Tristan Spinski/The New York Times

August 31, 2022

Heat Stressed Cows Produce Less Milk Due to Leaky Gut, New Study Finds

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Rising temperatures have created great repercussions for the agriculture industry as plants and animals become harder to maintain as demand remains the same. For the dairy industry, the trouble has been especially notable. 

A new Cornell study has demonstrated the connection between heat stress and gut permeability, which describes the porosity of the gut. According to co-author Prof. Joe McFadden, dairy cattle biology, the study is the first to directly investigate the connection as well as propose a solution through dietary shifts. 

His lab’s research is focused on how nutrition affects milk production in cows, and furthermore the effects of heat stress, which can reduce cattle food intake by over 50 percent. 

In 2010, the dairy industry lost an estimated 1.2 billion dollars due to heat stress events. The trend continues.

“Over 1.5 billion [dollars are] lost every year in the United States from dairy cattle due to heat stress,” McFadden said. “That’s more than all other animal food production systems in the country.” 

Any mammal that experiences a heat stress can become permeable to bacteria. The bacteria triggers an immune response in the animal’s body, requiring energy often sourced from non-essential functions like milk production. The study concluded that heat stress increases total track gut permeability.

As of right now, the only combative tactics against heat stress in dairy cattle focus on cooling the animals through fans and sprinklers. However, the sustainability of the practice is questioned. 

“[Sprinklers and fans] have a carbon footprint attached to their use,” McFadden said. “So, more nutritional approaches that enhance resilience could be beneficial.” 

Cornell has long led nutritional work in the dairy industry, notably through the Cornell Net Carbohydrate Protein System, which has been responsible for developing diets for around 70 percent of the cows in North America.

McFadden works with a company named Vetegro that produces organic amino acids. This relationship allows for quick turnaround on research, McFadden said, since the potential solutions can be rapidly applied in the field. Amino acids have been shown to have beneficial effects on the microbiome, even demonstrating restoration of heat-related milk production drops McFadden said. 

However, McFadden said, it is by no means a final answer. According to McFadden, other approaches might be more helpful long-term. 

“[Heat stress is] going to continue to be a problem,” McFadden said. “The severity is going to continue if we don’t have new solutions.” 

This could mean considering a genetic approach for dairy cows, which has the potential to make significant improvements in regards to resiliency if milk production levels can be maintained. 

McFadden will continue his research with a focus on gas exchange using respiration chambers funded by New York State. Construction of the chambers begins in December with installation within the year.