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Research Round-Up: New efforts offer promise for better environmental and livestock management

published: February 17th 2023
by: Kindra Gordon
source: Southern Livestock Standard

A focus on the future is a constant driver within today’s beef industry. Producers, industry organizations, beef companies and researchers recognize there are improvements and advancements to be made that will make the industry, society and our planet better for future generations. To that end, several research efforts and product developments are underway to benefit livestock production.

Feed additive to reduce methane emissions

Elanco Animal Health and Royal DSM have teamed up to develop Bovaer, a first-of-its-kind feed additive aimed to reduce the methane emissions of beef and dairy cattle. Bovaer has been demonstrated to reduce methane emissions by 22% to 35% for dairy cattle and up to 80% for beef cattle, according to 50 peer-reviewed studies and 48 on-farm trials across 14 countries.

Using one-fourth teaspoon of Bovaer per head, the feed additive suppresses the enzyme in rumen that triggers methane production. The product breaks down in the digestive tract into compounds naturally found in the stomach. Once Bovaer is no longer fed, methane production returns to full levels, indicating no lasting effect. 

The methane reduction from feeding 1 million cows Bovaer is equivalent to planting 45 million trees or removing 300,000 cars from the road, according to the two companies. With 9 million dairy cows and 14 million beef cattle on feed in the U.S., the product would contribute a significant and immediate reduction of the environmental footprint of meat and dairy products, supporting the Global Methane Pledge to cut emissions 30% by 2030.

“We are excited to partner with DSM to start the process of bringing this game-changing innovation to U.S. livestock producers,” says Jeff Simmons, president and CEO of Elanco in a news release. “It will further strengthen Elanco’s efforts to create the livestock sustainability market and the next era of value for farmers by adding to our efforts to reduce, measure, and monetize emission reductions.”

Elanco will be responsible for the U.S. approval process, commercialization, and product supply, supporting DSM supply in markets outside the United States. Once Bovaer is approved, the partnership will double the global availability of the product. 

Artificial intelligence may help detect livestock lameness

University of Florida scientists want to assess livestock mobility faster and more accurately, ultimately helping farm animal health and production. To do so, they’ll use artificial intelligence (AI) to analyze high-definition video of the animals as they move.

Samantha Brooks, a UF/IFAS geneticist and associate professor of equine physiology – along with other UF researchers – have been awarded a nearly $50,000 grant from the Agricultural Genome to Phenome Initiative for this research.

The team will combine machine learning with gait analyses to speed their assessment of livestock mobility. Brooks explains, “Our long-term goal is to build an automated pipeline that could produce results nearly in real-time, just seconds after the animal passes by the camera,” Brooks said. “This pilot project is a first step toward that goal.”

For instance, the technology could detect lameness in livestock as they pass by a camera each day. Envision dairy cattle or feedlot cattle, for example – alerting the farmer to potentially serious health issues early on, and with less effort from farm staff.

Brooks and her colleagues are initially working with horses because they’re an excellent model for locomotion and because scientists can gather a lot of data quickly. She and her lab already are working with about 2,000 video clips of horses in motion.

“The large library of video will enable construction of accurate models to track the animals’ movement in the video frame,” Brooks said. “Although we’ve started with the horse, what we learn here will translate to similar models for other four-legged farm animals.”

For this project, they’ll also build AI models to analyze video of cattle, swine and small ruminants. As they review the data, researchers will look at such traits as stance time, stride length and limb extension. In cattle and swine, scientists are more interested in asymmetry and postures that indicate pain for abnormal function in one or more limbs.

Thermal imaging for early health diagnosis

Thermal imaging is common in human medicine, but research from Scotland’s Rural College (SRUC) shows there is also potential for it to be used in the early detection of animal health conditions in commercial livestock production.

Researchers report thermal imaging allows for looking at the animal – not in the visible spectrum that we use for our eyes – but in terms of infrared radiation. This enables researchers to see the temperature distribution across the surface of the animal, which allows them to draw conclusions about what is happening to the animal that may cause temperature changes.

