UW researcher receives scholastic award from Zinpro
for Tri-State Livestock News
Hannah Cunningham-Hollinger has been recognized as the doctoral recipient of the Western Section of the American Society of Animal Science Young Scholar, sponsored by Zinpro. Cunningham received a plaque, monetary award and presented her research findings during the WSASAS annual meeting in Bend, Ore.
Established in 2013, the WSASAS Young Scholar Recognition Program acknowledges the outstanding research accomplishments by doctoral and master’s degree students. The recognition program is also designed to increase participation in the WSASAS annual meetings by showcasing exceptional and contemporary research from talented, young scientists.
Hannah Cunningham-Hollinger’s interest in ruminants started at a young age when she was growing up on her family’s ranch in Kaycee. Ranching is in her blood as both her mother and father came from ranches. Her family raised Hereford and Hereford/Angus cross cattle as well as Suffolk and Suffolk cross sheep
“After completing a Bachelors of Art in Biology from St. Olaf College (Northfield, Minn.) I knew I had a passion for science, but I really missed being involved with agriculture,” Cunningham-Hollinger said, explaining that her keen interest in livestock influenced her to pursue a graduate degree in Animal Science. “My M.S. was in Ruminant Nutrition where I studied intestinal biology as it relates to feed efficiency in finishing steers. From my M.S. I discovered I enjoyed teaching. I asked myself what career can I be involved with research, teaching, and with livestock, and that’s when I decided that I wanted to pursue a career in academia.”
That decision convinced her to work toward a Ph.D., not only because she wanted to be a professor but because she wanted to increase her knowledge base and research skills. When the opportunity arrived to change her research to genetics, Cunningham-Hollinger jumped in. “I thought studying genetics would train me to be a well-rounded scientist. I took a position with Dr. Kristi Cammack in the Animal Science Department the University of Wyoming (UW) studying the maternal influence on the calf microbiome. After completing my Ph.D. in May of 2018, I was hired as an Assistant Professor of Animal Genetics in the Department of Animal Science at UW.
Cunningham-Hollinger explains that her Ph.D. focused on the maternal influences on the calf rumen microbiome with her dissertation being: “Maternal Influence on the Calf Rumen Microbiome and Subsequent Host Performance.” The two main research projects in the dissertation were; 1) Influence of Maternal Gestational Nutrition and Mode of Delivery on the Pre-Ruminant Calf Rumen Microbiome, 2) Maternal Influences on the Calf Microbiome (from birth through a post-weaning feed efficiency trial)” (Ed note: A microbiome is defined as the “microorganisms in a particular environment, including the body or a part of the body.”)
“From the first study we found that even in the pre-ruminant calf, maternal gestational nutrition (nutrient restriction) can alter the rumen microbiome in terms of differences in the abundance of certain microbiomes, although not in overall diversity (number of different taxa found),” Cunningham-Hollinger said “Mode of delivery (Caesarean section) altered the pre-ruminant microbiome, with caesarean born calves having a decrease in species richness compared to vaginally born calves. This is similar to what we see in human data, and this change in richness could have impacts on calf health and performance later in life.”
Cunningham-Hollinger noted that in her second study, they found that maternal breed (Angus vs. Charolais), mode of delivery (caesarean section vs. vaginal), and rearing type (raised on their dam vs. bottle reared) can affect not only the richness of the microbiome in the calf but also abundance of specific taxa.
“Some of these differences persisted into weaning, yet some of the differences went away as the animal matured and was exposed to environmental factors,” Cunningham-Hollinger said “In terms of the feed efficiency trial, we also found that indeed the highly efficient animals had different taxa abundances compared to the lowly efficient animals. Microbial richness (number of taxa) did not differ, suggesting that as the animal matures the rumen microbiome stabilizes in terms of which taxa are found in the rumen, yet differences in abundance of those specific taxa differs with feed efficiency. These data indicate to us that how we manage the gestating cow can have implications on calf performance specifically in terms of the rumen microbiome. It was interesting to see that some of these changes persist as the animal matures, indicating the potential for “programming” of the rumen microbiome.”
“This may lead to intervention strategies (gestational nutrition supplementation programs, use of probiotics, etc.) that can improve the rumen microbiome in calves to encourage improved health and performance,” Cunningham-Hollinger said. “There is a lot more research that needs to be done, but these projects allowed us to determine that indeed the maternal factors have an impact not only on the early microbiome, but also long term.”
The scientist reiterated that because of this research and previous studies, we know the rumen microbiome is critical to host performance in terms of conversion of feed into energy, vitamins, etc., gut health, and overall immune function of the animal. “We learned that the early microbiome, even before there is a functioning rumen, is critical to the establishment of the immune system, development of the rumen, and thus has lasting implications for animal health and performance. Based on all of this, it is critical that we identify factors that can affect this early establishment and find ways that management can improve or optimize the early microbiome. It is also critical that we continue to “feed the microbes” and manage ruminants in a way that harbors a healthy gut microbiome, as it is key to so many facets of production efficiency.”
Cunningham-Hollinger has been a member of the Western Section of the American Society of Animal Science for six years. The WSASAS provide a platform for undergraduate, graduate students, and faculty to present data that impacts Western United States livestock production.
“One of my favorite aspects of their annual conferences is the objective to investigate problems and concerns that western region livestock producers face. In my opinion, this section does a fantastic job at encouraging novel, cutting-edge research, while maintaining the focus on applied research that has implications to the production setting,” Cunningham-Hollinger noted. “It connects students and faculty from academia and research institutions with professionals in the industry, including companies like Zinpro. For many graduate students this is the first introduction they have to industry careers and through networking at these meetings they can develop relationships for future careers. This in addition to the great people that compose the Western Section, makes this meeting one of my favorites of the year.” F
(See story about M.S. Zinpro scholarship winner Amelia Tanner here. Cunningham was the M.S. winner in 2014))