The experts in the College of Agricultural Sciences & Natural Resources research some of the leading industry topics when it comes to bovine disease prevention and treatment.
The blizzard that struck the southern part of the Texas Panhandle and South Plains shortly after Christmas in 2015 resulted in at least one somewhat comical effect. Enough snow piled up against fences it allowed some cattle to escape, some of which were seen roaming the streets of Lubbock.
But it was no laughing matter to the cattle ranchers in the area. Beef and dairy cows count on a regular feeding schedule and anything that disrupts that consistency can not only be damaging to the cattle, but also result in less productive cows producing a lower quality beef.
It was of particular interest and concern to those who specialize in cattle health, a major area of research in the Texas Tech University College of Agricultural Sciences & Natural Resources. Experts at Texas Tech continue to lead the way across the country in groundbreaking research and development of better methods for treatment and prevention of disease through areas such as nutrition, antibiotic use and overall health.
"On the classic nutritional side, we're mainly focused on the evaluation of byproducts of feeds and their utilization," said Michael Galyean, Texas Tech provost, former dean of the college and a Horn Professor and Thornton Chair of Beef Cattle Nutrition and Management. "There also is animal health work being done as it relates to interaction of health and nutrients to determine the best kinds of diets for cattle to be healthy."
Researchers with the college, particularly within the Department of Animal & Food Sciences, are known worldwide and are well-respected for their expertise in large animal health, particularly in this area of the state where large-animal veterinarians are scarce.
A regular feeding schedule is just one small part of raising healthy, productive beef cattle, which is a major part of the local and regional economies. Finding the right diets, the right combinations of protein and energy as well as the judicious use of antibiotics, are all part of the production challenges ranchers and feedlot producers face.
A balanced need
Battling disease is a constant concern with large animal veterinarians, especially as the number and size of dairy and beef cattle farms on the South Plains continues to grow. The easiest way to battle some of those diseases and their spread is through ensuring cattle are the healthiest they can be to begin with.
That starts with their diet. Discovering the best methods to enhance the diet of cattle, as well as how to treat diseases that do occur is the focus of Texas Tech's two veterinary experts – Vinicius Machado and Rafael Neves, both assistant professors in the Department of Veterinary Sciences.
Working primarily with dairy cattle, Machado's and Neves' research investigates intervention, management and nutritional strategies. Those strategies can prevent and reduce disease instances, increase milk production or increase reproductive efficiency. Machado and Neves also examine ways to decrease antimicrobial use in dairy cows for treatment of diseases, but making sure it balances with the animal's welfare and does not decrease its ability to fight off diseases.
"If you have an increase in the number of animals within a single space, or within a single farm, you have to be more vigilant about disease," Neves said. "There is a greater likelihood a disease will spread more quickly, so disease prevention is critical, and at least for dairy farmers and I'm sure beef farmers as well, they are aware of that and are trying to reduce that. The idea of using antibiotics as a metaphylactic approach is something we are trying to avoid for animals that have a low risk of developing diseases. But if you have a healthier population, you have a population that is less likely to get the disease, therefore there is less of a need for intervention."
Machado focuses on trying to understand some ways to decrease antimicrobial use in dairy cows in terms of disease treatment, knowing the Food and Drug Administration a few years ago strengthened regulations on antibiotic use in feed. Working with a disease in cattle called metritis, an inflammation of the uterus in the first weeks after calving, his hope is to understand the population of cattle that are sick that will actually respond to antimicrobial treatment.
Antimicrobial use in the treatment of metritis is not always effective, Machado said, so he is examining the factors why some cattle don't respond to the treatment, and some cattle who are not treated with antibiotics recover on their own. Understanding this dilemma is critical to ensuring the reproductive health of cows for the long term.
"Some researchers now are leading the way to trying to understand what factors, like somatic cell counts and milk culture outcomes, identify the cows that will benefit from dry cow therapy," Machado said. "Just using antibiotics on cows that are not going to benefit from it might not be the most responsible use of antibiotics."
"Neves' research examines a metabolic disorder known as subclinical hypocalcemia, which is characterized by low blood calcium concentration in dairy cows within the first few days after calving. The disorder can limit the cow's ability to lactate and can start a cycle that puts the cow at risk for other diseases or a lower likelihood of producing milk or producing a smaller amount of milk in the future."
"Right now, what we think is that around 50 percent of what we call multiparous cows, or cows that are going into their second lactation or older, are affected with this condition," Neves said. "That animal needs to be able to rapidly adapt to that sudden demand and when it fails to do so, problems can occur. Nutrition comes in as a very important side of this because we can manipulate the diet in that pre-fresh period to better adapt an animal to those sudden demands for energy and mineral balance."
