Wildfire Smoke Impact
The increase in frequency and intensity of wildfires the past 20 years has prompted studies on the impact of wildfire smoke exposure to human health. But little research has been done on the effects of wildfire smoke to livestock. A new University of Idaho study is starting that conversation.
Ashly Anderson, an animal science graduate student in the U of I College of Agricultural and Life Sciences, is working with Assistant Professor Amy Skibiel and in collaboration with Associate Professor Pedram Rezamand, to look at how poor air quality due to wildfires impacts health and production of dairy cattle.
“We’re just starting to uncover the effects in humans, so livestock and other animal species have taken a back seat to that,” said Anderson. “We haven’t really begun to look at the effects in livestock. It’s not just dairy cattle that there aren’t results. Most animal species don’t have quantified effects of smoke exposure.”
Contribution to Knowledge
Anderson studied 28 purebred Holstein cows and their calves from July-September 2020. Blood samples were taken to track immunological markers and other blood metabolites to determine changes in response to particulate matter from wildfire smoke. Samples were taken before, during and after smoke exposure. Anderson also looked at gestational effects on the calves in utero and from birth to weaning.
“In the Pacific Northwest it’s particularly important because we have seasonal wildfires, so this is an annual exposure for both people and animals,” Anderson said.
The research team is also looking at changes in milk production and milk fat during smoke exposure to determine effects on milk production. Anderson hopes to have preliminary results in March 2021 and a scholarly article by May 2021.
The study is just the first step in eventually providing livestock producers with recommendations and advice to keep their cattle healthy during wildfire season.
“This is very preliminary work,” Anderson said. “It’s definitely not been done before so because of that we won’t have any solid recommendations to make because it’s very early on. We hope to eventually be contributing to a larger body of work that helps to improve cow comfort and cow health while also maintaining production for producers.”
Changing conditions makes this research especially valuable.
“Due to climate change and global conditions, we’re going to be seeing a lot more wildfires and because of that there are going to be a lot more people and animals exposed to wildfires,” Anderson said. “Being able to tell what kind of effects there are and how we might be affected in the future is very important.”
Originally from La Quinta, California, Anderson attended Washington State University before transferring to U of I her junior year. She earned her bachelor’s degree in animal and veterinary science: pre-vet option in May 2019.
“I actually started my undergrad at WSU because they have an amazing vet program,” Anderson said. “I thought I would really enjoy the perks of having a large campus like WSU and it turns out I didn’t.”
The smaller campus and the support of faculty and staff in the Department of Animal, Veterinary and Food Sciences made the decision to transfer an easy one.
“We have a great support program here,” Anderson said. “All of the professors really want to see you succeed. I’ve been working with so many professors within our department that have nothing to do with my project but still really want to help me and that’s such a nice feeling when you know everyone in the department is behind you and your work.”
Anderson will complete her graduate degree in May 2021 and is applying to veterinary school. Her experiences at U of I have prepared her for the challenge.
“I’ve learned a ton of things from this project, even just how to take a blood sample from a jugular vein, how to work with cows, normal respiration rates, normal temperature ranges,” she said. “It’s also been helpful to lead a team for the first time and get the experience of managing other people while also working in collaboration with other labs.”