Rising temperatures could mean less milk production in dairy cows


Dairy cows are particularly sensitive to heat stress, and the USDA estimates the dairy industry could bear more than half the cost of those effects.

In Vermont and Northern New York, dairy farms play a big role in the local economy.

But research shows that as global temperatures continue to rise, we could see milk production drop here at home.

Dairy cows are particularly sensitive to heat stress, and the USDA estimates the dairy industry could bear more than half the cost of those effects.

At the Miner Agricultural Research Institute in Chazy, New York, fans will be on throughout the summer in an effort to protect the health of the dairy cows.

“We have a few days of hot, hot weather, and then it cools off at night, and then it’s hot again, so really our cows never get to adapt,” said Katie Ballard, Director of Research at Miner Institute.

Longer, hotter summers impact fertility and reduce milk production.

Dairy Extension Educator Emily Fread authored a study on the impact of climate change and heat stress at UVM, adding that this is something that’s projected to get worse as global temperatures continue to rise.

“When the temperature and humidity index is above 68, which really isn’t very high, cows will start panting. They stand up more than they should, instead of laying down and resting to try to dissipate heat…their immune system is suppressed under hot conditions, so that all leads to them producing less milk,” said Fread.

These findings sparked the attention of many in the agricultural industry, including aspiring researcher Landon Privette, a rising senior at North Carolina State University who is spending his summer at Miner Institue as an assistant to heat stress research.

“I’m definitely looking forward to seeing the results of this study, I’ve never gotten to be this hands-on with any research trial anywhere, and so I’ve really enjoyed looking at the data working with the cows,” said Privette.

Climate model predictions from the USDA show on average, milk production could drop nearly one and a half (1.35) percent by 2030, and consumers could lose between $60 million and $160 million because of higher milk costs.

“If nationally, cows are producing less milk in the summer, there will be less milk in the market. So it could eventually affect consumers… prices in the grocery store, that sort of thing,” said Fread.

But there are tools dairy farmers can use to reduce the impact.

“What we’re trying to do is fine tune those heat abatement systems…what our research has found is the airflow over the cows and the degree those fans are blowing is not just the matter of air movement in a barn; it’s air movement on the cows themselves,” said Ballard. “It seems like that sort of system gives them the most economic value over adding water sprinkler systems and things like that.”

A lot of farms are already using fans and sprinklers to help their cows cool off during the warmer months.

Experts urge farmers to invest now, especially for smaller farms, which could otherwise be at a disadvantage.