and finds whatever information he needs without taking up the time of our herdsmen. After he’s done with a study, he always shares what he’s found to help us make our operation better.”

In addition to his relationship-building skills, Abuelo has earned numerous grants from federal agencies such as the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). But the work often starts with smaller seed funding.

Support from the Michigan Alliance for Animal Agriculture (M-AAA), a partnership among MSU, the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development, and the state's animal agriculture industries, has been critical to Abuelo’s research program. The M-AAA grants one- or two-year awards, and the findings are often used to apply for federal dollars.

“We have great relationships across the state, and we’re motivated to improve animal welfare and increase the profitability of the dairy industry,” Abuelo said. “The M-AAA is an essential program that shows federal agencies we’re invested in helping the dairy industry.”

The Michigan Milk Producers Association (MMPA) is represented within the M-AAA, helping choose which projects receive funding. Their leaders understand the importance of getting these projects off the ground.

“We appreciate the opportunity to partner with MSU and provide input on critical research needs of the dairy industry,” said Sheila Burkhardt, senior director of member and government relations for the MMPA. “The M-AAA projects allow us to be on the cutting edge, while providing solutions that will make a lasting impact on dairies throughout Michigan.”

Responding to producer needs

After consulting with several producers and veterinarians in 2020 and 2021, Abuelo noticed a collective worry among the group: Salmonella Dublin (S. Dublin).

The cattle host-adapted strain of the disease, S. Dublin often manifests as a respiratory ailment in calves as opposed to the common gastrointestinal distress found in humans with salmonella. There are no approved treatments for cows once the disease is present, and many isolates are antimicrobial-resistant.

Humans can become infected through on-farm contact with animals, as well as tainted milk and meat. Human mortality rates are more than four times higher with S. Dublin than other strains of salmonella, heightening the concern as an animal and human health challenge.

According to a 2014 study from the USDA National Animal Health Monitoring System, S. Dublin was present in 8% of U.S. dairy herds. Abuelo said this is assuredly an underestimation given the limited sensitivity of the test used at the time. Prevalence was higher among larger herds, so as the average herd size increases across the country, the illness is worth monitoring.

“The key to stopping transmission is being proactive,” Abuelo said. “We know that mother-to-calf transmission is something that keeps the cycle going, so we need to break that cycle.”

In 2021, Abuelo was awarded a two-year M-AAA grant to optimize vaccination strategies. His team includes Faith Cullens-Nobis, director of MSU’s South Campus Animal Farms; Dodd Sledge, section chief of anatomic pathology in the MSU Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory (VDL); and Rinosh Mani, section chief of bacteriology and mycology in the VDL.

Only one vaccine is currently available, and it’s labeled for calves older than 2 weeks. Abuelo said this is problematic because calves are usually infected in-utero or in the first days of life. There is no information on the efficacy of the vaccine in younger calves or the impact of vaccination of late-gestation adult cows on decreasing disease transmission to newborns.

The objective of the project is to determine if vaccination of adult cows during the dry period immediately prior to calving limits in-utero transmission, as well as investigating vaccination timing for newborn calves.

Preliminary outcomes have been promising. Researchers found that 15% to 20% of cows in a herd experiencing an outbreak could be silent carriers, which supports the team’s hypothesis of concentrating on this group to break the transmission cycle.

Using these results as the foundation, Abuelo obtained a $300,000 grant from the USDA and additional industry support to validate the findings. The funding also assists in the development of outreach and educational materials for producers.

Additional USDA support

In early 2022, Abuelo received a $642,000 grant from the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture to develop disease-predicting diagnostic tools for adult dairy cows’ transition from late gestation to early lactation.

About three-quarters of adult dairy cow diseases occur in the first 30 days after calving. Two of the most harmful to animal well-being and producer bottom lines are mastitis, a bacterial infection of the udder, and metritis, a bacterial infection of the uterus. These illnesses can lead to lower reproductive performance, decreased milk production, lameness and even death in the most severe instances. Mastitis alone costs the U.S. dairy industry an estimated $2 billion per year.

Abuelo is testing nutritional strategies to determine their effect on immune function and disease occurrence.

“We’re looking to improve dairy cattle health and well-being during an important time in their reproductive lives,” Abuelo said. “This project is aimed at prevention, which means that ideally we reduce the use of antibiotics and lessen antimicrobial resistance.”

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