Facts in Five: Ruminations on Dairy

periodiCALS, Vol. 6, Issue 2, 2016

When agriculture professor Isaac P. Roberts arrived at Cornell in 1873, the campus dairy herd was infected with tuberculosis and had ten cows “that had among them only twenty-two milkable teats,” according to his 1916 autobiography. Roberts, who later became the first director of the College of Agriculture, was among the first Cornellians to bring rigorous science to dairy practices. Soon the Cornell herd was producing twice as much milk per cow as the state average, and Roberts waxed poetic: “at last the stars in the ‘milky’ way shone clear above the Cornell hills.” CALS research has ensured it continues to shine above the whole state more than a century later.

1. While the trans fats in partially hydrogenated oils are a nutritional no-go, some trans fats found in milk have health-promoting effects. Seminal work by professor emeritus of animal science Dale Bauman in 1999 showed that the CLAs (conjugated linoleic acids) that naturally occur in milk can decrease cancer risk and also that changes to a cow’s diet can increase the level of CLAs in milk.

2. The Cornell Net Carbohydrate and Protein System, software that debuted in the 1980s for precisely predicting feed requirements, is now used to feed more than 40 percent of dairy cows in the United States—as well as many others around the world—resulting in cost savings to farmers while reducing the environmental impact of dairy cows by 30 to 50 percent.

3. Many dairy processing techniques that are now standard for the industry were first put to the test by Cornell researchers, including the use of carbon dioxide to preserve cottage cheese and enzymes that produce cheddar cheese with a sharp flavor while reducing the production time.

4. Big data in dairy got its start in the 1890s when professor of animal husbandry Henry Wing developed a system of milk records with breeders’ associations across the state. The system then spread into every state, becoming the basis for breeding, selection and significant gains in milk production. Today’s incarnation, though more extensive, is still used by breeders to determine the best matches between heifers and bulls.

5. Today, more than 95 percent of calves are conceived through artificial insemination. The technique launched in the state in the 1930s, largely because of the work of professors of animal husbandry Stanley Brownell and Glenn Salisbury, who overcame a host of logistical challenges and conducted physiology research that provided the framework for the successful development of cattle artificial insemination across the state and worldwide.