MSU researcher helping dairy industry increase profitability, efficiency through improved cattle nutrition

Professor Adam Lock partners with Michigan dairies to improve animal health and productivity.

Adam Lock, professor in the MSU Department of Animal Science.
Adam Lock, a professor in the MSU Department of Animal Science.

EAST LANSING, Mich. — The dairy industry contributes $15.7 billion annually to Michigan’s economy, making it the state’s premier agricultural commodity. While the scale is considerable, the soul of the industry lies at the family level. More than 1,000 farms — nearly all of which are family owned — dot the landscape, appearing in 73 of Michigan’s 83 counties.

For something so consequential to the greater economy, and to a multitude of individual families, great care must be taken. Livelihoods are at stake.

Adam Lock, a professor in the Michigan State University Department of Animal Science, understands this better than most. He grew up on a dairy in the southwest of the United Kingdom, watching his father navigate the complexities of farming and small business ownership.

With this experience as the foundation, Lock pursued a career as a scientist helping dairy farmers improve cattle health and productivity. When considering study topics, his father has proved to be a valuable compass.

“If I can’t explain to my dad — someone who ran a dairy farm for years — what I’m doing or why I’m doing it, then I’m probably not explaining it well enough or I’m doing the wrong thing,” Lock said. “I’ve always used that as a guide.”

Since his arrival at MSU in 2009, Lock has partnered with Michigan dairy producers and nutritionists to evaluate dietary strategies that improve cattle health and enhance productivity. In particular, he’s focused on supplementing diets with fatty acids, such as palmitic acid or oleic acid, a practice that boosts milk production and stabilizes body weight during stages of significant energy expenditure.

Through both AgBioResearch and MSU Extension appointments, he performs on-farm studies and closely interacts with dairy nutritionists and their producers. His work has led to companies creating new supplement products and caused a shift in the way producers view dairy cattle nutrition globally. As one of the world’s leaders in the field, Lock has presented his findings in person and via webinars in the U.S., Australia, Canada, China, Germany, Israel, the United Kingdom and more.

“There’s no point in doing what I do if there aren’t results that are directly applicable to the farm,” Lock said. “That’s why the input of our producers and their nutritionists is so valuable. They help to inform our direction.”

Michigan Alliance for Animal Agriculture: ‘The envy of a lot of places’

Since 2015, Lock has been a beneficiary of funding from the Michigan Alliance for Animal Agriculture (M-AAA). The program brings together MSU, the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development, and animal agriculture organizations. The M-AAA supports MSU research infrastructure, as well as projects aimed at advancing the animal agriculture economy.

Lock said he appreciates the program because it’s a unique funding mechanism for research.

“I could see the impact straight away,” he said. “There’s a lot of important work needed to help support the industry, but there aren’t always natural funding avenues or it wouldn’t necessarily get parlayed into federal dollars.

“I’ve talked with a lot of colleagues at other institutions around the country and the world about the M-AAA, and it’s the envy of a lot of places.”

Discoveries from M-AAA projects have changed how Lock’s partner nutritionists and consultants utilize dietary fatty acids.

“I met Adam when he first came to MSU in 2009, and as a former MSU grad student and Extension agent, I’m always interested in what research is being done in the dairy group at MSU,” said Brian Troyer, a dairy consultant with Caledonia Farmers Elevator, which has six locations in Michigan. “He’s been good to work with. His input has led us to focus on individual fatty acids and how they interact with other nutrients, feeding a blend of fatty acids and not just a specific product.”

Marin Western, a dairy specialist with the Vita Plus Corporation, met Lock as an undergraduate student at MSU and earned a master’s degree in his lab. She’s a regular partner of Lock’s because producers are seeing the benefits.

"There have been multiple times that I've implemented work in the field that has come directly from Dr. Lock's lab," Western said. "Most of the changes I've made have come from altering current fat feeding methods to better suit the cows. Many of our clients, even when prices of fat continued to increase, did not reduce their investment in fatty acids because they still saw a return on that investment."

An initial M-AAA grant supported Lock’s efforts to determine how three commercially available fat supplements affect milk yield and feed efficiency. He observed that diets supplemented with a palmitic acid-enriched fat increased milk fat and protein, while diets supplemented with fat containing a mixture of palmitic and oleic acids increased body weight gain.

Based on Michigan milk prices at the time, feeding a palmitic acid-supplemented diet would increase gross income by 81 cents per cow, per day. After accounting for the price of the supplement, that translates to more than $75,000 per year on a 500-cow dairy farm.

For a second M-AAA-funded project, Lock looked at maximizing the yield and efficiency of milk production while optimizing body fat reserves. This promotes cow health and reproductive performance, and increases farm profitability.

Lock noted the palmitic acid supplement improved digestibility, milk yield, milk fat yield and feed efficiency in mid-lactation dairy cows. For a 100-cow herd, Lock said, this is worth a roughly $5,000-per-month income jump in summer months. Factoring in feed costs for the supplement, this would still represent a rate of return of more than 3 to 1.

The promising findings eventually led to a collaboration with Andres Contreras, an associate professor in the MSU College of Veterinary Medicine. The pair was awarded an M-AAA grant and in 2020 received $500,000 from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture.

Lock and Contreras are exploring if oleic acid supplements can minimize body weight loss and maximize lactation performance in dairy cows in the period around calving when milk production begins, known as the periparturient period.

During this time, cattle experience a negative energy balance and reduced feed intake, which can cause poor lactation and a higher likelihood of disease development.

“Most dairy farmers rely heavily on their nutrition consultants, feed suppliers and veterinarians to make important decisions,” Lock said. “This is a critical dynamic because more than 50% of their total variable costs are associated with feeding and dietary supplements. They need information on how to make these decisions to achieve the most profitable outcome, while maintaining a high animal health standard, so that’s what we’re trying to determine.”

Meeting producers where they are

Much of Lock’s research involves proactively investigating novel nutrition approaches, but his role in MSU Extension also provides ideas. Being nimble and reactive to dairy farmer needs is a necessity.

In 2020, a nutritionist posed a question to which Lock didn’t have a solid answer: Can high-oleic acid soybeans act as a sufficient substitute for traditional diet supplements? High-oleic acid soybeans are high in fat, and the producer with whom the nutritionist works could grow them locally.

The answer to this query is a crucial one. As uncertainty grips the global supply chain, homegrown feeds are increasingly appealing. Toss in the sustainability benefits, and you have the makings of an interesting proposal. Needless to say, Lock was intrigued.

He received funding from the M-AAA in 2021 for an effort geared toward answering two primary questions: Does the inclusion of high-oleic acid soybeans in cattle diets increase milk fat and protein yields? And does this increase producers’ revenue by growing their own feed?

The project has garnered attention from the Michigan Milk Producers Association and the United Soybean Board, which have provided financial support.

Lock’s team is currently conducting soybean experiments and is looking to generate preliminary results in the coming months.

“What we know for certain is that as the average milk production of dairy cows rises, their energy and nutrient requirements also increase,” Lock said. “It’s important to formulate energy-dense diets to meet the demands of high-producing cows, and if we can do more of that through local sources, producers should see real value.”

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