Michigan State University Breaks Ground on State-of-the-Art Dairy Facilities

On April 12, 2024, Michigan State University (MSU) initiated construction on their new MSU Dairy Cattle Teaching and Research Center. This $75 million endeavor marks a pivotal step forward, enabling researchers, students, and staff to embark on more ambitious ventures than ever before. The expansion of the dairy facility underscores the university’s commitment to fostering diverse research initiatives, while simultaneously enhancing the educational journey for students.

Dr. Barry Bradford, Professor in the Department of Animal Science and C. E. Meadows Endowed Chair in Dairy Management and Nutrition, explained “There has been a lot of discussion here on the farm’s design, and there are no absolute right or wrong answers. When considering all the trade-offs, we ended up making decisions that we feel will be most beneficial to the industry.” Dr. Bradford is one of three faculty leads, alongside Annette O’Conner, Chairperson of the Department of Large Animal Clinical Sciences and Professor of Epidemiology, and Wei Liao, Professor in the Department of Biosystems & Agricultural Engineering.

The MSU dairy currently milks 220 dairy cows and supports the research of faculty in the colleges of Agriculture and Natural Resources and Veterinary Medicine. With the expansion, the new dairy will have the capacity to hold 688 cows. There will be 32 tie stalls and around 550 milking cows. According to the timeline, the aim is to have cows producing milk in the new facility by the end of 2025. The main cow barn features a double twelve parallel parlor, two robotic milkers, twelve-cow pens for management research, and automated feed bins to feed specific diets and measure feed intake of 96 individual cows in freestall pens.

“There is nothing on Earth that you can build once and it’s going to serve you forever,” states Dr. Bradford. “We provide a lot of solutions within reproduction and genetics, nutrition, etc. and if we don’

t reinvest in the facility that lets us do that research, it disappears. Now we can continue and grow in those areas of strength research-wise to answer questions about the best way to do things in those spaces.”

The capacity for expansion creates opportunities for greater learning and research opportunities. More than doubling the herd size not only accommodates more research projects but also introduces new technology for enhanced data collection accuracy. MSU has never before utilized replicated pens to observe animal groups, despite many instances where it can be beneficial to study a group opposed to individual cows. Another exciting feature is the automated feed bins that give researchers the ease to precisely evaluate the cow’s feed intake. The two robotic milkers are another key area of research and learning opportunity where students can study the variations between a free flow or managed flow system. There is also additional space near the parlor for veterinary students to practice surgeries and cattle evaluations.

“The dairy industry has advanced well beyond the center’s current capacity, particularly in regard to research potential and teaching modern production practices,” said Doug Freeman, interim dean of the College of Veterinary Medicine. “As we train the next generation of veterinarians, the center will allow them to develop significantly enhanced skills in dairy production medicine, which will enable them to serve clients and better protect local and global food systems.”

The visitor center boasts expansive glass windows, providing an up-close view of cows in the parallel parlor. Additionally, the main building includes classrooms for 80 students, a conference room, laboratory spaces, work areas for graduate students, staff offices, and locker rooms. The dairy plans to offer public tours for observing its operations. Some parts of the old facility, such as the feed storage area, the digester, and one of the cow barns, will continue to be utilized.

“This cutting-edge facility isn’t just modern,” Dr. Conner said. “It’s a testament to how we can commit to aligning our teaching programs and our research programs with the industries that we are seeking to serve.”

The University hopes to attract the attention of students with an interest in dairy to the brand new facilities and expansive learning center. “Having a nice, safe facility for students to work in will hopefully draw talented people who have an interest in dairy,” Dr. Bradford said. “This will have a direct impact on Michigan’s dairy industry as most producers recognize that if we’re only hiring people that grew up on dairy farms, we will be short of employees. We have to find ways to make this an attractive career path for people that are not from farms.”

Not only will the new dairy impact the industry by recruiting more talent into the field, but it will also be a facility unlike anything in the country. “I like to focus on holistic sustainability. People hear sustainability and, instantly think of environmental impacts, and that’s a part of it. But with this new facility, we can build a strong program around finding the best ways to minimize environmental footprint of dairy production while doing it in a profitable manner, and in a way that lets us get along with our neighbors. The design of our new research facility allows us to do all of that, making it one of the few places in the world that will have it all together in one place,” explains Dr. Bradford.

This project wouldn’t have happened without the support of many partners. MMPA played a role in supporting the building of the new dairy. Dr. Bradford shared, “The reason the Michigan legislature supported this is because MMPA and over 50 other agriculture organizations collectively got behind the need for a new dairy.”

With support from partners like MMPA, MSU is able to continue to share their vision for excellence in sustainability and the circular agricultural economy.

“This new dairy facility will stand as a testament to the power of partnerships,” said Kelly Millenbah, dean of the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources. “These spaces for research, education and outreach will serve Michigan’s farmers and develop tomorrow’s workforce, and we’re so grateful for this investment in the future of agriculture at Michigan State.”

This article was originally published in the May/June 2024 issue of the Milk MessengerSubscribe »