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New Mexico State University

New Mexico State University

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NMSU researchers in Corona study impact of amino acid on calves in utero

CORONA, N.M. - Researchers at New Mexico State University's Corona Range and Livestock Research Center are giving pregnant cattle a little something extra in their feed. They hope feeding small amounts of the amino acid arginine will increase the longevity of the offspring in "harsh country" and potentially improve carcass quality of calves.

New Mexico State University researchers will observe calves for the next several years to see how the supplementation of the amino acid arginine in their mother's feed during gestation affects the animals after they are born. (Submitted photo)

"Imagine a producer with a herd of cattle where one or two calves are seemingly healthy and are just not performing as well as their contemporaries, even though they have similar genetics and backgrounds," said Eric Scholljegerdes, an assistant professor in the Department of Animal and Range Sciences. "It is possible that the calf's mother may have gone off feed or been sick during early gestation when the calf was in utero and its gut was developing. As a result, the calf's organs may not have developed properly, and that is known as fetal programming."

The concept of fetal programming dates back to the 1940s, near the end of World War II, when Germans blocked the shipment of food and fuel to the Dutch in the Netherlands. Scientists later discovered that children who were in utero during the Dutch famine had a higher incidence of adult-onset diabetes than children who were not in utero.

Now, Scholljegerdes and his team are developing research to further their understanding of maternal nutrition and the impacts of that nutrition during key points in fetal development. Currently, they are conducting a study with pregnant cows. Cows will be allowed to graze native range and individually fed a supplement containing rumen-protected arginine or no arginine during early gestation. A second group of cows will be fed the same treatment during late gestation.

Arginine is known to stimulate blood flow in the uterus. Scholljegerdes said at around 40 days of gestation, the gut, liver and pancreas - organs important to digestion - are developing in the calf. Increased uterine blood flow means more nutrients going to the calf.

All cows and calves will be managed the same apart from the arginine supplementation. Calves will be raised, heifers will be bred and steers will be finished in a feedlot. During this time, feed efficiency - the amount of feed it takes to produce one pound of meat - will be measured.

"No treatments will be applied to the offspring, so any differences observed will be due entirely to what was fed to their mother during gestation," Scholljegerdes said.

The ultimate goal of this research - which will develop over several years - is that calves who received the amino acid while in utero will be more efficient at utilizing their feed and that their carcasses will be of a higher quality because of the increased blood flow to the fat cells. Both of these goals can lead to greater value for the producer.

"Our vision for the Corona ranch is to be the premier center for taking laboratory research and applying it in a real-world setting," Scholljegerdes said.