By Cheryl Kepes
Photos courtesy FERA Diagnostics and Biologicals
Company creates all-natural product designed to ease animals through life’s stress points.
After years of research and development, a company located in College Station, Texas, created a product that strives to bottle a phenomenon cattlemen and women have witnessed for generations. FERA Diagnostics and Biologicals, founded and directed by Rodrigo Bicalho, DVM, Ph.D., manufactures FerAppease®, a liquid product designed to replicate the maternal pheromone cows excrete to comfort and soothe their calves.
Scientists with FERA researched the efficacy of FerAppease® in reducing anxiety in animals during different stress points throughout their lives. According to Dr. Bicalho, their research shows FerAppease® acts similarly to the Maternal Bovine Appeasing Substance (MBAS) naturally produced by momma cows, thus initiating a calming effect on treated animals.
The product is a liquid applied topically to an animal’s nuchal skin and above its muzzle. The liquid is not absorbed but stays in the skin, being perceived by the animal through a gland in its nose. “That gland is what sends the message to the brain to regulate the part of the brain that is responsible for the perception of danger and threats and for the quick initiation of the feeling of fear and the physiological event of stress,” Rodrigo Bicalho, DVM, Ph.D. and CEO of FERA, explained. “So, if we decrease their ability to perceive danger, we decrease fear and if we decrease fear, we decrease stress.”
Though the scientific knowledge for the product has existed for decades, FerAppease® is the first product available for cattle producers to utilize in their herds. The idea for the product originated after Dr. Bicalho’s tenure at Cornell University in New York.
Dr. Bicalho moved to the United States from Brazil 21 years ago to complete a residency in veterinary medicine at Cornell University. After residency, he pursued a doctorate in epidemiology and went on to teach and research at the university for 13 years. He started FERA nine years ago, working to develop practical products designed to improve animal health and producers’ bottom lines.
FerAppease® is FERA’s most recently launched product. “Although the scientific knowledge of this pheromone has been around for 35 years, there has never been a product on the market before for animals,” Dr. Bicalho stated. “There hasn’t been a technology to stabilize the actives using FDA approved solvents,” he added. That is – until now.
Dr. Bicalho along with his team of research scientists, innovated a process to create a shelf stable product that mimics MBAS. The pheromone being replicated is not a hormone but a combination of naturally occurring chemicals. In fact, FerAppease® is a combination of eight different chemicals that are inherently present in other natural products. “All we do is identify the sources of those chemicals and we put them together in a chemical process in a manufacturing facility in a way that resembles exactly what is produced and eliminated on the skin of the mammary gland of the animals,” Dr. Bicalho said.
The product is all-natural and is FDA approved under GRAS (Generally Recognized as Safe). “It’s not an antibiotic, it’s not a hormone, it is an all-natural product,” Dr. Bicalho stated. “And that’s one of our big markets is to treat animals that can’t be treated with antibiotics or hormones, because in a way we are preventing disease and we are also stimulating feed efficiency and growth but in a natural way. We are accomplishing that simply by decreasing stress.”
The team behind the discovery and development of FerAppease® conducted their initial research with dairy calves. “Our curiosity got bigger and bigger and bigger as we developed the product and started doing research,” Dr. Bicalho said. The scientists started with dairy calves because they typically lead a stressful existence. Dairy calves are separated from their mommas at birth, many times shipped to calf ranches, and raised alone in calf hutches.
“When we treated them (dairy calves) with FerAppease®, we changed their lives,” Dr. Bicalho shared. According to the research, the calves treated with FerAppease® had fewer cases of scours and respiratory disease as well as reduced mortality rates. The calves also showed increased weight gain and they started eating calf starter sooner. “So, that research was the initial motivator for us to say this product is really doing something dramatic to help these animals,” Dr. Bicalho added.
The findings in the studies with dairy calves served as a springboard for the team to expand the use and application of the product to other areas in the cattle industry. Researchers focused much of their efforts on investigating if the product would benefit weaned calves. According to Dr. Bicalho, FerAppease® revealed promising results in its use on weaned calves. The research showed treated calves exhibited less bawling, fence pacing, desperation, and anxiety.
The reduction in stress propelled the weaned calves to start eating faster and thus putting on weight more quickly. “At the end of the day by reducing stress we get these animals through the weaning process a lot faster and by the time they are done with their preconditioning program those animals are going to be heavier and they are going to be healthier. That’s the bottom line,” Dr. Bicalho said.
The company also conducted research on the efficacy of the product when used on newborn calves. Again, the findings showed the treated calves displayed less stress which translated to fewer cases of scours and other health issues.
Additionally, the scientists conducted a study to evaluate whether FerAppease® showed any value in calves during castration. Compared to the control calves, calves treated with FerAppease® had 60 percent reduced cortisol levels. Additionally, the calves treated with FerAppease® had a lower level of substance P, which is a neurotransmitter produced and eliminated when animals are in pain. Dr. Bicalho says these findings indicate the use of FerAppease® therapies at castration reduced the quantity of the pain marker, substance P, which is a good indication that the animals suffered or perceived less pain during castration.
When evaluating all the uses of FerAppease® during different stress points in an animal’s life, Dr. Bicalho appreciates the application in finished animals the most. “I am passionate about the use of the product in finished cattle because I really think that we decrease the stress and the perception around slaughter and by doing that we increase the wellbeing of the animals, quality of the beef, and the profitability for the end user, so it checks a lot of boxes,” Dr. Bicalho shared.
According to Dr. Bicalho, the data collected during studies involving finished cattle indicate treated animals perceived less stress during shipment to the packer which in turn ensured better carcass yield and quality. “We have demonstrated if you treat those animals preslaughter you calm them down and you alter the carcass quality characteristics, mainly carcass pH which is lower, and the probability of a dark cutter is reduced dramatically,” Dr. Bicalho stated.
Future of FERA
FERA sells a similar FerAppease® product for the swine industry. In the future, the company plans to continue to build a market for its current products as well as develop new products aimed at revolutionizing the animal health industry.
learn more at www.feraah.com