Newswise — ITHACA, N.Y. – A warming world represents a growing threat to the dairy industry. With climate change pushing global temperatures higher, finding scientific solutions that protect the well-being and productivity of dairy cows is critical. A Cornell researcher has won a grant to do just that.

“Climate change and extreme heat represent key barriers for the sustainable production of milk that meets consumer expectations for quality as well as the rising global demand for dairy foods,” said Joseph McFadden, assistant professor of animal science in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences (CALS).

“We must act now to develop innovative solutions that revolutionize how we feed heat-stressed cows to ensure optimum animal health and welfare while achieving gains in efficient milk production,” said McFadden, the Northeast Agribusiness and Feed Alliance Partners Sesquicentennial Fellow in Dairy Cattle Biology.

McFadden is principal investigator on a nearly $1.5 million grant from the Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research (FFAR) and industry sponsors, announced April 11. The $736,392 FFAR grant is matched with funding from AB Vista, Adisseo, Balchem Corporation, Berg + Schmidt, Elanco, Phibro Animal Health, and Vetagro S.p.A. The study will explore the relationship between dairy cattle’s gut health, intestinal permeability, liver health, immunity and milk production; it will also seek ways to improve dairy cows’ ability to withstand extreme heat.

Dairy cows struggle to produce milk efficiently when their body temperatures rise above normal, a condition known as hyperthermia-induced heat stress. Along with curtailing milk production, heat-stressed dairy cows can also become infertile, develop infectious and metabolic diseases, and may succumb to premature death.

Working with industry, McFadden’s team will determine whether heat-stressed dairy cows can recover through diet. The project aims to identify a nutrition-based solution that improves dairy cows’ ability to adapt to extreme heat.

The demand for dairy products and milk globally is expected to increase 57 percent by 2050, while rising temperatures are expected to stress the dairy industry, according to FFAR. In 2017 in New York state, milk production reached its highest levels ever, according to the New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets. On average, a dairy cow in New York produced 23,936 pounds of milk in 2017.  

Average annual temperatures are projected to increase across New York state in the coming decades. Temperatures could increase by 10 degrees Fahrenheit by the 2080s, according to a 2014 report from Art DeGaetano, professor of climatology and director of the Northeast Regional Climate Center at Cornell, and other collaborators for the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority.

“Heat stress is an urgent animal health and welfare concern, and it also creates additional pressures for the nation’s dairy farmers,” said Sally Rockey, FFAR’s executive director. “FFAR is optimistic that Cornell’s research can improve the health of dairy cows, increase efficient milk production and help American dairy farmers protect their livestock.”

According to FFAR, McFadden and his team will partner with industry collaborators to reduce the use of limited natural resources and drive down dairy production costs in support of a more sustainable and economically viable American dairy industry. McFadden will work with the grant sponsors and the Cornell PRO-DAIRY program to disseminate new knowledge in an annual editorial series called “Beat the Heat: Dairy Nutrition Strategies for Optimum Cow Health,” which will be shared with thousands of American dairy farmers.

“This translational research program in collaboration with industry has the potential to revolutionize dairy cattle nutrition to ensure that our American dairy farmers will continue to produce a high-quality food,” McFadden said. “Global population growth and climate change are real challenges and we aim to develop real solutions.”

Kathryn J. Boor ’80, the Ronald P. Lynch Dean of CALS, is a board member at FFAR.

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