New Kansas State University research suggests that reducing inflammation caused during birth of a calf may be the key to helping a dairy cow recover faster and produce more milk over her lifetime.
Early findings in a study that began more than a year ago show anti-inflammatory medications – an NSAID – could help increase the cow's milk production by as much as 10% within a year, compared to current trends of lactating dairy cows.
"I compare the dairy cow at the beginning of lactation to somebody who has been a couch potato for two months and then goes out and decides to run a marathon," said Barry Bradford, associate professor of animal sciences and industry.
"The energy requirements of a lactating dairy cow, even though she's doing very little exercise, are quite comparable to somebody running a marathon and actually a little bit higher. There's that much milk being produced."
Despite the increased energy needed to produce milk, many cows will stop eating shortly after giving birth.
"That becomes a crisis scenario because you have the marathon energy demand, coupled with an actual drop in energy intake," Bradford said.
The cow's self-imposed starvation leads to a condition called ketosis, a metabolic response that allows them to use nutrients called ketones, which partially replace the need for glucose to support brain function.
Longer term, however, ketosis also leads to poor productivity and fertility. As many as 40% of cows who have given birth have at least a mild case of ketosis that causes the negative symptoms, Bradford said.
Typically, it takes three to four weeks after freshening for cows to adapt to eating enough to match their milk output. Bradford says the K-State research suggests inflammation is partly to blame for limiting the cow's feed intake.
Researchers tested giving cows an NSAID the first day after birth to decrease the inflammation. They found it ultimately increased the cow's milk production by 7% to 10%.
"There was no effect in the first four weeks, but one year after giving a single pill, that cow was making more milk," Bradford said. "We don't understand yet why that worked, but based on that finding, researchers are now able to study mammary biopsies to understand if we reprogrammed the mammary gland."
The researchers also have now veered from explaining the problem solely as a metabolic disease and are focusing on reducing inflammation right after birth.
"There is no evidence that this is hurtful to the cow," Bradford said. "If you can get 7% to10% more milk from a cow, that's a large sustainability issue for the industry. We are using less resources to make more gallons of milk."
The university's work is in the early stages and would need additional testing and, ultimately, approval by the Food and Drug Administration before becoming part of standard practice for dairy producers.
The research was funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Bradford said additional studies are being supported by a grant from the National Science Foundation.
Source: Kansas State University