Establishing this research program at the Preserve has given Encinias and Holt the most unique venue in the United States to study HAD.

"Mountain grazing is a high stress environment for cattle. The higher the elevation the more accurate the PAP test data," said Holt, "This is why the Valles Caldera National Preserve is such an important place to conduct this research."

At more than 8,500 feet in elevation, the Top of the Valle research facility is the highest centralized facility in the U.S. focused on studying HAD. Abundant and highly nutritional grass also provides a natural grazing environment that is a typical grazing scenario for beef cattle grazing high altitude pastures.

"The Valles Caldera gives us altitude and a natural grazing environment to evaluate numerous factors and scenarios to better understand HAD," said Encinias.

"We are interested in nutrition, environment, water and anything else that might be influencing a low oxygen setting," said Holt. "We are also looking at the pregnancy rate to see if the elevation is impacting the reproductive process, such as if the cow is not pregnant after insemination do they have high PAP scores. Is that a factor to their not being pregnant?"

 

DNA samples

The newest addition to the research team is genetics researcher Jonathan Beever, associate professor at the University of Illinois' Department of Animal Science. Beever's research has been instrumental in the development of diagnostic tools to rapidly detect genetic disorders in multiple breeds of beef cattle.

At the Top of the Valle facility, Beever is analyzing DNA samples gathered from the cattle during the PAP testing process to determine genes that influence the susceptibility to the potentially deadly condition.

Beever is comparing genetic information from animals suffering from HAD to those that are not showing signs when given the PAP test.

"The PAP test has become relatively straightforward at identifying animals having problems," said Beever. "This disease is clearly a genetic issue and with today's technology, we have the potential to identify the gene or a group of genes where a variation of genes might influence the animal's disposition to not have high altitude disease."

The PAP test is a detection tool; however, not all cattle can be tested before the disease is deadly. The genetic test would be easier to administer.

"With the DNA marker information we would be able to test any animal regardless of where it is raised, or its pedigree, and be able to say whether this animal will survive when you take him to a higher altitude," said Beever.