As examples, thermal imaging can be used to detect a range of stress factors including heat stress. In livestock sheds it can be used to detect hot and cold stress, and in transportation vehicles to monitor temperature during transport of animals.

Additionally, researchers are finding other health conditions which have proven to be detectable using this technology include sub-acute ruminal acidosis, mastitis, digital dermatitis and other issues which may cause inflammation. There is also evidence that thermal imaging can detect temperature changes when an animal experiences pain. It can also be used to detect changes in parturition – such as the onset of calving.

Research will continue in this area to develop further management applications.

RNA-based method for weed control

For generations, farmers have relied on spraying herbicides to prevent invasive plants and weeds from choking their soybean, corn and wheat crops. But over the last several years, weeds are quickly evolving resistance to even the most advanced herbicides.

Todd Gaines, an associate professor in Colorado State University’s Department of Agricultural Biology, is now leading a project aimed at changing the game of weed control by using an entirely new mode of action to combat the most out-of-control weed species, and particularly the noxious, highly herbicide-resistant weed Palmer amaranth.

Gaines is partnering with biotechnology company AUM LifeTech to research the application and methods of an emerging gene-silencing weed control technology. Their method uses molecular tools called antisense oligonucleotides, which are next-generation single-stranded nucleic acid molecules, to infiltrate the cells of weed plants and target single strands of RNA. The molecular targets would be so specific that the crops would remain untouched.

The goal is to optimize a delivery system in the form of a nanoparticle-based, shelf-stable spray. If successful, the technology would give farmers a non-genetically modified, environmentally conscious tool to control weeds that are rapidly gaining the upper hand against legacy herbicides.

Gaines says among his larger goals is to help make farming systems more sustainable, both by helping farmers maintain their livelihoods, and by making products that are safe for the public and the environment. “We need to help ensure we are not harming other organisms, while also managing these weeds.”

The research is currently funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency for a two-year project, in which they will prove out the fundamental technology and test a delivery system. Their system will focus on Palmer amaranth as a test case. Its genome has been sequenced.


Anthrax researched as human pain blocker

The cattle industry knows anthrax as a bacterial toxin known for its lethal effects on livestock. But today, researchers at Harvard Medical School have repurposed anthrax into a potent pain blocker that could someday serve as an alternative to drugs with addictive side effects.

Collaborating with other institutions and industry, the lab of Harvard Associate Professor of Immunology Isaac Chiu found that injecting anthrax toxin into the nervous system selectively quieted pain fibers and provided a novel way to target pain. The research has not yet been tested in human trials, but has promise.

Chiu explains that his lab is focused on how microbes interact with neurons. While looking at what microbe-related genes pain fibers expressed that other neurons don’t, one gene stood out, which is the receptor for anthrax toxin.

With chronic pain affecting about 50 million Americans, Chiu notes there is a need for better treatments. Opioids can be effective at blocking pain, but the problem is that they also have off-target effects. He notes that society needs to find molecular targets that can block pain that are not going to cause addiction.

Chiu explains that researchers have observed the high-affinity receptor for anthrax toxin. He explains if you compare across the brain and across the nervous system, the anthrax pain blocker seems to be highly expressed in pain fibers, but absent in brain or spinal cord neurons. He cautions that the receptors are also expressed in many non-neuronal cells. That’s why anthrax is lethal in humans: it will target blood vessels, or it will target the liver. But in Chiu’s study, they were able to largely limit it to pain fibers by injecting the toxin only into the nervous system, between the vertebrae in the spine.

This research is in an early stage (all with mouse models), and part of the remaining work is addressing safety issues in a way that would be practical in the clinic. Chui says future steps will include studies with other animal models and eventually humans. But ultimately the goal will be to engineer a pain blocker from the anthrax toxins that go after neurons in the brain that degenerate, like in Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s.


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