Milk, Motherhood and the Dairy Cow

In the 1990s, dairy farmers were seeing a troubling trend in their herds. As cows produced more milk, their reproductive performance declined. This downward slope in reproduction, related to changes in the hormone metabolism of high-producing cows, spurred researchers into action. And CALS scientists found a solution—a reproductive synchronization system that could save Wisconsin dairy farmers more than $50 million each year.

“The development of these systems has been one of the greatest technological advances in dairy cattle reproduction since artificial insemination,” says Paul Fricke, a CALS professor of dairy science and a UW–Extension specialist. “It is highly, highly significant.”

For the past 20 years, Fricke has been working on the synchronization systems with fellow dairy science professor Milo Wiltbank. The systems, called Ovsynch, consist of treatments with naturally occurring hormones and are based on Wiltbank’s research into the basic biology of the cow reproductive cycle. The hormonal treatments synchronize the cycles so that farmers know when their cows are most likely to become pregnant.

Pregnancy rates in a herd are a product of two numbers: the service rate (the percentage of eligible cows that are inseminated) and the conception rate (the number of inseminated cows that become pregnant). Historically, farmers relied on visually recognizing when cows were in heat in order to time insemination—a tricky feat that often resulted in missed opportunities and low service rates.
“One of the biggest problems in dairy cattle reproduction is seeing the cows in heat,” says Fricke. “If you can proactively control the reproductive cycle, you can inseminate cows without waiting for them to show heat.”

Synchronization systems take the guesswork out of insemination, increasing service rates and pregnancy rates. Since the technology was first published in the mid-1990s, Fricke, Wiltbank and their colleagues have worked to optimize the systems. Researchers now see conception rates of more than 50 percent, and pregnancy rates of 30 percent or higher. Just 15 years ago, average conception and pregnancy rates were around 35 and 15 percent, respectively. A 30 percent pregnancy rate in herds producing high volumes of milk was unimaginable.

With impressive pregnancy rates and the safety of the system—the natural hormones used are short-lived and do not end up in food products—researchers and farmers alike are excited about further adoption of the technology. The payoff is substantial, considering the costs and benefits of breeding dairy cows, says Kent Weigel, professor and chair of the Department of Dairy Science.

“If we say that this technology will result in a 6 percent improvement in pregnancy rates, and we assume that it costs about $4 for each extra day that a cow is not pregnant, the technology could save Wisconsin dairy farmers about $58 million per year with just 50 percent of farmers using it,” explains Weigel. “This is a prime example of basic biology that turned out to have a practical application with huge economic benefits.”

PHOTO—Dairy scientist Paul Fricke has developed a way to inseminate cows before they show signs of being in heat.

Photo by Sevie Kenyon BS’80 MS’06

Field Notes: India

Anuj Modi was nervous when he arrived for the first day of his summer internship at the Marshfield Agricultural Research Station last year. The freshman dairy science major could have been back home with friends and family in Bikaner, India. Instead, he was on the other side of the world, tasked with helping care for a large herd of dairy cattle. It was the first job he had ever had.

And he’d never milked a cow.

“Before my internship, a cow was just like any other animal—like a horse or a camel,” Modi recalls. “I didn’t know anything about cows or dairy farming.”

But that doesn’t mean Modi didn’t know a thing or two about the dairy industry. His grandfather got the family into the business more than 40 years ago. His father helped carry on the legacy, and Modi is now hoping to take the family dairy business into its third generation. Today, Lotus Dairy has three processing plants in Rajastahn, India’s largest state. They process one million liters of milk a day, selling it to clients like Nestle and Mother Dairy, a subsidiary of India’s National Dairy Development Board.

Considering this, the fact that it took a move to Wisconsin to acquaint Modi with a cow may sound strange. But there are very few modern dairy farms in India. The cow enjoys sacred status in the Hindu faith and legal protection in many Indian states, which means managing a large herd and culling cows that are sick or not producing is often out of the question.

In addition to political and religious considerations, having a small herd is simply a way of life for many. “People in rural areas keep four or five cows in their backyard and sell the milk to people like Lotus,” Modi says. “We collect milk mainly from villages. We have chilling centers in 80 locations across our state, and the number of people bringing us milk is high, close to 35,000 or 40,000.”

This arrangement is so common that it makes India the world’s leading producer of milk. And it’s not even close. According to a recent U.S. Department of Agriculture report, India has 48 million dairy cows, up from 38 million only five years ago. Brazil, the next closest country, has half as many. There are only 9.2 million in the United States.

Combine that level of supply with a modernizing industry that’s making milk production and processing more efficient, and you have the beginning of a boom. International developments like these are being felt here on campus, says Kent Weigel, professor and chair of the Department of Dairy Sciences.

“As the dairy farms and milk processing plants in countries like India, China and Pakistan expand and modernize, they import supplies, equipment and expertise from North America,” Weigel says. “And they build relationships, which lead to sending the next generation to study abroad.”

Weigel says the resulting influx of international students is beneficial to the department. They provide existing students with a new and global perspective regarding dairy farming and life in other countries. And, he says, “They extend Dairy Science’s reach and impact well beyond the borders of Wisconsin—influencing dairy production systems on other continents and building a global alumni base.”