Dairy research in Minnesota

The dairy industry is an important sector of Minnesota agriculture. There are 2,600 dairy farms in Minnesota, producing over 1 million gallons of milk, processed in over 30 dairy plants across the state and generating $1.8 billion in milk sales annually.

University of Minnesota researchers are finding ways to reduce antibiotic use, improve animal welfare, and increase our understanding of dairy cow genetics, biological processes and gut microbiomes to enhance dairy production across the globe.

Below is a sampling of ongoing MAES research projects related to dairy production. This list does not encompass all dairy research at the University of Minnesota.

Management systems to improve the economic and environmental sustainability of dairy enterprises
Bradley J Heins
This research is optimizing calf and heifer growth and development by improving feeding strategies, management systems, well-being, new technologies, and environmental impacts for productivity and profitability. We’re improving nutrition, forage utilization, technology, and management to enhance dairy cow performance and well-being. Our research evaluates whole farm system components and integrates information and technology to improve efficiency, profitability, environmental sustainability and social responsibility. The results of this project will be valuable to dairy producers and will be disseminated to producers and industry representatives throughout the United States. 

Management factors influencing productivity and welfare of dairy cattle
Marcia I Endres
Management practices on the farm can have profound effects on dairy cattle welfare (wellbeing) and while progress has been made in the design of dairy facilities and how cows are managed, there is still room for improvement. In order to better address questions related to dairy welfare one needs to understand cows' behavioral needs and also learn whether behavior changes can help us detect disease earlier, therefore reducing disease severity and mortality on the farm. Using technologies such as robotic milking systems and automated milk feeding systems, we can collect individual animal data on a daily basis to achieve this goal. The focus of this applied dairy cattle management and welfare program is to conduct scientifically sound research that answers questions related to major areas of welfare and productivity concerns and that has immediate applicability to dairy producers and their advisors. The program also provides information that answers questions about cattle welfare posed by the general public. Our ultimate goal is to improve welfare and productivity of dairy cattle resulting in increased farm profitability and better public perception of the dairy industry. 

Regulation and integration of metabolism in dairy cows
Brian Crooker
This research evaluates a unique herd of Holstein cows that has not been selected for any trait since 1964 with contemporary Holsteins. We’re assessing the impact of 50-plus years of selection on the regulatory controls that coordinate changes in metabolism for successful transitions between physiological states or conditions such as the transition from pregnancy to lactation or the onset of an infection. The overall goal of this functional genomics based project is to generate an improved understanding of the molecular controls, the specific genes, responsible for phenotypic differences between contemporary Holsteins and Holsteins that have not been subjected to selection since 1964. We expect results from this effort will contribute to development of breeding strategies to effectively enhance overall performance of the contemporary Holstein. 

Develop appropriate weights to incorporate new traits into dairy cattle genetic indexes
Anthony Seykora
The USDA's selection index - Net Merit Dollars (NM$) - needs to be revised periodically as genetic evaluations are calculated for additional traits, as genetic evaluations are refined for currently utilized traits, as economics of the dairy cattle industry change, and new research more accurately measures genetic correlation traits currently in the index and between health traits. The purpose of the project is to provide needed data and research to help make appropriate revisions to the NM$ in the future. Our overall goal is to determine the optimal breeding index for improvement of economic merit of dairy cattle by incorporating the new genetic traits that are being developed by the USDA-Animal Improvement Program and the Council on Dairy Cattle Breeding. These new traits include measures of feed efficiency, gestation length, livability, and several disease traits: clinic mastitis, milk fever, metritus, displaced abomasum, and foot disorders. In addition to incorporating the new genetic traits into the index, we’re determining the appropriate economic weightings of traits in the NM$ index based on their direct economic worth and economics of genetically correlated traits for which there are not currently genetic evaluations. 

Genetic improvement for purebreeding and crossbreeding to improve the health, fertility, feed efficiency, and profitability of dairy cattle
Leslie B Hansen
Selection programs for dairy cattle have been very successful at increasing milk production of cows; however, numerous challenges remain for genetic improvement of dairy cattle. This research compares the 3-breed rotational crossbred dairy cows of the Holstein, Viking Red, and Montbeliarde breeds (ProCROSS) and pure Holstein cows for response to the feeding of two alternative total mixed rations (TMR) and will incorporate new findings with results from previous research on ProCROSS cow performance. This work will contribute to more efficient production of dairy products in a more sustainable manner for the benefit of dairy producers, consumers of dairy products, and the environment. Furthermore, the health and well-being of dairy cows will be improved as the efficiency of milk production is enhanced. 

