Climate change and Dairy Farming: Beating the Heat

By Ananda Fontoura, 2018-2021 FFAR Fellow

 

Imagine cattle living in Brazil, where temperatures range from 95 to 104 degrees Fahrenheit year-round, suffering from grave heat exposure. Fast shallow breathing, profusely sweating, drooling and panting as they overheat, walking less, looking for shade and drinking triple the amount of water. As a practicing veterinarian in Pará State, this was an unforgettable sight I couldn’t unsee.

Heat stress isn’t just an abstract problem. Cattle undergo major physiological changes to survive extreme heat, similar to how the human body responds to a run on a hot summer’s day. Their cardiovascular system constricts as blood supply diverts from the vital organs towards the periphery. While this is a great way to increase body cooling, it interrupts oxygen supply to the intestines. Reduced oxygen disturbs the intestinal cells. In consequence, contents that once were inside the intestines such as bacteria, are released into the blood circulation. This syndrome - known as “leaky-gut” - is one of the many challenges that climate change brings to dairy farming.

Heat stress is not a challenge that only cattle in Brazil face, it is global issue affecting agricultural systems across the world. In the United States, heat stress can cost the dairy industry a staggering $1.5 billion dollars annually. Recent predictions project those economic losses may rise an additional $126 million over the next 50 years. These financial losses are driven by reduced milk production, pregnancy losses, disease and in severe cases, death.

At Cornell University, I am investigating the interactions between the gut microbiome and heat stress to define the role that gut microbes play in explaining the physiology of heat stress. This will help us understand why some animals are more heat resilient than others and enable researchers to develop nutritional therapies that mitigate the effects of heat stress. Currently, we are exploring organic acids and plant botanicals as dietary supplements for lactating dairy cows. These compounds are known for their intestinal healing properties in poultry and swine production but require testing in cattle. Organic acids and plant botanicals are naturally-occurring and represent one of the ways to improve the welfare of cattle, enhance gut health and potentially lower antibiotic usage in dairy herds.

During the initial phase of my research program, our team took care of 62 dairy calves undergoing heat stress, supplementing their diet with different dietary levels of organic acids and botanicals. In this phase, we identified the best dose to further explore as we move forward to the next phase of testing: supplementing lactating cows. Looking forward to the next stage, we can test whether our preliminary results in calves are similar in cows. As data analyses unfold, stay tuned for our beat the heat updates!

Agriculture isn’t a one-person job and for that I am very fortunate to have the sponsorship from FFAR and my industry sponsor, VetAgro Inc. I am also grateful to have the support of mentors through the FFAR Fellows program, as well as the technical expertise and research excellence from my supervisors and advisory committee.

The approaches I am taking during my program represent sustainable alternatives to alleviate effects of heat stress, improve health and performance of dairy cows, and ultimately ensure that good quality products are put on the consumer’s table.

Overcoming Water Scarcity

Overcoming Water Scarcity

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Agriculture uses 70 percent of the world’s accessible freshwater. FFAR’s 2016-2018 Overcoming Water Scarcity Challenge Area addressed water use efficiency in agriculture by developing water conservation and reuse technologies, improving crop and livestock breeds, creating improved agronomic practices, increasing the social and economic tractability of conservation practices and enhancing the efficacy of Extension services.

FFAR’s Sustainable Water Management Challenge Area builds on earlier work to increase water availability and water efficiency for agricultural use, reduces agricultural water pollution and develops water reuse technologies.

Healthy Soils, Thriving Farms

Healthy Soils, Thriving Farms

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FFAR’s 2016-2018 Healthy Soils, Thriving Farms Challenge Area increased soil health by building knowledge, fueling innovation, and enabling adoption of existing or new innovative practices that improve soil health.

The Soil Health Challenge Area advances existing research and identifies linkages between farm productivity and soil health, while also addressing barriers to the adoption of soil health practices.

Protein Challenge

Protein Challenge

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FFAR’s 2016-2018 Protein Challenge Area sought to improve the environmental, economic and social sustainability of diverse proteins.

The Advance Animal Systems challenge area supports sustainable animal production through environmentally sound productions practices and advancement in animal health and welfare. Additionally, the Next Generation Crops Challenge Area develops non-traditional crops, including plant-based proteins, and creates new economic opportunities for conventional crops to increase future crop diversity and farm profitability.

Food Waste and Loss

Food Waste and Loss

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About 40 percent of food in the US, or $161 billion each year, is lost or wasted. FFAR’s 2016-2018 Food and Waste Loss Challenge Area addressed the social, economic and environmental impacts from food waste and loss through research that developed of novel uses for agricultural waste, improved storage and distribution, supported tracking and monitoring, minimized spoilage through pre- and post-harvest innovations and changed behaviors to reduce food waste

FFAR’s current Health-Agriculture Nexus Challenge Area addresses food waste and loss and supports innovative, systems-level approaches to reduce food and nutritional insecurity and improve human health in the US and globally.

Forging the Innovation Pathway to Sustainability

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Supporting innovation is necessary for sustainable results. Over the last 50 years, farmers have tripled global food production thanks to agricultural innovations. Forging the Innovation Pathway to Sustainability was a 2016-2018 Challenge Area that focused on understanding the barriers and processes that prevented the adoption of technology and research results into sustainable practices.

Urban Food Systems

Urban Food Systems

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The 2016-2018 Urban Food Systems Challenge Area addressed feeding urban populations through urban and peri-urban agriculture and augmenting the capabilities of our current food system.

The Urban Food Systems Challenge Area continues this work and enhances our ability to feed urban populations.

Making My Plate Your Plate

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FFAR’s 2016-2018 Making My Plate Your Plate Challenge Area focused on helping Americans meet the USDA 2015 Dietary Guideline recommendations for fruit and vegetable consumption, including research to both produce and provide access to nutritious fruits and vegetables.

FFAR’s current Health-Agriculture Nexus Challenge Area supports innovative, systems-level approaches to reduce food and nutritional insecurity and improve human health in the US and globally.