Humans, animals and the dairy cow

Dr. Martin Kaske explains the rise of the study of epigenetics in humans and the connection to food animal production.

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Humans, animals and the dairy cow

Professor Martin Kaske explains that results of epigenetics studies in humans help us understand the importance of the first few weeks of life for calves.

Epigenetics, the understanding of how external or environmental factors in early development can have long-lasting effects on one's lifetime health, has been studied as a major factor in human disease and prevention for well over 30 years. These studies have shown that it's not only the genetic make-up of a person that determines if certain diseases develop (or not), but also the programming that happens after birth, in the first few weeks of life, that can shift the expression of genes in either positive or negative ways. Professor Martin Kaske explains that these epigenetic studies in humans can in fact be extrapolated to include other mammals as well, including ruminants.

Professor Kaske believes that for the dairy industry this means that the first several weeks of a calf's life are critical. Feeding intensity and colostrum supply have a huge impact on the health and performance of a dairy cow later on. He agrees with Dr. Fernando Soberon who says that when you see a calf, you should not really think of it as a calf, per se, but as a little cow. And that if you want a healthy and highly performing cow later in life, you must pay special attention to the care, feeding and nurturing of calves in the early days. The first four, six, even eight weeks of the life of the calf have tremendous importance in terms of securing the future health and productivity of the cow. Professor Kaske emphasizes the importance of this fact when he says that, "what you lose there, what you make wrong in that specific, sensitive period, cannot be restored by other tools later on." In other words, you can't just make up the growth of the cow in later periods if you don't ensure high levels of nutrition early on.

Until recently, farmers were mostly concerned with simply making sure that calves survived in the early weeks and didn't place any significant emphasis on the impact of proper feeding levels on calf health in both the short and long term. Professor Kaske, however, foresees a future in which farmers will see the importance of the earliest weeks of life and the positive epigenetic effects that boosting calf nutrition early on will have throughout the lifetime of the cow.