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Exploring fetal programming

Author: Kristy

John Maday, Managing Editor, Drovers CattleNetwork  |  Updated: 11/07/2014

We know the importance of colostrum at birth, good calf nutrition and sound weaning protocols in assuring calf health. We’re now learning more, however, about how the cow’s nutritional status during gestation can affect the expression of genes in the developing calf, influencing immunity, growth and reproduction over the calf’s entire lifetime. This phenomenon, known as “fetal programming,” has been documented in humans and other animals, but is not well understood and scientists currently are exploring implications for cow nutrition and cattle production.

During a recent veterinary nutrition conference hosted by Purina Animal Nutrition at the company’s research farm outside St. Louis, Ron Scott, PhD, director of beef research, outlined the current understanding of fetal programming and the importance of year-around cow nutrition for production of healthy, productive calves.

The concept of fetal programming involves the process of “epigenetics,” in which environmental factors cause genes to express themselves differently even though the genes themselves do not change.

Scott described several studies in human medicine that helped define fetal programming and demonstrate its effects. In England, for example, poverty and malnutrition in certain regions of the country during the early 20th Century led to high incidence of light birth weights for babies. Later, in the 1960’s and 1970’s, scientists found a high rate of coronary heart disease in the adults born in those areas during that period.

During World War II in the winter of 1944, the besieged people of the Netherlands experienced the “Hunger Winter,” suffering severe famine for three months. Scientists later studied the health of Dutch adults who had been gestating during that period. They found those who had been in their first trimester of gestation during the famine were more likely than average to be obese as adults, suffer cardiovascular disease and have high LDL cholesterol. Those who were in their second trimester were more likely to be glucose intolerant and suffer kidney disease, while those who were in their third trimester were more likely to have asthma.

As for cattle, conventional wisdom suggests the third trimester is the most critical, since 75 percent of fetal growth takes place during that period. However, placental and vascular development regulating blood flow to the fetus occur during the first and second trimester, as do organ differentiation and determination of the number of muscle fibers.

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