‘Got Milk?’ WSU researchers partner with farmers to solve dairy industry challenges

Six cows standing in a grassy field.

Washington State University’s Knott Dairy Center is working with dairy farmers around the state to learn more about the challenges facing today’s industry and research solutions to those problems.

The Knott Dairy Center is home to approximately 180 lactating cows. In operation for more than six decades, the dairy farm continues to lead the way in dairy teaching, research, and outreach to support the state’s dairy industry. The center is one of the few remaining university dairies in the country.

“Dairy is the second highest agriculture commodity in the state,” said Amber Adams-Progar, associate professor in Dairy Management. “Building a partnership between WSU and the industry has been crucial to identifying challenges, conducting research, and providing real-world solutions. Our goal is to work with industry to improve the quality of life for our state’s dairy cows.”

A few years ago, dairy farmers approached researchers at the Knott Dairy Center to find a solution to deal with pest birds. While dairy cows are out for milking, birds will eat cow feed, selecting only the nutritious feed and leaving less nutritious pieces behind. As a result, farmers were experiencing a loss of feed. Additionally, researchers noticed that interactions between cows and birds have caused cow-to-cow behavioral issues. With birds overtaking parts of the feed trough, less space is available in the feed bunk for the cows. This in turn, causes cows to become more aggressive with other cows and fight over feed in a smaller space.

“European starlings are particularly invasive and cause problems on dairy farms,” said Adams-Progar. “Some farms see over 10,000 birds a day.”

Amber Adams-Progar helps care for a dairy cow.
Approximately 180 lactating dairy cows are cared for by researchers like Amber Adams-Progar, who has helped carry on a more than six-decade legacy of WSU excellence in dairy teaching, research, and outreach (photo by College of Agricultural, Human, and Natural Resource Sciences).

Researchers at Knott Dairy Center found two solutions to the pest bird problem. First, researchers introduced American kestrels to the dairy to scare away the European starlings. Next, they installed lasers that turn on right before dusk to prevent the European starlings from setting up their night roost in barns.

“We’re doing applied research in a controlled university dairy,” said Adams-Progar. “We can learn, then take all that data and knowledge back to the people that can use it directly.”

The farm is also tackling climate change issues through research that examines how to reduce methane produced by cows. Globally, livestock is responsible for about 14.5% of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions, with methane accounting for a substantial portion of these emissions. Dairy cows alone are responsible for emitting approximately 20–25% of the total methane emissions from livestock. This means that dairy cows emit roughly between 2.9–3.6% of methane in the world.

Methane is produced either directly from the mouths of dairy cows or can be generated from manure under certain conditions, such as during storage, before it can be further used for fertilizing crops.

Researchers are finding that feed additives may help to reduce methane. Marcos Marcondes, assistant professor in the Department of Animal Sciences, is leading a study, started in March, that adds seaweed to cows’ diets to help reduce the amount of methane they produce.

“Every day, we give a pellet of feed with the seaweed additive to a cow and measure the amount of methane produced from her,” said Marcondes. “It has been said that bacteria could adapt to seaweed overtime. Thus, we need to confirm this claim by evaluating the long-term efficiency of feeding cows with seaweed.”

This 300-day study may shed light on the role dairy cows and farmers play on climate change.

“The Knotts Dairy Farm is the perfect model where we can test different theories and see what works,” said Adams-Progar. “We’re not only helping the cows, but we’re also helping farmers. When the cows are healthier, it’s better for both the cows and farmers.”

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