The dairy industry in Nevada almost died out a couple decades ago when milk distributors would only buy from giant farms. More recently, the industry has enjoyed resurgence, partly buoyed by cooperative ventures and scientific research.
Today, the state has 28 dairy farms — 22 in the Fallon area alone — producing 620 million pounds of milk per year.
In 2013, the Dairy Farmers of America opened a milk plant in Fallon capable of processing 1.2 million pounds of milk per day into powdered milk, much of it shipped to Asian markets. It will take more milk production for the plant to reach capacity or to meet demand for its product.
While organizations such as the DFA are working on attracting more dairy ranchers to northern Nevada, the University of Nevada, Reno, is conducting research to increase production through better nutrition for each cow.
Antonio Faciola, an assistant professor at the University of Nevada, Reno’s Agriculture, Nutrition and Veterinary Sciences Department, is exploring new feed sources, the nutritional value of plants and an overall understanding of ruminant nutrition.
His lab is fine-tuning the diet of Nevada cattle, Faciola said.
“Since I moved to Nevada, we’ve conducted seven different experiments,” he said.
Faciola, a native of Brazil, earned his doctorate in dairy science from the University of Wisconsin-Madison before moving to Nevada in 2013 to continue his research at UNR. He teaches fundamental and advanced animal nutrition.
Through his research on feed, his team has successfully identified canola meal — which is leftover after the extraction of canola oil — as a nutritional substitute for more traditionally used soybean meal.
Dairy cows fed canola meal as a supplement to their diet increased milk production by an average of two pounds a day, he said.
“It’s rich in protein,” he said. “It’s a very good source of protein.”
The cows also processed nitrogen in the canola meal better than soybean feed. Excess nitrogen excreted in cow urine creates an environmental hazard.
Faciola has already made recommendations that ranchers use canola meal.
“We’ve had a very good response,” he said, pointing out that it can be hard to find.
Nevertheless, Desert Hills Dairy in Yerington has incorporated canola meal into the feed it gives its dairy herd, he said.
The UNR research program also is researching forage foods, both examining the nutritional content of traditional forages and identifying forage plants that would be more productive in Nevada’s normally dry climate, now exacerbated by drought.
In early trials, kochia, which is in the tumbleweed family, looks promising as a forage food for both dairy and beef cattle.
While cattle nutrition is of primary importance in Faciola’s research, making ranches better neighbors by reducing gas emissions is also getting research attention. Wherever cattle congregate, methane and ammonia emissions can become atmospheric problems.
Faciola’s team measures the chemical composition of different forages and feed ingredients, the fermentation during rumination and the production of microbial protein and nutrient flow.
“The goal is find out which diet produces the least gases,” he said.
Gases are measured both from live cows at UNR’s Main Field Station and in beakers at the Animal Nutrition Research Laboratory at UNR. The centerpiece of the lab’s equipment is the dual-flow continuous culture system that simulates rumen digestion.
“We can test feed without a live animal and measure the gases,” he said.
Faciola’s research department currently has 16 students, including undergraduate, master’s and doctoral levels.
“It’s good training for students,” he said. “It’s very important. Students didn’t have (the research classes) before I arrived.”
With a new generation advancing the science of dairy farming, the industry can expect a profitable future.