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Warming climate poses threat to dairy industry

Credit freeimages.com/Rob Waterhouse

The global demand for milk and other dairy products is expected to increase more than 50 percent in the next 30 years, but climate change is threatening the dairy industry.

Dairy cows produce less milk and are susceptible to infertility and disease when the weather is warm.

"There's research that suggests that with temperatures that exceed 80 degrees Fahrenheit, cows can start to experience some of these effects," said Joseph McFadden, assistant professor of animal science at Cornell University. "Certainly, we're focused in the short term more on extreme heat -- like temperatures over 90 degrees Fahrenheit -- but it's not only about temperature; it's about humidity, too."

McFadden is the lead researcher of a five-year study that will determine how nutrition designed to improve intestinal health may help cows withstand the heat.

He wants to understand the relationship between how a cow adopts to heat and what's going on inside the animal's gut.

"And once we can identify those relationships," McFadden explained, "we could potentially use that to develop new nutritional feeding strategies that allow us to modify the gut microbiome in a way that keeps the intestinal barrier intact, prevents that condition called leaky gut, and allows the cow to stay healthier and to produce more milk."

For now, dairy farmers rely on sprinklers and fans to keep their cows cool, but sprinklers use water, which is a limited resource in some parts of the country.

"And fans will use energy to run, and most of these fans are being used by burning fossil fuels that could contribute to climate change," McFadden said. "We want to try to reduce the use of those kinds of heat abatement technologies to try to create a more sustainable practice."

The Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research is funding the study, along with dairy industry sponsors.

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