University of Wisconsin–Madison

Successful Dairying Built on Cows’ Well-Being

From left to right, outreach specialist Courtney Halbach, Professor Nigel Cook, and owner Mark Keller at Kellercrest Holsteins in Mount Horeb, Wisconsin. This summer, The Dairyland Initiative helped the farm evaluate their needs for transitioning from a naturally ventilated barn to a mechanically ventilated barn.

They hosted their first virtual workshops, offered virtual farm consultations, created guidelines to combat the spread of COVID-19, and incorporated other changes to continue to support dairy industry professionals during these everchanging times

Because that is what they do. Launched in 2010, The Dairyland Initiative provides farmers the information they need to build better cattle housing that optimizes cows’ well-being. The program centers around scientific principles developed by School of Veterinary Medicine faculty and staff, recognizing that successful dairying requires well-designed, comfortable facilities for cattle. Their recommendations are continually updated with the latest research findings and clinical experience, and provide economically viable, practical solutions for herds of all sizes.

The practices are sensible, humane, and profitable all at once, says Nigel Cook, professor of food animal production medicine and Dairyland Initiative director. An estimated 65 percent of new cow barns nationwide are built with Dairyland Initiative principles, yielding healthier cows, improved animal welfare, and more efficient and productive dairies. The programming helps keep the dairy industry — a $43 billion industry in Wisconsin alone — safe and productive, especially important in recent years as the industry faces financial challenges and other pressures.

“It remains all the more important that the decisions farmers make today are well-informed to ensure a profitable and sustainable future for their herds,” Cook says.

Since 2015, Dairyland Initiative efforts have been bolstered by support from Saputo Inc., a Montreal-based company. They produce, market, and distribute various products, notably cheese, milk, and culture products. Warren Skippon, a veterinarian who serves as Saputo’s director of animal welfare, says The Dairyland Initiative’s mission aligns with Saputo’s belief that high-quality dairy products begin with milk from healthy and well-cared for animals.

“With the launch of our initial Animal Welfare Policy in 2015, we felt it was important to support leading animal welfare experts advancing the field of dairy cattle welfare awareness, education, and training to a wide range of dairy professionals,” he says. “As an established leader in providing valuable dairy animal care resources, we recognized the potential of The Dairyland Initiative to support even more producers in the U.S. and other key dairy-producing countries.”

As just one example of the impact of Saputo’s support, the Dairyland Initiative website was translated into Spanish and French, expanding the program’s reach and making topical resources more accessible.

In 2020, Saputo expanded its support, which will allow faculty and staff to continue to provide twice-yearly workshops for farmers, veterinarians, nutritionists, and industry consultants. It will also enable the team to design new online courses, including a class on positive pressure tube ventilation — supplemental ventilation systems that help deliver clean air in dairy barns, especially important during cold weather. And the support will make possible essential website updates, including the continued development and launch of a module focused on optimizing calf health through nutrition, sanitation, and the treatment and prevention of calf respiratory disease.

“Saputo’s generous commitment to The Dairyland Initiative has allowed us to provide valuable, up-to-date facility design recommendations, lameness prevention tools, and calf health management resources to dairy farmers and industry professionals globally,” says outreach specialist Courtney Halbach. “As a result, we have been able to optimize cow well-being worldwide.”

Dairyland Initiative offerings continue to evolve to meet industry changes. They’re now working to understand the impact of automated milking systems and create programming to serve farms that adopt these systems.

Attendees participate in a Dairyland Initiative workshop in 2017. Workshops draw farmers, veterinarians, nutritionists, and other industry consultants.

The program also developed a new one-of-a-kind workshop in response to a growing number of animal welfare audits on farms and a lack of information available to farmers on how to enhance cattle welfare and performance after an audit. This session was offered for the first time in February and has been one of the most well-received to date. Among the comments from attendees: “Content was very useful. Training was excellent;” “It was so instructive;” “Time well invested;” and “Great job, best continuing education I’ve attended in two to three years!”

Skippon appreciates that the program’s interactive workshops focus on practical aspects of health and welfare. “I participated in the calf barn ventilation and welfare-friendly barn design workshop and experienced firsthand the valuable information and concepts that can be implemented on the attendee’s dairies,” he notes.

The Dairyland Initiative also offers 13 smartphone apps to help farmers manage dairy health and productivity, with many of the apps available in English, Spanish, French, and German. And all content on the program’s website is now available free due to the generosity of sponsors. In 2019, website visitors almost tripled from the previous year, totaling nearly 17,000 users around the world.

“Our goals align with Saputo’s commitment to enhancing animal welfare on dairy farms globally, and we are delighted to work with them now and into the future,” Cook says. “Without their commitment, it is unlikely that we would have been able to accomplish all that we have.”

Meghan Lepisto and David Tenenbaum