Using dietary strategies to improve dairy cattle health and productivity

Adam Lock, an associate professor in the MSU Department of Animal Science, is working to help dairy producers increase the value of their product amidst currently suppressed milk prices.


Michigan’s 1,500 dairy farms produced more than 11 billion pounds of milk in 2017, placing the state fifth in the nation in milk production. Adam Lock, an associate professor in the Michigan State University Department of Animal Science, is working to help producers increase the value of their product amidst currently suppressed milk prices.

Lock arrived at MSU in 2009, bringing with him a research program focused on both animal and human nutrition and the effects on overall health. Within animal agriculture, he is interested in the effect of diets on milk production, particularly the supplementation of different fatty acids to boost animal health and productivity.

Supplementing diets with fat is a common practice on dairy farms to support milk production. With assistance from several grants from the Michigan Alliance for Animal Agriculture (M-AAA), Lock has pursued a better understanding of the types of fatty acids that would be the most effective. He is also delving into the uncharted territory of evaluating the long-term effects of palmitic acid supplements on dairy cattle health and productivity, hoping to determine the potential role of supplemental fatty acids in very early lactation.

“The dairy industry has deep roots in Michigan agriculture, and my research is trying to continue this tradition through maintaining and enhancing its economic viability,” Lock said. “Dairy producers and their nutritionists are highly engaged in the research, and that makes for a great partnership.”

The objective of his first M-AAA project was to determine the effects of three commercially available fat supplements on the yield of milk and milk components, and feed efficiency. Lock observed that a diet supplemented with a palmitic acid-enriched fat increased the yield of milk fat and protein, while a diet supplemented with a fat containing a mixture of palmitic and oleic acids increased body weight gain.

Based on 2016 Michigan milk prices, 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, this would translate to an increase in income of over $75,000 per year on a 500-cow dairy farm.

In a 2017 project, Lock began to look at developing effective strategies to maximize the yield and efficiency of milk production while optimizing body fat reserves. This promotes cow health and reproductive performance, as well as increasing milk income and farm profitability.

The goal was to determine the long-term effects of palmitic acid supplements on the yield of milk and milk components, nutrient digestibility, energy intake, body weight, feed efficiency, adipose tissue composition and indicators of inflammation.

Lock observed that production responses of dairy cows to palmitic acid supplementation were consistent throughout the 10-week treatment period and had carryover effects on the yield of milk fat. Overall, the palmitic acid supplement improved digestibility, milk yield, milk fat yield and feed efficiency in mid-lactation dairy cows.

“Our results had immediate impact on dairy industry recommendations and strategies to increase milk component yields, and will enable us to positively influence dairy cattle production efficiency and farm income,” Lock said. “We have already engaged with on-farm nutritionists and technical consultants with results being communicated at local, regional and national dairy nutrition consultant and farmer meetings.”

For a 100-cow herd, Lock said, this is worth a roughly $5,000 per month income jump during summer months. Factoring in feed costs for the supplement, this would still represent a rate of return of over 3 to 1. Additionally, Lock is leading ongoing projects through M-AAA and has received funding for 2019.

“We’ve delivered results, and feedback from the industry has been very favorable,” Lock said. “Partnering with the industry through M-AAA has been invaluable. Nutritionists have implemented feeding strategies based on this research, and that’s what makes my work so rewarding."

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