It is difficult to have a diet that is rich in all the components needed for healthy living. Many, including myself, turn to supplements to make up for what’s lacking in our diets. Modern food producers are looking for new ways to add nutrients to food products. This value-added is taking interesting turns in the milk production industry.
Adding supplements to food is not a new idea.
For almost 100 years, Vitamin D has been added to commercial cow’s milk in response to the rise in malnourished children and adults with insufficient amounts of this essential nutrient in their diets. Today another nutritional shortcoming of the Western diet has been identified. Despite having plentiful amounts of fat, the Western diet is lacking in a specific group of fatty acids called omega-3s, touted for their benefits to heart and brain health. Food manufacturers have started fortifying commonly consumed foods, including breads, cereals, and eggs, with these essential fatty acids.
The Benefits of DHA
One crucial fatty acid, is the omega-3 derivative, docosahexaenoic acid (DHA).
The benefits of consuming DHA omega-3 are
- Enhanced cognitive function and learning ability in children
- Benefits for children with attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
- Lowering the risk of developing cardiovascular and Alzheimer’s diseases
- Lessening severity of depression.
The diet of mothers affects the content of DHA in breast milk. Adequate supplies of DHA are required for infant development.
Making up for the Shortfall
Supplementing the diets of food producing livestock with DHA-rich microalgae sources has successfully produced DHA-enriched meat and milk from livestock such as pigs and poultry. Now focus has turned to ruminants and the production of DHA-enriched food.
Cow’s milk is picking up Omega-3s in more ways than one
Milk produced by today’s dairy cattle has less omega-3 fatty acids than in the past when all livestock was pasture based. For this reason, researchers are looking to add the Omega 3s to dairy cattle diets with the intent of raising the proportion of healthy fats in the milk produced.
Studies Are Reporting Significant Results
Studies in 2008 (Boeckaert et al.) and 2012 (Stamy et al.) have examined the effects of feeding algal meal, high in DHA, on feed intake, enteric methane production, and milk parameters. It has been demonstrated that feeding algal meal may inhibit voluntary dry matter intake and reduce milk fat concentrations (Moate et al., 2013).
Results from a Trial Study in Italy
In a recent trial in Italy, researchers examined the effects of feeding algal meal (Algae STM) on milk production and milk composition of lactating dairy cows. Maurice Boland (Alltech) reports as follows:
“The study was carried out with 36 Italian Friesian dairy cows in their average-late stage of lactation. Cows were allocated into two homogenous groups of 18 animals each, where the treated group received the supplementation (6 g/kg DMI) of the test product for 84 consecutive days mixed into one component of the TMR (corn meal), while the control group had received the same amount of corn meal without a test product.
The results of the study showed that the treatment with algal meal did not change the body condition scores and live weight tended to be a little higher for those cows. . Specifically “Milk protein content and production, lactose content and production, urea and somatic cell count were unaffected. The algal meal (Algae STM) significantly affected the milk fatty acid profile, increasing milk DHA (% of FA) from 0 to 0.37%. The researchers concluded that algal meal fed in a TMR to dairy cows enriched milk with beneficial DHA and increased conjugated linoleic acid. Milk yield increased; while milk fat and fat production declined without significant change in four percent fat corrected milk.”
DHA inclusion in the diet could also increase reproductive efficiency in the herd.
Another happily anticipated side effect is that, in addition to the benefits for animal and human health, DHA could help bovine reproduction. Maurice P. Boland is the research director for Alltech. He reports that current studies using DHA in lactating cows are aimed at enhancing the quality of the uterine epithelium that could modify and attenuate the release of prostaglandin F-2a. This could ensure a higher pregnancy rate because of the better maternal recognition of pregnancy and the subsequent maintenance of pregnancy. The implications are huge for the dairy industry. Better reproduction starts the process off better, and laboratory studies are confirming that there could also be benefits in the post-pregnancy health of dairy cattle that receive DHA.
DHA Improves Immune Function of Dairy Cattle
After dairy cows deliver their calves, several immune functions — such as white blood cell proliferation and production of disease-fighting antibodies — are depressed. Recognizing this, the development of new feeding strategies in which the fatty acid composition of the diet is manipulated in order to prevent immune suppression after calving should contribute to decreased infection and disease in dairy cows. Preliminary results in the laboratory indicate that ALA (alpha-linolenic acid) and EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) can reduce immune stress as shown by decreased TNF-α (tumor necrosis factor-a) production in cultured blood cells from cows.
If these results can be repeated in the field, then strategic supplementation of early-lactation dairy cows with selected omega-3 PUFA may lead to improved health and reproductive efficiency. Such improvements could represent an annual savings of over $2 billion dollars through improved reproductive efficiency and reduced veterinary costs for treatment of postpartum metabolic disorders. These savings would undoubtedly improve the sustainability and profitability of U.S. dairy operations.
The Bullvine Bottom Line
One hundred years ago adding Vitamin D to milk had a profound impact on human nutrition. Modern dairy research is taking strides in further increasing the nutritional value of milk. As that process builds, much is being learned about making a positive contribution to the health, reproduction and performance of dairy cattle. It’s a winning formula that starts at the farm feed bunk and continues to enhance nutrition beyond the kitchen table.