TIme-based nutritional strategies to improve feed efficiency and productivity in dairy cattle    
Isaac J Salfer
As global demand for dairy products increases, it is imperative that producers develop strategies to improve animal efficiency and reduce the environmental impacts of dairy production. Our research aims to improve the health, productivity, and efficiency of dairy cattle through increased understanding of the relationship between feed intake, metabolism and biological rhythms of dairy cows. Ultimately, we hope to develop feeding strategies that better match nutrient availability with biological clocks throughout the body of the cow. Our research focuses on determining if the timing of nutrient availability entrains the daily pattern of rumen microbial gene expression and determining the impact of time-based feeding strategies on dairy cow health and productivity. 

Pre-weaned calf rearing options for organic dairy systems
Bradley J Heins
The overarching goal of this research is to identify organic dairy calf rearing options that promote health and welfare in the organic livestock industry. We are investigating the management feasibility of three alternative calf-rearing options: group housing in outdoor super hutches; pair housing of calves; and outdoor housing with the dam on pasture compared to traditional individual housing in outdoor hutches. We are also evaluating markers of calf health, behavior and welfare to ultimately provide recommendations on best calf rearing options for organic producers. 

Evaluation of non-thermal intense pulsed light technology for deactivation of bacterial spores in dairy powders and ingredients
David Baumler
The goal of this project is to work with industry and interested stakeholders for the food industry to optimize Intense Pulsed Light technology for future integration into food processing lines for the dairy industry for non-thermal pasteurization of non-fat dry milk powder and other milk byproduct metabolites. This project aims to increase product safety, quality, shelf life, and increase worldwide sales of dairy products by reducing levels of spore-forming bacteria through intense pulsed light treatment. 

Mastitis resistance to enhance dairy food safety
Luciano Caixeta
This research assesses and applies new technologies that advance mastitis control, milk quality and dairy food safety. The overall goal of this project is to survey the microbiome of specific compartments within the bovine mammary gland and udder, using strictly controlled sampling protocols and positive and negative controls. Our findings will help advance the science of important diseases, such as mastitis, by improving our understanding of the true microbial status of different compartments within and around the bovine mammary gland and udder.

Reducing transmission of bovine leukemia virus in dairy cattle through application of novel diagnostic tests and phylodynamics
Scott Wells   
Bovine leukemia virus (BLV), a virus found on nearly all US dairy operations, causes economic losses through premature culling and reduced milk production of infected cows. BLV transmission occurs within herds through blood transfer from subclinically infected to susceptible cattle. Though much is known about disease transmission, successful disease control is difficult due to lack of understanding of factors controlling viral changes during infection stages and which cattle are most infectious to other susceptible cattle. In this study, we are 1) Describing the BLV viral changes in dairy cattle while monitoring for signs of disease development and identifying associated risk factors, and 2) identifying primary routes of BLV transmission within herds through linking genotype and epidemiologic data. Results from this study will support reduction of spread of this cattle disease, ultimately reducing financial losses and increasing the competitiveness of US cattle producers. 

Reducing antibiotic use on commercial dairy farms by optimizing dry cow antibiotic therapy
Luciano Caixeta
There is increasing motivation within the dairy industry to reduce antibiotic usage, and antibiotic dry cow therapy (DCT) accounts for approximately one third of all antibiotics used in U.S. farms. Antibiotic use at dry-off can be reduced substantially through the implementation selective DCT or by the complete cessation of DCT. However, producers have concerns about the potential health risks of reducing antibiotic use at dry-off.  Our work seeks to answer these research questions: 1) 'Does antibiotic DCT improve post-calving udder health in well-managed dairy farms that use ITS in all cows?' and 2) 'Can the California Mastitis Test (CMT) be used to guide SDCT?' The ultimate goal of this research is to identify practical ways for producers to use antibiotics more judiciously. 

Genetic selection and crossbreeding for organic and pasture-based dairy systems
Bradley J Heins
The goals of this research are to enhance disease resistance in pasture based dairy cattle through the adoption of optimal genomic selection and crossbreeding strategies and to understand the relationship of genotype and grazing behavior. At the University of Minnesota West Central Research and Outreach Center, we’re establishing associations of production, fertility, disease, and health of pastured dairy calves and cows with genomic predictions of disease resistance, breed composition, and dam A2 genotype. We’re also determining the incidence of respiratory disease in organic dairy calves and effects of respiratory disease on future performance and evaluating the influence of genetic merit and breed composition on pasture behavior and fly infestation. 

