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Implementing smarter milk farming in Chesco

Walt Moore's 850 cows lounge on beds of soft sand. They are cooled by spritzes of water and breezes generated by fans. They eat a custom-blended diet of gourmet grains that a computer tells Moore will suit them best.

Two of the 850 cows at Walmoore Holsteins Inc., in Cochranville, Pa., on Aug. 21, 2014. ( CLEM MURRAY / Staff Photographer )
Two of the 850 cows at Walmoore Holsteins Inc., in Cochranville, Pa., on Aug. 21, 2014. ( CLEM MURRAY / Staff Photographer )Read more

Walt Moore's 850 cows lounge on beds of soft sand. They are cooled by spritzes of water and breezes generated by fans. They eat a custom-blended diet of gourmet grains that a computer tells Moore will suit them best.

He orders sophisticated analyses of their rations and manure, getting the results on his iPhone, synced to his watch.

Each cow wears a collar with a computer chip that keeps track of her milk production, nearly four times that of the cows his father once tended, not to mention those his great-grandfather started the family farm with in 1909.

Moore's Chester County farm is so markedly different from the operation he took over from his father, Bill, that the elder Moore jokes: "Oh, my goodness, I don't know if I'll live long enough to learn how to farm or not."

All this is not so much to coddle the cows as it is to make them better citizens of the planet.

Cows have long been castigated for their methane-belching, manure-producing ways, one of agriculture's top contributors to climate change.

In its 2012 inventory of greenhouse gas emissions, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency fingered the methane emissions of "enteric fermentation" - the digestive process of animals with multichambered stomachs - as second only to emissions from natural gas and petroleum systems.

Dairy cow emissions in particular are so problematic that they have received the attention of the White House. President Obama's Climate Action Plan, released in March, proposed cutting methane emissions from the U.S. dairy industry by 25 percent by 2020.

Pundits scoffed. One headline: "Barack Obama and His EPA Make War On Dairy Cows." But the idea had already taken hold seven years earlier when the U.S. dairy industry pledged the same goal.

After analyzing the dairy production chain, farm to fridge - or, as some like to say, grass to glass - they zeroed in on the cow's gut, launching a massive effort involving farms and universities.

They call it the Cow of the Future project. The aim is a super-cow, a star athlete of the bovine world that produces far less methane and, while she's at it, far more milk.

"We want it to be more productive. We want it to be healthier. We want it to be a problem-free cow," said Juan Tricarico, director of the project.

To that end, cows and all of their processes have gone under the microscope. Their feed, their genes, their daily living conditions have been analyzed.

They have been fitted with gas-collecting backpacks and even had gas-analysis gear inserted into their stomachs.

"In a certain sense," Tricarico said, the methane "is the price that we have to pay to transform inedible cow feed - something that you and I cannot consume and get nutrition from - into milk."

Indeed, "if we got rid of cows, we'd have this tremendous problem with crop residues that we can't digest," said James Ferguson, a nutritionist at the New Bolton Center, the large-animal campus of the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine, in Kennett Square.

"We really need to think about a food web, a food network, of how we feed people and how nutrients move through the system," Ferguson said. "Herbivores - cows - are a really important step in this process."

Cows have already come far since the heyday of the daisy-bedecked Elsie, the Borden's mascot.

As of 2007, the nation had about a third of the dairy cows it had in 1944, yet they produced more than half again as much milk. And they did it using 90 percent less cropland and 65 percent less water. They also made 75 percent less manure and 63 percent less emissions, a Cornell University study found.

There's still room for improvement.

At Pennsylvania State University, researchers are experimenting with feeding cows oregano - a winner among about 200 plant and herbal compounds they tested to see if any would reduce methane production.

At New Bolton, where about a dozen staffers are working to make cows better, Ferguson and others are have devised software that develops recipes fine-tuned almost to individual cows - or groups of similar cows.

A farmer enters data including the cow's age and size, what kind of barn she's in, whether she's ever in a pasture or mud, and even how hot the weather is (a cow can get heat-stressed at 70 degrees).

Out pops an optimal feed formulation for the 100 or so pounds of food each cow eats in a day, washed down by 30 gallons of water.

Penn's Zhengxia Dou - a rare soil scientist on the faculty of a veterinary school - is investigating whether a cow's feed can be tweaked to make her produce custom manure that matches the nutrient needs of different crops.

"Typically, they don't match," she said. Nutrients that wash off farm fields and into streams, where they cause algae blooms, have become a major water-quality issue.

Other researchers are exploring a version of a cow probiotic that would change the microbes in its stomach. They are investigating cow genetics to see if they can breed more efficiency into the dairy herd.

This is a big deal in Pennsylvania, which ranks fifth in the nation for dairy.

The cows at WalMoore farms in Cochranville are among 535,000 in the state that produce about 1.2 million gallons of milk.

His farm incorporates much of what researchers have learned.

His milking parlor runs 24 hours a day, with the exception of two down periods to clean the facility.

Cows in their prime get milked three times a day instead of twice. This more closely resembles a natural cycle, Moore said, and results in 10 percent to 15 percent higher milk production.

To have the cows lactate longer - they require the same care whether they are producing milk or not - they are bred at a younger age and more often than yesterday's farmers thought possible. "That's research," Moore said. "That's understanding."

He also uses bovine hormones to extend the peak of a cow's lactation. He knows some consumers object to it, but "if they want to look at it as a carbon-footprint issue . . . it's making the cow more efficient."

A recent "cow of the month" - he profiles her for the farm newsletter - was producing about 17 gallons a day.

The feed itself is part of "a big recycling process," Moore said. "We take the feed out of the fields and get two products - milk and manure. Milk goes to the consumer. The manure we store and reapply as fertilizer. We're analyzing all of it" so it stays in balance.

Moore also has devised systems to improve the sustainability of the farm overall. The sand bedding is not only comfy for the cows; it's inorganic, so it doesn't grow bacteria, and it can be used over and over, after a sunshine and rain cleansing process of about 30 days.

Milk that comes out of the cow at 100 degrees runs through pipes cooled by 58-degree well water. The warmed water - 75 to 80 degrees - is ideal for the cows to drink. A refrigeration unit finishes the milk-cooling process, and the waste heat from that preheats water for washing the milking parlor.

"When I was 6 years old, I told my mom and dad I wanted to go to Penn State and take agriculture and come back and take over the farm," Moore said. "And here I am."

His ultimate goal is to have the farm "available for the fifth generation, if they want it."