Catching a ‘Silent’ Cow Killer

Mitch Breunig BS’92 has been around dairy cows long enough — all his life, to be exact — to suspect something was amiss with two of his Holsteins.

And he’s been around the Department of Dairy Science long enough — considering he’s an alumnus and his 450-cow farm in Roxbury, Wisconsin, is practically a field research station for the department — to suspect ketosis.

This “silent killer” is caused by excessive toxic particles released by the liver, usually when a cow starts to produce milk after giving birth. So it was fortuitous that Heather White, an assistant professor of dairy science and one of the world’s experts on detecting ketosis, was visiting Breunig’s Mystic Valley Dairy, within sight of the St. Norbert’s church steeple in northwestern Dane County, on that day in March.

The start of lactation is the moment of maximum metabolic stress for a dairy cow, when her overworked liver can crank out molecules called ketones that provide energy to other tissues in the body. But if ketones reach excessive levels, they can reduce milk output, set the stage for disease, and even cause the cow to be culled from the herd.

Milk output from the cows in question had dropped, which could have had many causes. Ketosis, however, appears in 40 to 60 percent of lactating American dairy cows.

Even though ketosis costs farmers an average of $290 per cow, it’s often undiagnosed because the blood tests are laborious and expensive. Far better would be a test for telltale molecules in the milk, which is exactly what White has been working on, in collaboration with dairy science department chair Kent Weigel MS’92 PhD’92 and Gary Oetzel, a professor of medical sciences at the UW–Madison School of Veterinary Medicine.

The result of their labor, called KetoMonitor, is now incorporated in the AgSource system used by dairy farmers across the state to track their herds and milk output. AgSource relies on a sophisticated spectrometer to look for two milk-borne compounds that signal ketosis and then refines the prediction through an advanced computer analysis.

When Ryan Pralle BS’15 and Rafael Caputo Oliveira, both graduate students who work with White, sampled blood from the two cows, Breunig’s hunch proved correct. The cows had a silent, or “subclinical,” ketosis. Armed with that knowledge, Breunig began corrective measures that usually tame ketosis, such as dietary supplements.

Blood tests are the old-fashioned but still gold standard method for detecting ketosis. But KetoMonitor’s milk tests and computation have become the first line of defense.

By testing milk from “fresh” cows every week or so, KetoMonitor first estimates the prevalence of ketosis in the fresh cows. Then, by analyzing the data on milk production, reproductive history, and other matters on each fresh cow, it identifies cows that might need a blood test for ketosis.

KetoMonitor already catches 85 percent of cows with the condition, which is almost enough to avoid blood tests entirely. Once they reach 90 percent accuracy, blood tests for every fresh cow would no longer make economic sense, White says.

To reach that magic number, Pralle is using a computational tactic called “machine learning” (think digital self-help class). When the software makes a mistake, it combs through the data, looking to do better next time around. The accuracy is improving, he says. “When we compare it to some other non-blood tests, I think our tools are very competitive.”

White and her collaborators began tackling the problem about 10 years ago. “We recognized there is a lot of money lost in subclinical ketosis,” she says. “A cow is having negative outcomes — she’s making less milk and is not going to rebreed as easily, but she can’t walk up and tell you she’s sick.”

Due to the efforts of White and others at UW– Madison and beyond, that has changed. “Ketosis has become something that producers really want to manage because they recognize the cost of the disorder,” says Pralle.

None of this is lost on Breunig, who sees a future with more constraints as a prime reason to focus on efficiency. “We will be in a position where we will need to grow more food on less land with fewer cows.”

KetoMonitor can help in unexpected ways, Breunig says. “When we adapted to the market by eliminating BST [the hormone bovine somatotropin], we had to change nutrition and management, and we used KetoMonitor to assess the impact of those changes.”

“Advances like KetoMonitor help us keep the herd healthy and allow us to stay competitive,” he says. “That’s the kind of help we really need.”

Catch Up with…Corey Geiger BS’95 and Steve Larson MS’70

With its unmistakable oversized format and bold red masthead, Hoard’s Dairyman is perhaps the most influential publication in the dairy industry today.

What began in 1885 as an insert in the Jefferson County Union weekly newspaper has grown into an indispensable print and digital resource for dairy farmers and their advisers in more than 60 countries around the world. Since its beginning, the publication has been linked to the University of Wisconsin’s agricultural endeavors through its founder, William Dempster Hoard, a UW regent and passionate supporter of the university’s College of Agriculture, which formed in 1889 when he was governor of the state.

