A SIMPLE blood test could be used in the future to predict the lifelong health and productivity of dairy cows, Scottish researchers say.
They have found testing female calves for molecules in the blood – called microRNAs – to help predict their likelihood of developing disease as mature cows.
MicroRNAs are small molecules produced by all body tissues, which play important regulatory roles in animals and plants. MicroRNA levels can be readily quantified in blood using standard laboratory procedures and can be used to assess changes in the function of specific body tissues.
Some of these blood molecules are associated with diseases such as lameness and mastitis, as well as with milk production.
Up to a third of UK cows are affected by disease or reproductive failure and need to be removed before the end of their productive life. This incurs significant costs to farmers and raises serious animal welfare issues.
Researchers at the Roslin Institute and Scotland’s Rural College (SRUC), who carried out the study, say a procedure to identify calves that are likely to have problems later in life would benefit the dairy industry and improve animal welfare.
Levels of microRNA can be easily analysed in lab tests and used to assess changes in tissue function. This approach is already being applied to disease diagnosis in humans.
In UK dairy herds, up to one-third of cows are affected by disease or reproductive failure. This incurs costs to farmers.
Xavier Donadeu of the University of Edinburgh’s Roslin Institute says the research results show blood testing for microRNAs may be very useful as diagnostic tools in dairy cows and potentially other livestock species.
“They could allow for early selection of the healthiest animals in a herd in order to aid productivity and animal wellbeing,” Donadeu says in a statement.
SRUC Prof Georgios Banos says the research is a strategic topic of priority.
“We are already designing collaborative follow-up projects and we look forward to exciting new outcomes,” he says.