Reducing the duration of lameness in dairy cattle by using a autonomous camera-based detection system
Gerard Cramer
Lameness is a major animal welfare issue in the dairy industry and its measurement is a component of both industry- and processor-led animal welfare audits. Although lameness is highly prevalent on dairy farms, farm personnel have difficulties identifying mild cases of lameness. Automatizing the process of lameness detection through the implementation of vision-based deep learning will provide dairy farms with an effective and easy-to-implement tool to reduce lameness duration. The goal of this project is to determine if a combined program of autonomous video monitoring for lameness detection along with early, prompt, and appropriate treatment can be used to decrease the duration of lameness throughout a cow's lactation and improve the welfare and productivity of dairy cows. Our hypothesis is that the use of autonomous camera-based lameness detection combined with prompt and appropriate treatment will reduce the duration of lameness by at least 30 days (tomake it an economically viable option) in our experimental group compared to a standard practice control group.

The role of circadian rhythms in modulating glucose homeostasis of dairy cows 
Isaac J Salfer
Dairy cows require glucose for milk synthesis and many other physiological processes, including optimal immune function. In humans and rodents, glucose homeostasis is regulated through circadian rhythms in hormone signaling and gene expression. However, the role of circadian rhythms in glucose metabolism of the dairy cow is unknown. The major goal of this project is to determine how glucose homeostasis of dairy cows varies with respect to their circadian rhythm. We’re determining how the kinetics of glucose uptake, insulin release, and lipid release change across the day. We’re also examining if circadian rhythms influence the release of gut-produced incretins glucagon-like peptide 1 (GLP-1), and glucose insulinotropic peptide (GIP), and their effect on insulin secretion.

Addressing disbudding pain and alternative options for transitioning organic dairy farms
Bradley J Heins
The long-term goal of this project is to increase and sustain organic dairy production and animal welfare through breaking barriers to organic dairy transition. One of the major barriers preventing transition to organic dairy production is dairy producers' concerns about disbudding dairy calves and the challenges with animal health and welfare in an organic production system. We are developing methods to investigate the management feasibility to address pain and alternative options for disbudding for transitioning organic dairy farms. We are also evaluating markers of calf health, behavior and welfare to ultimately provide recommendations on best calf disbudding options for producers. The results of this project will be valuable to organic dairy producers and will be disseminated to transitioning and organic producers and industry representatives throughout the United States. 

Epigenetic variation induced by genetic selection and environmental exposure
Chris Faulk
The long-term goal of this project is to understand how transposons move between species and activate differently across breeds, as well as how they are influenced by nutrition and heavy metals. This project addresses 2 main problems. The first relates to internal genetic variation in transposons, so-called “jumping genes” which are prevalent in bovines and other animals and disrupt gene expression. The second is an external factor, arsenic exposure in animals and how it disrupts gene expression. We are examining domestic animal genomes for evidence of transposons that have directly transferred between species due to long cohabitation. Secondly, the epigenetic landscape of transposons within two breeds of a single species, dairy cattle, will be queried to determine whether epigenetic changes drive underlying phenotypic characteristics of potential economic importance. We’re also exploring how a common environmental toxicant, arsenic, impacts adult animal health when exposed during development, and what role different diets play in modulating its effect. 

Metabolic relationships in supply of nutrients for lactating cows
Brian Crooker
Identification of the specific genetic and molecular mechanisms that regulate how cows partition nutrients among body functions is needed for a greater understanding and ability to manipulate metabolism of the periparturient dairy cow to enhance productivity and efficiency of nutrient use. We’re studying genetically diverse Holstein cows to quantify factors that impact supply and availability of nutrients utilized for efficient milk production while reducing environmental impact. We’re also identifying and quantifying molecular, cellular, and organismal signals that regulate intake, partitioning and efficient utilization of nutrients. Our findings will contribute to efforts to identify management options that improve nutrient utilization, reduce metabolic disruption, increase the likelihood of successful transitions, and improve financial returns to the producer.    

Understanding the relationship between management decisions and profitability of Minnesota dairy farms
Joleen Hadrich
The success of the Minnesota dairy industry is attributed to proactive dairy farmers who effectively manage animal welfare, financial resources, and environmental resources. This project studies how management decisions affect the long-term financial success of Minnesota dairy farmers using farm financial data available from the Minnesota farm business management association. We’re assessing how farm size, production practices, financial health, technologies, farm diversification, and ownership structure impact profitability over time. 

Economic analysis of dairy markets and policy
Marin Bozic
This research examines farm- and market-level impacts of dairy policy programs. We’re conducting analysis on farm- and macro-level impacts of risk management strategies in the dairy sector and developing new leading indicators for dairy markets, to support informed decision-making by dairy producers and processors. This project builds upon earlier work, including a) a set of regularly maintained dairy sector models useful for policy analysis, b) a set of regularly published outreach materials on leading indicators for U.S. dairy sector, and c) original investigative work on dairy markets and policy.