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University of Minnesota Research Center Takes On New Leadership And Research Initiatives

After a long and illustrious career of serving dairy producers at the University of Minnesota West Central Research and Outreach Center at Morris, Dennis Johnson retired at the end of August 2010. Brad Heins has taken on the opportunity to establish a recognized research program in organic dairy production. He has just completed his PhD in dairy cattle breeding at the University of Minnesota, where his research focused on the profitability of crossbreeding dairy cattle. The study evaluated various aspects of incorporating the Normande, Montbeliarde, and Scandinavian Red breeds into a crossbreeding program. Below, Brad talks about his research, and the future of the Center.

By Bradley J. Heins

Added November 15, 2010. The University of Minnesota’s West Central Research and Outreach Center at Morris was certified organic in June 2010, and our first organic milk was picked up June 2. At Morris, we have over 350 acres of certified organic pastures for both heifers and cows. However, only a portion of the 200-cow herd was transitioned to organic production. Currently, the organic herd has 86 milking cows and 64 replacement heifers. A majority of the herd calves in the spring, with about 20 heifers and cows calve in the fall. During the winter, the organic herd is out-wintered on a straw pack close to the 8-swing milking parlor. The conventional grazing herd has about 110 milking cows and 88 replacement heifers. Holstein Montbeliarde, Swedish Red, and Jersey crossbreds make up the conventional grazing herd managed under conventional nutrition and health conditions.

Top: Organic dairy calves at University of Minnesota Research Center.
Bottom: Cows grazing under the wind tower at the Center.

The organic herd, which is mostly crossbred, is comprised of different combinations of Jersey, Swedish Red, Norweigian Red, Holstein, and New Zealand Friesian. We have recently used the Normande breed, and we have a few heifers sired by Normande bulls. Normande is part of the crossbreeding program because of their high proportion of BB kappa casein, which is utilized for cheese production. The reproductive program is 100% AI, no clean-up bulls are used, and the average days open is 120 days.

The organic herd also consists of the 1964 Holstein genetic strain from the University of Minnesota’s Southern Research Center at Waseca. There is no other herd like this in the United States, and quite possibly the whole world, because their genetics are truly from the 1960s. This herd is used to determine effects of selection for milk yield on genetic, metabolic, and physiological aspects of the dairy cow. The herd is limited to 30 lactating cows and their replacements and seasonally calves in the spring.

We have two bulk tanks, and the organic herd is milked first. The herd has a yearly production average of 50 lbs/cow/day with 3.8% fat and 3.2% protein. Depending on the weather, the SCC across the year averages 325,000, and research will be conducted to determine methods to lower SCC in organic dairy systems.

The typical grazing season in Morris is from May to early November. During the grazing months, cows get most of their diet (over 80%) from pasture. During the winter months, cows are fed stored forages. The ration for the organic herd consists of corn silage, alfalfa silage, a grain mix, corn screenings, and alfalfa hay. The grain mix consists of corn, wheat, barley, kelp meal, and Redmond salts. Most of the forages are grown at the research center; however, organic grain and organic corn screenings are purchased as a concentrate supplement. Some of the crop land at the research center is still in transition to organic production.

Currently, we are researching the effect of organic whole milk feeding duration with group fed calves on growth, health, and behavior of organic dairy calves. Calves are weaned at 28, 45, or 90 day, and because there aren’t any organic milk replacers, we are monitoring the effectiveness of late weaning versus early weaning.

Numerous research topics will be evaluated at this research center, and a successful applied research program in organic dairy management is relevant to the needs of the organic dairy industry. Crossbreeding will be an essential part of the research program in organic dairy production because crossbreeding can improve the fertility, survival, and health of dairy cows. The production environment at the West Central Research and Outreach Center will provide the opportunity to research crossbreeding in an organic system and compare the results to the conventional dairy system that is already established.

Research is also needed in the utilization of forages in an organic dairy production system. Grass as forage and access to pasture are the main components of organic dairy production; therefore, more exploration is needed to determine the best grasses for organic dairy production. Developing feeding strategies for animals during the non-pasture season in an organic dairy system will also be investigated.

Many another research questions pertaining to organic dairy production could be answered and alternative methods to treat and prevent common health disorders of dairy cattle, especially mastitis, should be researched. Pest management for animals on pasture is also another important issue where organic dairy producers have concerns. Methane and carbon dioxide production from cows could be investigated in a pasture-based dairy system, and the results of research can be used to evaluate methods to reduce the carbon footprint of organic dairy production. Of course, any applied dairy research program should focus on specific questions dairy producers would like answered to improve the profitability of their own organic dairy.

Brad Heins is an Assistant Professor of Organic Dairy Production Systems at the University of Minnesota’s West Central Research and Outreach Center (WCROC). You can contact Mr. Heins by phone at 320-589-1711 or email: hein0106@umn.edu