Cows as canaries: The effects of ambient air pollution exposure on milk production and somatic cell count in dairy cows

Bonni L. Beaupied, Heather Martinez, Sheena Martenies, Craig S. McConnel, Ilana B. Pollack, Dylan Giardina, Emily V. Fischer, Shantanu Jathar, Colleen G. Duncan, Sheryl Magzamen

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Exposure to air pollution, including criteria pollutants such as fine particulate matter (PM2.5) and ozone (O3), has been associated with morbidity and mortality in mammals. As a genetically homogenous population that is closely monitored for health, dairy cattle present a unique opportunity to assess the association between changes in air pollution and mammalian health. Milk yield decreases in the summer if temperature and humidity, measured by the Temperature Humidity Index (THI). As O3 levels increase with warmer temperatures, and summer PM2.5 may increase with wildfire smoke, dairy cows may serve as a useful sentinel species to evaluate subacute markers of inflammation and metabolic output and ambient pollution. Over two years, we assessed summertime O3 and PM2.5 concentrations from local US EPA air quality monitors into an auto-regressive mixed model of the association between THI and daily milk production data and bulk tank somatic cell count (SCC). In unadjusted models, a 10 unit increase THI was associated with 28,700 cells/mL (95% CI: 17,700, 39,690) increase in SCC. After controlling for ambient air pollutants, THI was associated with a 14,500 SCC increase (95% CI: 3,400, 25,680), a 48% decrease in effect compared to the crude model. Further, in fully adjusted models, PM2.5 was associated with a 105,500 cells/mL (95% CI: 90,030, 121,050) increase in SCC. Similar results were found for milk production. Results were amplified when high PM2.5 days (95th percentile of observed values) associated with wildfire smoke were removed from the analyses. Our results support the hypothesis that PM2.5 confounds the relationships between THI and milk yield and somatic cell count. The results of this study can be used to inform strategies for intervention to mitigate these impacts at the dairy level and potentially contribute to a model where production animals can act as air quality sentinels.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number112197
JournalEnvironmental Research
StatePublished - May 1 2022
Externally publishedYes


  • Air pollution
  • Dairy cattle
  • Environment
  • Epidemiology
  • Fine particulate matter
  • Ozone

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Environmental Science
  • Biochemistry


Dive into the research topics of 'Cows as canaries: The effects of ambient air pollution exposure on milk production and somatic cell count in dairy cows'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this