Vitamin A, Healthy Cows, and Less Antibiotics

By Jaime Strickland, 2018-2021 FFAR Fellow

Hippocrates once said, “Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food”. That link between health and diet applies not only to people, but also to animals.  As a FFAR Fellow, I am researching the role between the diet and health of dairy cows, specifically the role of vitamin A.

Birthing and producing milk is the most difficult time for a cow, as it requires unbelievable amounts of energy and stresses her body. In fact, some cows may require more than 4.5 times the energy when producing milk than a cow at maintenance, meaning that she could consume as many as 40,000 calories a day. Scientists call this the “fresh period,” when a cow is most likely to become sick.

Inflammation, or redness, swelling and pain, is a necessary function during the fresh period that allows the cow to repair damaged tissue as well as fight infection. Humans experience inflammation when they injure themselves. You may have experienced this if you’ve ever burned yourself while cooking. The burn becomes very red and painful, which may seem alarming, but it is just the body’s way of healing itself. The problem for cows during the fresh period is that there are so many physical and metabolic changes occurring that a normal, healthy inflammatory response can run amok and cause damage. A run-a-way inflammatory response can lead to diseases such as a mammary gland infection called mastitis. Mastitis is commonly treated with antibiotics, and in fact, is responsible for the bulk of antibiotic use in adult cows. So, if mastitis can be prevented, antibiotic use on farms can be reduced.

Where does vitamin A come in? Vitamin A is an essential vitamin for both cows and humans. It turns out that research in humans has found that vitamin A has significant effects on inflammation. You may have used vitamin A to treat acne and it is even used to treat certain types of cancer.

In cows, however, we are not sure about the benefits of vitamin A. Much like you make take a daily multivitamin, cows are fed supplemental vitamins and minerals every day. There is surprisingly little research on what doses of vitamin A can optimize health in cows and even less on how vitamin A might improve the inflammatory response. On top of this, during the fresh period a large proportion of cows have deficient blood levels of vitamin A.

How is my researching attempting to solve this problem? I’m first looking at what diseases are associated with decreased blood levels of vitamin A in the fresh period. By focusing on specific conditions that may be associated with low vitamin A, I can then use that information to build models using cultured cow cells in the lab to help determine HOW vitamin A may improve cow health. Once I have a better understanding of how vitamin A works in cows, I will test that theory by giving cows different amounts of vitamin A so that we can pinpoint the concentration that results in the healthiest cows.

In the end, I hope to find a better way to feed cows so that they do not become sick in the first place. Fewer sick cows will not only result in happier cows and farmers, but it will also reduce antibiotic use on farms.

Why I wanted to be a FFAR Fellow: After 10 years of studying science I still do not think that I have all the skills that I need to succeed in my career. I am so excited to be proactive in my efforts to improve my leadership and communication skills through this fellowship. My professional goals include finding novel methods for improving health in dairy cows through nutrition and then being able to teach and share that knowledge with students and the general public. The FFAR fellowship is helping give me the tools that I will need to be able to effectively share my research.

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