Saving Southeastern dairies through herd health, milk quality

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Every June since 1937 the nation’s dairy industry has celebrated the value of milk and dairy products. However, in the last decade or so the number of “June Dairy Month” celebrations like the size of the industry has diminished in the Southeast. Statistics show that more than two-thirds of the region’s dairies have closed since 1995.

The question is “Why?”

A further question is how to reverse the decline.  A new, $3 million, six-state effort is being funded by the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture to discover what can be done. The University of Tennessee Institute of Agriculture will serve as the study’s lead institution, but regional participants include the University of Florida, the University of Georgia, the University of Kentucky, Mississippi State University and Virginia Tech.   

Steve Oliver, assistant dean of UT AgResearch and a professor of animal science, is heading up the project, and he said the study will focus on improving herd health and milk quality and quantity by lowering the incidence of mastitis in Southeastern herds.  

“The Southeastern dairy industry is in serious trouble,” Oliver said. “Although the nation is experiencing a surge in milk and dairy demand, the Southeast has experienced a greater than 37 percent decline in total milk production. Milk quality is also consistently the poorest of all the regions of the U.S.,” he said. The reason is the high levels of mastitis, an inflammation of the cows’ udders, experienced throughout the region.

“Improved milk quality and greater production quantities are all about consistent employment of good management practices for the health and well-being of the cow,” said Oliver.

Members of the research consortium plan to reach out to challenged and underperforming dairies with a four-pronged approach to enhance regional milk production as well as improve the quality of the milk produced.

The effort will include:  

  1. Identifying economic, social and psychological factors affecting regional farmers’ limited adoption of practices known to control mastitis. The researchers plan to develop strategies to counter the rationale for non-adoption.
  2. Conducting applied research and on-farm demonstrations focusing on strategies for controlling mastitis and enhancing milk quality. This will involve working directly with producers to assess on-farm practices. Stakeholders will also include veterinary practitioners, university students, extension personnel and other industry representatives serving the dairy community.
  3. Training dairy producers and milkers to utilize current and newly developed tools to make on-farm decisions that improve milk quality and therefore production. Methods are expected to include printed publications, face-to-face meetings and electronic teaching tools (including DAIReXNET webinars) in both English and Spanish. 
  4. Developing continuing education programs for those serving the dairy industry now and providing undergraduate and graduate student education for long-term solutions for the region. For example, directed internships will provide real-world experiences for students and result in a more knowledgeable work force to promote the sustainability of the region’s dairy industry.

The effort should buoy hope for the battered Southeastern dairy industry by motivating producers to change management practices and improve animal health and well-being.

“Implementation of cost effective, science-based mastitis prevention and control strategies can help producers improve quality milk, increase production and therefore improve industry profitability and sustainability,” said Oliver.  

A scientist in each participating state will head up that state’s research and outreach efforts, and the entire effort is expected to to be funded for five years. Success will be measured by increased production and higher milk quality from participating states.  

UT AgResearch is a division of the UT Institute of Agriculture with 10 research and education centers located strategically throughout the state. Its Dairy AgResearch and Education Center and Middle Tennessee AgResearch and Education Center are well known for their contributions to mastitis research and abatement. The Institute of Agriculture also provides instruction, research and public service through the UT College of Agricultural Sciences and Natural Resources, the UT College of Veterinary Medicine, UT AgResearch and UT Extension offices, with locations in every county in the state.

This award is supported by USDA-NIFA AFRI grant award # 2013-68004-20424.


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