It’s fitting, then, that for the last 20 years, CALS alumni have stood at the editorial helm of the magazine. Corey Geiger BS’95 (agricultural economics and dairy science) joined the Hoard’s staff in 1995 and took on the managing editor role in 2013. His predecessor, Steve Larson MS’70 (dairy science), served as managing editor for almost 15 years, beginning in 1998. Now retired, he still works as a consultant for the magazine and its fully functional dairy farm in Fort Atkinson, Wisconsin. Neither expected to venture into the realm of agricultural journalism, but they have both relished the opportunity to serve the dairy industry.

What makes Hoard’s Dairyman so influential and long-lasting?

Corey Geiger: At Hoard’s, we operate our own dairy farm, so we’re really a part of the industry, not just reporting on it, and there’s a big difference. On our editorial page we use words like “we,” “us,” and “our,” which isn’t necessarily taught in journalism classes. We’re living this every day. We need to know, as editors, what’s going on with cows — what are the trends, what are the issues that busy dairy farmers are facing every day, not only in the United States, but around the world.

Steve Larson: Part of our business model, or tradition, is to assume industry leadership positions. That adds to the credibility and the image of the magazine and the ability to know what’s going on and how to get things accomplished in the industry.

What role does Hoard’s Dairyman play in connecting UW–Madison and Wisconsin agriculture?

SL: This connection goes back generations. It started with the lead role W.D. Hoard played in converting Wisconsin from a faltering grain-producing region into America’s Dairyland and, later, his efforts to establish agricultural studies at the university.

Researchers and extension specialists from CALS and the School of Veterinary Medicine have made major contributions to the impact Hoard’s Dairyman has across Wisconsin as well as the U.S. and the world. Current and past editors have served in advisory roles at the university, and this has created mutually beneficial connections between our company, UW, and industry.

CG: There are more dairy businesses based in Wisconsin than anywhere in this country. It’s this flow of jobs that is vital to Wisconsin, and I think, together with UW, we help share with these businesses the great research that the university is doing. We actually partner in these conversations. Probably 60 percent of our stories are written by outside authors. We help put it in a really conversational form that is easy to read but delivers some very deep research at the same time. And that’s art to be able to do that.

Catch up with … Molly Sloan BS’06 Dairy Science/Life Sciences Communication

As a child, Molly Sloan dreamed of one day stepping onto the colorful shavings that cover the floor of the Dane County Coliseum in order to judge dairy cattle at the World Dairy Expo. Her inspiration came from growing up on a small dairy farm in northern Illinois, taking in everything about the business and the animals. From the farm, Sloan took the steps necessary to reach the Expo and make her dreams come true.

After coming to UW–Madison, Sloan quickly got involved in dairy on campus, establishing a network of dairy professionals at CALS. While completing degrees in dairy science and life sciences communication, she was active in such organizations as the Association of Women in Agriculture and the National AgriMarketing Association. Through dairy judging with her team in the Badger Dairy Club, Sloan refined her judging skills and sharpened her eye for prize cattle.

Sloan’s experiences and determination spurred success in both dairy genetics and cattle judging. Judging Ayrshires at the 2016 World Dairy Expo was her second time on the colored shavings she dreamed about as a kid—and it’s not likely to be her last.

How did your time and experiences at CALS help you get to where you are now?

I grew up in northern Illinois, and I knew all along that I wanted to study dairy science. I realized quickly that there was really no other option than CALS, which is world renowned for its dairy science program. I added a second major with agricultural journalism early on and was very involved in extracurricular activities as well as internships with different dairy genetics and reproductive AI [artificial insemination] companies. Through that involvement I was able to meet the industry contacts that I needed to get internships and, ultimately, job opportunities. When I finished college I started with Alta Genetics, and now, as Alta’s global training program manager, I travel the world pretty extensively.

What’s it like to judge cattle at the World Dairy Expo?

This has always been a dream of mine. When I came to the University of Wisconsin I knew right away that I wanted to be involved in the dairy judging team. Through intense workouts and practices I was fortunate enough to be part of a very competitive team with exceptional coaching from Dr. Dave Dickson and Ted Halbach. After that, I knew that I wanted to continue this experience if the opportunity arose.

The World Dairy Expo is considered a bit of a pinnacle for cattle judging. Where do you go from here?

I think you said it best; it really is the pinnacle in this field. I want to keep doing it as long as it’s fun. For me, every new show is a great opportunity and experience. I would love to have the opportunity to come back and do another show here on the colored shavings.

Molly Sloan, BS’06 Dairy Science/Life Sciences Communication, serves as an Arshire judge at the 2016 World Dairy Expo. 
Photo credit: Sevie Kenyon BS’80 MS’06