National Farm Medicine Center Logo


October 9, 2017


CONTACT: Scott Heiberger


Dairy farmers have nose for science: Marshfield study

Microbial diversity in farmers’ noses and mouths may contribute to overall health

The first study showing that the community of bacteria found on bodies of healthy dairy farmers is more diverse than non-farmers has been published by Marshfield Clinic Research Institute in the journal PLoS ONE. (Click here to read the study.) This microbial diversity is believed to protect farmers against allergic and autoimmune diseases.

The nasal microbiota of dairy farmers had 2.15 fold more organisms when compared to nasal sample of non-farmers. Similarly, the oral samples from the dairy farmers group harbored 1.5 fold more organisms, said lead author Sanjay Shukla, Ph.D. Additionally, the farmer group had lower relative abundance amounts of Staphylococcus spp, some of which are known opportunistic pathogens.

The study was conducted in central Wisconsin. Samples were collected from the noses and mouths of the research participants: 21 dairy farmers and 18 non-farmers working office-based jobs.

A microscopic organism, or microbe, is a general term used to describe many different life forms, including bacteria, fungi and viruses. Before birth, we have no microbes. Within a few years, we're covered in thousands of different species of microbes. Our microbes may vary with gender, diet, climate, age, occupation, and hygiene.

Dr. Shukla is excited about research possibilities. “We still do not know much about the microbial occupational exposure of farmers and this study provides some basic understanding of dairy farmers’ microbiome,” Shukla said. “But we need to do functional studies on repeated sampling on a larger cohort to understand the microbiome’s contribution to farmer’s overall health and disease.” 

This study is providing a foundation for research into the farm-as-medicine concept, which examines both environmental risks and the health-building aspects of farm life.

“This is a significant collaboration between the National Farm Medicine Center and the Center for Human Genetics,” said project co-investigator, Casper “Cap” Bendixsen, Ph.D. “It explores the boundaries of what we consider ‘farm health,’ giving us a more complex, truer picture of how farm environments can be both hazardous and health-promoting.”

Future studies will be performed to analyze the relationships among the nasal and oral microbiomes of dairy farmers and non-dairy farmers with respect to the number and type of adverse health outcomes. Assuming enhanced microbial diversity is an indicator of overall good health, dairy farmers should have better health outcomes than non-dairy farmers and other professions, depending upon individual genetics and life-style choices.

Funding for the study was provided by Marshfield Clinic Research Institute and by donations made to the institute.