Given the value of the dairy industry, extensive research on dairy-cattle health and productivity is a necessity. One area that needs more attention is calf health.

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

Our research team recently 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. That’s an imbalance between the production of free radicals and the ability of calf 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. 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 means we often use antibiotics, sometimes at inappropriate times, and there is a problem with resistance development.

In an effort to lessen the use of antibiotics, we’re searching for possible diet additions – including specific micronutrients – that can enhance calf response to vaccines. We’re also exploring how the cow’s nutrition during pregnancy affects the calf long-term. If we can understand the immediate and future benefits of certain nutrients, it might change the way we approach cattle nutrition. We’re trying to position cows to remain successful after rearing, and calves to grow up and be productive cows.

I have always loved animals, especially cows. I knew I wanted to work with them for my career. 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 need 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.

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Dr. Angel Abuelo, veterinarian, is an assistant professor in the Michigan State University College of Veterinary Medicine. His family operated a dairy farm in Arzúa, Galicia, Spain, where he spent a lot of time as a child. After high school, Spanish students are able to apply directly to veterinary school. He 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. He is board-certified in bovine health and had planned to pursue clinical veterinary work. But during his training he became more interested in research.