Dairy research ensures healthier cows, more robust profits for farmers

Isis Kanevsky-Mullarky

Associate Professor Isis Kanevsky-Mullarky is working to develop a vaccine that will prevent Staphylococcus aureus in cows.

Cows produce more milk and cost farmers less in treatment costs when they are healthy. But a common bacterial infection, Staphylococcus aureus, can end up spreading disease among animals and whittling away dairy farmers’ profits in record time.

Isis Kanevsky-Mullarky, an associate professor in Virginia Tech’s Department of Dairy Science, leads a research team that is attempting to combat S. aureus infections in dairy herds and helping to ensure dairy cows are healthier by protecting them from developing the prevalent and painful bacterial infection in the first place.

To that end, Kanevsky-Mullarky and her team are working to develop a vaccine that will boost bovine immunity to S. aureus infections that lead to mastitis, which is an inflammation of the mammary glands.

“Whatever we can do to enhance the immune function will allow the producer to save money in treatment because a healthier animal overcomes all those hurdles, whether it’s mastitis, respiratory disease, or anything the animals encounter in their productive lifespan,” said Kanevsky-Mullarky.

Mastitis caused by S. aureus is particularly problematic for dairy farmers because, unlike other types of mastitis, S. aureus is a very chronic and contagious condition in an animal, rendering an infected heifer untreatable if the infection does not clear up on its own. Staph-related mastitis costs the U.S. dairy industry as much as $2 billion annually, which is about 11 percent of total U.S. milk production.

“Mastitis is the most costly disease to the dairy industry due to veterinary-associated costs, decreased production, and treatment of non-staph-related infections,” she said. Currently, the only treatment for S. aureus infections is to isolate the infected cow and cull her from the herd.

Kanevsky-Mullarky’s research has been supported by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture due to the ubiquitous nature of the S. aureus infection problem throughout the industry.

“My number one goal is to help farmers make more money and have happier, healthier animals,” she said.

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