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History and reflections

Dennis Johnson

Published in Dairy Star September 3, 2010

I've considered several topics for this final piece as a member of the dairy team. I'm just a couple of weeks short of 50 years as student and faculty at the U, so I feel an urge to be profound. I could highlight the most important things I've learned from research, but that has been covered here before, and is too technical for one column anyway. I could predict the future of dairying, but we all know the accuracy of expert predictions. So I'll reflect on dairy history in Minnesota.

Our forefathers came to Minnesota with cattle that were responsible for labor, leather, manure, milk and meat. They weren't specialized for milk production. Most milk was consumed on the farm or by neighbors if the milk was from a town cow. Herds increased in size when a market for farm milk developed as coop creameries were created to make and market butter. Genetic specialization for production was achieved by "grading up", the utilization of purebred dairy bulls. In the 50's grain was cheap so high energy concentrates were fed in increasing amounts, leading to even more milk production. Bovine tuberculosis and brucellosis were dramatically decreased by mandatory herd testing and/or vaccination programs. Amazing increases in production resulted with the coupling of artificial insemination, Dairy Herd Improvement (DHIA) testing, and computing to allow for genetic selection that emphasized young sire sampling. Dairying became very specialized and some farms became very large. Increasing production was emphasized for herd success; although with diminishing returns to added inputs, management, the effective allocation of resources, has became the driver of success.

T.L. Haecker

W.E. Petersen

E.F. Graham

People drive change. In the case of the dairy industry in Minnesota, the primary drivers have been the hard-working farmers that had the courage to develop the natural resources of the region and adopt new ideas. But agricultural science has made important contributions.

S.M. Babcock, an agricultural chemist at the University of Wisconsin, developed a test to determine the fat content of milk in 1890. That enabled the accurate prediction of butter yield so farmers could be paid for the constituent value of their milk, which led to the butter industry in Minnesota. Babcock also co-created the cold curing process of ripening cheese in 1897 that enabled Wisconsin to become the leading cheese production state.

T.L. Haecker was 45 years old before he came to U of M in 1891 and started the work that gave him the unofficial title of "Father of Dairying" in Minnesota. He purchased cows for a college dairy herd and commenced wide ranging experimentation. In 1897 he published the first American dairy feeding standard that took into consideration the size of animal, the amount of milk, and its content of butterfat. He contributed greatly to dairying by promoting the cooperative creamery movement modeled on the coop started by Danish immigrants at Clarks Grove, MN. He went about the state, often on foot or by horse and buggy, forcefully stating that cooperatives were the key to fair treatment of farmers. He often faced hostile opposition, even from farmers, but his effort eventually bore fruit. His work of making Minnesota dairymen appreciative of the possibilities of working together made the Land O'Lakes creameries a possibility. This marketing co-operative handled the product of most of Minnesota's co-operatively owned creameries, marketing butter of high quality across the U.S.

W.E. Petersen was a pioneer dairy scientist at the University of Minnesota. The Danish-American professor conducted landmark research in the physiology of lactation and other aspects of dairy husbandry in the first half of the 20th century. He conducted fundamental research on udder development, milk secretion and milk composition. At mid-century he conducted studies of rotational grazing, showing that long rest periods between grazing bouts improved forage production on pasture. His important research was largely disregarded in the industry rush to confinement and heavy grain feeding.

U of M scientists led the genetic revolution. C.L. Cole performed the first artificial insemination that lead to a live calf. E.F Graham developed the methods of freezing semen widely adopted by the AI industry. Dean Plowman moved to the USDA where he led the genetic evaluation group that developed the statistical methods for sire evaluation. C.W. Young proved that sire selection leads to rapid genetic improvement. Currently Les Hansen conducts world renowned research in the crossbreeding of dairy cattle.

The U of M West Central Research and Outreach Center at Morris celebrated its centennial this year by sponsoring a major symposium. Speakers offered divergent views for the future of agriculture on the relative importance of high yield or an approach giving weight to society, environment and production. But they agreed that engagement with the public, as practiced by the pioneer scientists and extension educators, is essential to effective public service and education.

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