Not including production losses, it is estimated that mastitis can cost more than CND $100 per animal per case. Researchers at the University of Guelph in Canada are working on ways to lower that number by helping producers to identify animals in their dairy herds with the strongest immune systems.
Led by Professor Bonnie Mallard, the University of Guelph team has developed a safe, natural and accurate test called High Immune Response (HIR), which determines which cows and calves have genetically stronger and more responsive immune systems. Their findings will help breeders make decisions that could lead to healthier herds.
“It was a dream of mine to breed animals for disease resistance since I was an undergrad student in Animal Science,” Mallard said in a recent interview. “By combining knowledge from the MSc in quantitative genetics and animals breeding with my PhD in Veterinary Immunogenetics, I was able to realize that dream.”
Mallard is professor of Immunogenetics. She has been a faculty member in the Department of Pathobiology at the Ontario Veterinary College, University of Guelph since 1990.
Using the technology, producers can identify cattle as high, average or low immune responders. High responders, explained Mallard, have a more balanced immune response, which gives them the ability to defend against a large number of diverse pathogens.
The process requires three visits to the farm during a 15-day window. At the first meeting, animals are immunized with the patented test antigen system, which activates immune response. Next, the researchers take blood and milk samples, and measure skin thickness. This information is evaluated to determine the strength of each animal’s immune response to the given test antigens. Individual animals need only be tested once.
Once the results come in, the researchers give the tested animals a ranking based on its ability to genetically pass on high immune status. The prediction is based on estimated breeding values for immune responsiveness.
Mallard’s research focuses on understanding genetic regulation of the immune system as a prophylactic approach to improve animal health. “A major part of my program relates to dairy health and using the High Immune Response technology to reduce costly diseases such as bovine mastitis,” she said. “In fact, high responders cows have about half the mastitis occurrence compared to their herd mates.”
“They also have less occurrence of other diseases as well, including pneumonia, metritis and digital dermatitis,” she said.
Mallard said the findings were integral to Semex Alliance and its ability to obtain an exclusive license from the University of Guelph to test their elite sires for immuno-competence.
“Their high responders sires get the Immunity+ designation,” she said. “Field research shows that daughters of Immunity+ sires also have significantly less disease, including mastitis.”
Today, Mallard and her team are working on related research projects to improve the health of beef cattle, pigs and horses. “This is an all natural, non-GMO approach to improving animal health,” she said. “Healthier animals require fewer antibiotics and thus is an alternative way to reduce drug use and enhance animal well-being.”
Earlier this year, Bonnie Mallard won the prestigious 2017 Governor General’s Award for Innovation. The awards celebrate groundbreaking research that enhances quality of life for Canadians. Mallard was one of six award recipients.