Both researchers understand the desire of a portion of the public to eliminate all antibiotic use in animals. That has to be balanced with the animal's welfare and sustainability of the industry.
Machado and Neves point to how antibiotics serve a purpose for use in cattle the same way a pet gets antibiotics when it is sick. Reducing the use of antibiotics needs to be based on facts, not theories.
"We don't want to deny the issue that those who are against antibiotics have," Machado said. "But we have to do this in an evidence-based manner. You have to produce the evidence to see if it is a problem and whether we should change our management to try to reduce antimicrobial use and minimize the risk of antimicrobial resistance transmission from livestock to humans."
There also is the business side of the issue. Antibiotics have served a crucial purpose in keeping large herds of cattle, beef or dairy, as disease-free as possible. Without them, ranchers run the risk of their herd developing a disease that spreads more quickly, takes out numerous heads and severely damages the rancher's livelihood.
Ranchers also are conscientious about the environmental and sociological issues that using antibiotics raises, which is why finding better and more efficient forms of feed is essential in order to boost cattle nutrition.
"Disease prevention is critical," Neves said. "I think at least for dairy farmers and for sure for beef farmers as well, they are aware of that and trying to reduce disease. I think the idea of using antibiotics as a means of mass medication of a herd is becoming an older topic and we are avoiding that. This is where nutrition comes in, because if you have a healthier population, you have a population that is less likely to get the disease, therefore there is less of a need for intervention."
Adding antibiotics to feed or developing more nutritional feed aren't the only areas cattle nutritionists are focusing on.
In several states, using food byproducts in feed is a big push as it is more cost-effective and readily available. Beef cattle in California get a regular diet of byproducts from waste products of vegetable production, while cattle in Idaho enjoy a tasty helping of potato waste.
"You get in these areas where you've got to find a way to use all those products because they are cost beneficial," Galyean said. "But balancing that with all the requirements that animals have can be a bit of a challenge."
Ruminant animals differ from pigs or chickens in that their digestive system can convert cellulose – which not even humans can do – and convert it into milk or meat. But they can't do so just by feeding on byproducts alone.
Allowing cattle to graze freely, something that is often pushed by those against use of antibiotics and feed additives, also makes it more difficult and costly to produce the quality of beef that would come from cattle with a well-regulated diet.
Galyean said he suspects there could be reluctance to giving antibiotic treatments to "naturally produced" cattle because cattle that don't ever receive an antibiotic can qualify for premium prices at the final sale.
It sounds simple enough, developing the right diet for cattle to produce quality beef.
For a smaller rancher, it might be just that easy. But not so much for the large feedlot operator with hundreds or thousands of head of cattle. Coming up with a palatable, efficient feed can be a trying experience.
At the same time, unlike large farms, smaller farms don't have the resources to implement new technology that can improve disease detection and improve animal welfare.
"That's the ugly part of it, but it is happening in almost every segment of the country where small farms just aren't thriving and the bigger ones are doing a little better," Machado said.
Research performed at Texas Tech has helped ranchers both large and small. Through testing and combing through mounds of data, researchers can determine what additives, antibiotics and other ingredients go into making the most effective feed possible.
Galyean said much of what cattle nutrition research involves today is data mining, taking results from feedlots all across the country, along with published data, and measuring the effectiveness of the feed in the quality of beef that is produced.
Texas Tech experts continuously perform research looking at byproduct feeds, including ethanol byproducts and in particular the ones that contain less fat. In addition to Machado and Neves, Galyean said Brad Johnson, the Gordon W. Davis Regent's Chair in Meat and Muscle Biology and an expert on beef marbling, has conducted research on various ionophores and beta agonists, which are additives that affect protein deposition (lean tissue) in beef cattle.
Jhones Sarturi, an assistant professor of beef cattle nutrition and metabolism, has studied the use of yeast products to determine whether it could be a viable alternative to antibiotics.
Whitney Crossland, an assistant professor of animal nutrition, researches nutritional management strategies that optimize the use of current feed technology and identifies alternative additives for practical implementation in beef cattle diets.
Daren Henry, an assistant professor of sustainable livestock grazing management, focuses his research on manipulation and characterization of ruminant fermentation and methane production, hoping to advance the mitigation of environmental impacts of beef and dairy cattle production.
All of that research is part of the work that has earned Texas Tech a reputation as a leading institution of higher learning in animal sciences.
"We're doing more every day, and I hope we can do even more as time goes by," Galyean said.