Data on Display

September 26, 2022

By Jan Lefebvre

Research involving forages, fatty acids, calf housing and calf diets was shared Sept. 15 at the West Central Research and Outreach Center near the University of Minnesota campus in Morris. Dr. Brad Heins, a faculty member for the University of Minnesota Department of Animal Science, led the informational event and shared his research. Research at the WCROC aims to find ways to help balance and improve most aspects of dairy farming – herd health and longevity, profitability, quality of product and climate issues.

Although milk volume is considered, it is not as main a focus as is quality of product. That is where fatty acids come into play. Heins said balancing preformed fatty acids in milk without raising de novo and mixed fatty acids too much is a challenge. "Lots of different things impact fatty acids – diet, season, genetics – that’s where we have been exploring,” Heins said. “All WCROC cows are genomically tested, and we will evaluate genes that contribute to fatty acid profiles.” How much and what kind of grain matters, Heins said. “A lot of grain (starch) can lead to fewer omega-3 fatty acids,” Heins said. "Forage can increase it. I’m not saying grain is bad. … If you want to increase preformed, you can still use grain.”

Heins is also researching forage combinations. For instance, a plan is in the works to increase grass and clover for maintaining fatty acids during grazing. “If I can maintain those levels more with nutrition and balance rations a little better, it’s better for us,” Heins said. “The more I can keep high levels of fat and protein, the higher our milk check is here, especially in the organic herd.”

Heins has worked at WCROC for 12 years and has focused research on crossbreeding in dairy cattle, organic dairy production and renewable energy systems for dairies. His presentation shared findings from research he did in collaboration with the Minnesota Dairy Herd Improvement Association that looks at fatty acids in milk production across a variety of breeds and diets. Minnesota DHIA manager Bruce Dokkebakken was at the event to answer questions. “Bruce had talked about fatty acid profiles at a DHIA meeting a couple years ago, and that’s where we got the idea,” Heins said. “We’ve been working with Minnesota DHIA with fatty acid profiles on our herd.”

DHIA testers have been collecting data on the WCROC herd once a month for over a year. The center has both a conventional dairy herd of 160 cows and an organic one of 120. “We’re close to a 300-cow dairy here,” Heins said. “Some might be surprised to hear that.”

WCROC is on 1,100 acres with about 450 acres of pasture. Attendees of the event toured the farm, including a pasture where the organic herd is located. The organic herd gets a total mixed ration at night to ease the transition from the grazing season of mid-May through mid-October. In winter, they receive only a TMR comprised of about 70% corn silage. An average of about 1.25 acres of pasture is needed per cow during the grazing season. During winter months, the herd is confined in an outside lot and compost barn. “In spring, with new grasses, the organic herd are almost 100% grazing,” Heins said. “Feed cost is less than a dollar a head per day.”

Milking is done twice a day in a double-9 swing parlor. There are 35 full-time employees working at the research center, including high school and college students who help with milking and other chores. As Heins balances research data and its potential outcomes, his main concern remains on the lifelong health of cows. “We strive to have long-lasting cows,” he said. “The oldest right now is 10 years old.”

Animal health is part of Heins’ research in calf housing, which attendees at the event also toured.  Heins is researching how housing calves in various ways – in pairs, in groups of six or with their mothers – affects their health. Calves in all of the housing configurations drink about 4 gallons of milk per day, depending on age and size. Calves in pairs or groups are growing at the same rate as calves housed individually, about 2.1 pounds per day, but those that stay with mothers grow at a faster rate of 2.6 pounds per day. Calves receiving more milk are showing fewer health problems on average with a death rate of less than 1%, Heins said.

Heins is excited about what the center’s research has uncovered and what the potential is. “I want to help dairy farmers improve the profitability of their herds through genetics, forages and animal health,” Heins said. “That’s what I’m striving for.”