Southeast Research Station focuses on dairy

Tobie Blanchard

Tucked in the rolling hills of Washington Parish sits the LSU AgCenter Southeast Research Station. Pastures, barns and a milking parlor dot the landscape as do the dairy cows that are the focus of the research at the station.

Established in 1944, the station opened at a time when many families in the Florida Parishes had at least a few dairy cows. The Franklinton Chamber of Commerce had been working for several years to get an experiment station in the area to conduct research applicable to dairy and beef cattle.

Station director Charles Hutchison said the station was started with a donation of 248 acres of land from the Gaylord Container Company and the purchase of an additional 581 acres for $8 an acre.

“At the time cotton was king in the area with a lot of forestry and tung oil production, but the main focus was on dairy and beef cattle,” Hutchison said.

As decades passed, dairy farms flourished in the area. Herd sizes grew, and more people went into dairy production.

“Because of our hills, the land is not real conducive to row crops. You can’t make the high yields, so it went more to pastures,” he said.

In the 1990s, Tangipahoa Parish regularly made the list of the top 100 dairy producing areas in the country, but the number of dairy producers declined at the turn of the millennium. Hutchison said those farmers who continue to raise dairy cattle still need the research the station provides.

“Those that are left need just as much help as before, so we continue to serve them as best as possible with our research and make the research fit their type of operations,” he said.

The station started with an agronomist and nutrition researchers. The research those early faculty members conducted is still at the core of what the station covers.

Through the years scientists have evaluated different types of grasses, looking at which ones would stay established and which ones grew the best and had the most nutritional value.

It was at the station that researchers discovered blood urea nitrogen had a negative effect on reproductive efficiency in dairy cattle.

“Rye grass has a lot of protein, and that will raise the blood urea nitrogen level,” Hutchison said. They recommended lowering the protein in the grain mix and cutting back the time cows grazed on the ryegrass to limit their consumption.

Dairy cattle belonging to Phillip Roberts, a third-generation dairy farmer in Mt. Hermon, were part of that study. Roberts has been in the dairy business for 47 years, and throughout his career the station has been a valuable source of information that helped keep him farming.

“I can’t tell you how many times I called with an issue, and they would send someone over right away to help with the problem,” Roberts said.

Retired dairyman Mack Brown agreed.

“The researchers at the station were very knowledgeable and always willing to help,” Brown said. “The research had practical applications. It wasn’t just pie in the sky research.”

Both dairy producers said having local dairy research was critical to their success.

“You can read national dairy magazines, but we’re hotter and wetter, and we don’t grow alfalfa,” Brown said.

“Trade magazines didn’t cover a lot of the issues we experienced,” Roberts confirmed. “What goes on in Wisconsin has nothing to do with what’s happening down here.”

One example of the disconnect among national dairy recommendations and local needs is temperature. A study on transitioning cows helped establish new parameters for what temperature qualifies a cow as sick. The temperature of cows in summer in south Louisiana will naturally run hotter than cows in milder climates. But according to parameters set by studies done in Iowa and Wisconsin, Louisiana cows would be considered sick during summer, so the new parameters helped farmers more easily identify those cows that were actually ill.

Research was also conducted on round baled silage, or what the industry calls baleage. Trying to bale high quality ryegrass hay during the early spring was problematic because of the high soil moisture level and the number of days needed for drying. Also, the frequent chance of precipitation made the baling of high-quality ryegrass almost impossible. Since the ryegrass bales are wrapped in plastic at a higher moisture level this allows the grass to go through an anerobic fermentation that basically pickles and preserves it.

“With the advent of baleage, they could put it up at 40% to 50% dry matter, and that would preserve it, and you could keep it up to year and feed it later. Also, other warm and cool season grasses can be harvested and processed as baleage. That helped a lot of dairy farmers,” Hutchison said.

The station is the site of one of the AgCenter’s winter annual grass and small grains trials. Other trails are conducted at the Macon Ridge and Iberia research stations. Researchers evaluate around 40 different ryegrass varieties and five or six varieties of oats, planting and harvesting about four times and recording yields and dry matter.

The station was able to conduct research and take risks with experiments that dairy producers couldn’t afford to do on their own farms, Roberts said. Brown said his farm benefited from the station’s ability to measure success of research applications that he could then determine if it was something he should implement.

Other programs include pain management research on dairy cattle, reproductive synchronization protocols, the use of teat sealants during the drying off process to help prevent mastitis and a long-term precipitation study through the U.S. Geological Survey, testing rainwater weekly for mineral content.

The Bio PRYN Lab (which stands for pregnant ruminant yes no) is a service lab on the station that conducts pregnancy checks for ruminants via a blood sample. Hutchison said they recently did a test for a yak. They also can test sheep, goats and bison.

The station also serves as a hands-on lab for students at the LSU School of Veterinary Medicine and the LSU College of Agriculture.

On a warm Wednesday in July with the heat index reaching triple digits, five vet students suited up in overalls and gloves to their shoulders to conduct reproductive tests on cows. The students travel from Baton Rouge to Franklinton twice a month throughout the year to gain experience working with dairy cattle.

“It’s been working well. They use this to train their students, and we benefit by having that expertise to evaluate the cattle if one’s sick or looks like she’s not feeling well and do pregnancy checks,” Hutchison said.

4-H or FFA members interested in showing cattle can purchase show quality calves born at the station and sold at local auctions. The station also hosts the state 4-H dairy cattle judging contest during 4-H University and hosts and conducts state FFA dairy cattle judging each year. Faculty and staff at the station also help put on workshops on cattle grooming and showmanship for youth.

As sure as the sun rises, farm workers at the station, along with all the dairy producers in the area, will be out daily milking their herds, producing the staple that will grace our morning cereal, temper a cup of coffee, be churned into butter, or processed as cheese, ice cream and other delights.

About 15 percent of the milk produced at the station is used to create the ice cream served at the LSU AgCenter Dairy Store.

Tobie Blanchard is the director of Communications at the LSU AgCenter.

(This article appears in the fall 2021 issue of Louisiana Agriculture.)

Alt text: Holstein dairy cows in their stalls

Cows grazing: Cows graze in a barn at the Southeast Research Station. The station has conducted research on improving forage for dairy cattle raised in the South’s hot climate. Photo by Tobie Blanchard

Alt text: 6 people standing in front of a dairy barn

LSU School of Veterinary Medicine students participate in clinicals at the Southeast Research Station. Left to right are Kaela Turner, Cassidy Zanca, Matt Goins, Ashley Finney, and Claire Hughes and Dr. Matthew Welborn, professor and clinical services chief with the LSU School of Veterinary Medicine. Goins, a veterinary medicine student at University College in Dublin, spent the summer of 2021 at LSU. Photo by Tobie Blanchard

11/24/2021 3:19:14 PM
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