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Vitamin D and Improved Immune Response in Cattle

In the cattle industry, infectious diseases of cattle can result in major economic losses, reduced well-being of the animals, and requires producers to increase their use of antimicrobials. Corwin Nelson, associate professor in the UF/IFAS Department of Animal Sciences, studies how to strengthen cattle immune systems to prevent these negative impacts through nutrition.

Nelson’s research is centered around vitamin D and it’s influence on dairy and beef cattle resistance to infectious disease. His research led to discovering that vitamin D contributes to the production of several antimicrobial peptides in cattle. Further research has shown that vitamin D supplementation reduced the severity of mastitis in dairy cows and improved the growth of calves.

“I have worked on the specific topic for most of my research career,” Nelson said. “It started with investigations on whether vitamin D had a role in immune cells. I have now seen some of our recent research outcomes implemented in how beef and dairy producers around the world are feeding their animals.”

His research includes processes both in the lab and with animals. In the lab, vitamin D treatments are tested on actions of immune cells isolated from animals. In live animal experiments, dietary treatments are applied and the effects on the whole animal are examined. The growth, production, and specific tissues such as mammary glands and immune cells are studied. Nelson utilizes both beef and dairy breeds in his research in order to gain a broader understanding of the implications among different cattle production systems.

Nelson points out that research often takes time to be practically applied in the industry. The techniques that are being used today were researched over a decade ago.

“It often takes years and a great deal of funding for projects to develop into an effective solution for stakeholders,” Nelson said. “At the same time, I enjoy identifying rapid solutions for our beef and dairy producers. I always appreciate learning directly from them about the challenges they face because that helps shape my research questions.”

Nelson emphasizes that his research has been influenced by the diverse expertise of the faculty and researchers in the animal sciences department.

“At UF I collaborate very much with Jose Santos and KC Jeong,” Nelson said. “Being able to discuss ideas with an excellent immunologist such as John Driver, reproductive physiologists like Pete Hansen and John Bromfield, and geneticists like Raluca Mateescu strengthens my research program. The quality of my research program is certainly enhanced by recruiting and retaining excellent scientists in the department.”

In addition to faculty, Nelson has worked with several graduate and undergraduate students. Ph.D. student, Michael Poindexter, is studying vitamin nutrition of transition dairy cows. Teri Wells, Ph.D. student, has studied the effects of vitamin D on mammary immunity and growth of calves. Samantha Bohm, who just completed her M.S., studied the role of vitamin D on the development of heifers and fat-soluble vitamin supplementation on growth and reproductive performance of beef cattle. Ana da Silva is working towards her M.S. and studies the role of vitamin D nutrition on health, immunity, and production of first lactation heifers. Brittney Thompson also an M.S. student, is studying the effects of vitamin supplementation on the immune status of beef calves. Nelson has also supervised the undergraduate honors theses of Amanda Tibula, Emily Wilkes, and Sophia Buoniconti. Numerous other undergraduates and research interns have assisted graduate students in the lab and on the farm doing their research.

A few published journal articles related to these topics are: 

Poindexter M.B., Kweh M.F., Zimpel R., Zuniga J., Lopera C., Zenobi M., Jiang Y., Engstrom M., Celi P., Santos J.E.P., and C.D. Nelson. 2020. Feeding supplemental 25-hydroxyvitamin D3 increases serum mineral concentrations and alters mammary immunity of lactating dairy cows. J. Dairy Sci. 103:805-822. 21.

Merriman, K.E., Kweh, M.F., Powell, J.L., Lippolis, J.D., and C.D. Nelson. 2015. Multiple β-defensin genes are upregulated by the vitamin D pathway in cattle. Journal of Steroid Biochemistry and Molecular Biology. 154: 120-129.

For more on Corwin Nelson, Ph.D., visit his faculty profile. Find more information about UF Animal Sciences on our website. Stay in touch with us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram