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Rumen Bacteria

Environment and Behavior:
Biodiversity and Cattle Well-being

By Juan Alvez, Pasture Technical Coordinator, UVM Center for Sustainable Agriculture

Added December 1, 2014. Today, many people are seeking to understand the complex interactions involved in food production and their implications for both environmental sustainability and human health. Here at the University of Vermont, a group of colleagues wondered in particular about the connections between soil biodiversity, forages, animal health and human health.

In 2012, our research team embarked on a collaborative, long-term study focused on assessing how ecologic habitat disruption is associated with livestock wellbeing and health, and how those in turn impact human wellbeing. And with a wider lens, we rapidly conclude that these elements do not exist in isolation. Numerous researchers emphasize (and our preliminary data support) that agriculture both receives and provides a diverse array of benefits from healthy ecosystems, while also imposing dis-services when disrupted.

In the last decades, population growth reaching unprecedented 7.2 billion people, coupled with higher living standards is increasingly demanding dairy products. Meeting this demand has required both advancing the agricultural frontier and intensification of the production process, burdening already-degraded ecosystems with consequences on habitats, forests, biodiversity, soils, water and rural livelihoods.

Most researchers studying livestock and conservation focus on the ramifications of how livestock affects biodiversity.

Cows wearing electronic loggers to monitor grazing activity

We decided to approach it the other way around. We consider that managing for increased biological diversity in pasture-based dairy production systems in the Northeast positively contributes to improved livestock well-being, health and productivity, and creates a positive feed-back ecological service loop that benefits soil and forage composition. An integral approach to soils, forage and diet, rumen microbiology and milk quality is necessary to assess how cows are affected.

By studying if and how this affects cattle well-being, some of the questions we want to answer are whether there are risks of transmission to wildlife and humans.

The recent emergence of methicillin resistant Staphylococus aureus in livestock, human campylobacter outbreaks linked to ruminants and raw-milk consumption, and the emergence of Schmallenberg virus associated with reproductive failure in cattle represent a few recent examples of the shifting balance in microbial evolution and ecology.

In general, there is a strong belief that healthy ecosystems with minimally disturbed soils, adequate access to a diverse, high quality forage mix, and clean water have a robust correlation with cows’ wellbeing and milk quality. However, although the disease regulation processes in humans served by healthy ecosystems, with high levels of biodiversity, is a growing and controversial topic; there has been limited research on the relationships between changes in biodiversity, livestock health, and farm management and productivity.

Hence, there is a pressing need to look at the whole picture to draw connections that can provide answers. For these reasons, the approach has been to understand the linkages that may exist among soils, forages, animal intake, rumen microbiome, and a comprehensive bacteriological and milk fatty acid study.

Cows grazing a diversified sward

Understanding the response of ruminant and environmental microbial communities to specific management practices is critical to optimizing farm productivity and product quality and enhancing ecosystem-based management of farms and agricultural landscapes.

Dairy cattle and dairy farm systems supports numerous microbial communities including, mutually beneficial relationships between dairy cattle and their microbial symbionts (rumen microbiota). These cellulolytic bacteria break down plant materials providing cows’ a source of energy.

Skin and gastrointestinal microbiota, also appear to be critical for normal immune-system development and may protect against colonization of opportunistic pathogens. Our understanding of the magnitude and diversity of the microbiota of dairy cattle and dairy-farm environments is limited, and we have insufficient knowledge of how specific farm management practices influence microbial ecology and ecosystem services.

Part of the limitation of understanding microbial ecology is because most microbes are resistant to culture and isolation by classical methods. The recent development of metagenomics enables us to overcome these limitations.

In our study, we will identify and demonstrate methods for grass-based livestock farmers to: 1) improve productivity, milk quality, reduce costs, and increase net farm income; and 2) conserve soil, improve water quality, and protect natural resources; 3) demonstrate how real-time monitoring of grazing behavior and forage intakes allows farmers to optimize forage utilization, rumen activity, and milk composition.

By optimizing these production parameters, pasture-based dairy farmers may simultaneously produce healthier milk products for human consumption, advance the health and well-being of their cattle, and reduce operational costs and environmental impacts.

For more information, contact Juan P. Alvez, Ph.D. at the Center for Sustainable Agriculture, 802-656-6116 or jalvez@uvm.edu.

The Project Team consists of: Joe Roman (Rubenstein School for the Environment and Natural Resources, and Gund Institute for Ecological Economics Fellow), Juan Alvez (UVM Extension Center for Sustainable Agriculture), John Barlow (UVM Department of Animal Sciences) and Jana Kraft (UVM Department of Animal Sciences). This study has been funded since 2013 by UVM REACH Grant and Northeast Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (NE SARE).