Kansas State University animal scientists have discovered that reducing the inflammation caused during birth of a calf may be the key to helping a dairy cow recover more quickly and go on to a more productive life.

Early findings in a study that began more than a year ago indicate simple anti-inflammatory drugs — similar to an aspirin for humans — could help increase the cow's milk production by as much as 10 percent within a year, compared to current trends of lactating dairy cows.

"I compare the dairy cow at the beginning of lactation to somebody who has been a couch potato for two months and then goes out and decides to run a marathon," said Barry Bradford, associate professor of animal sciences and industry. "The energy requirements of a lactating dairy cow, even though she's doing very little exercise, are quite comparable to somebody running a marathon and actually a little bit higher. There's that much milk being produced."

Despite the increased energy needed to produce milk, many cows will stop eating shortly after giving birth.

"That becomes a crisis scenario because you have the marathon energy demand, coupled with an actual drop in energy intake," Bradford said.

The cow's self-imposed starvation leads to a condition called ketosis, a metabolic response that is harmful to humans but initially beneficial to cows because it allows them to use nutrients called ketones, which partially replace the need for glucose to support brain function.

Longer term, however, ketosis also leads to poor productivity and fertility in the dairy cow, which are all the negative things that producers try to avoid, according to Bradford. As many as 40 percent of cows who have given birth have at least a mild case of ketosis that causes the negative symptoms, he said.

A simpler solution is to just eat after giving birth, Bradford says, but that isn't so simple when the cow resists the feed bunk. Typically, he said, it takes three to four weeks for cows to adapt to eating enough to match their milk output.

Bradford said that Kansas State University's research has uncovered some evidence that inflammation caused by giving birth is at least partly to blame for the cow's fussy eating.

"One of the big changes that is part of early lactation is probably tenfold increases in the blood markers of inflammation, even in cows that look perfectly healthy," Bradford said. "It's not that shocking; they just pushed out a 100 pound calf."

One promising finding in Kansas State University's research is that giving the cow a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug — a NSAID — on the first day after birth increased the cow's milk production by 7-10 percent.

"There was no effect in the first four weeks, but one year after giving a single pill, that cow was making more milk," Bradford said. "We don’t understand yet why that worked, but based on that finding, researchers are now able to study mammary biopsies to understand if we reprogrammed the mammary gland."

The researchers also have now veered from explaining the problem solely as a metabolic disease and are focusing on reducing inflammation right after birth.

"There is no evidence that this is hurtful to the cow," Bradford said. "If you can get 7-10 percent more milk from a cow, that's a large sustainability issue for the industry. We are using less resources to make more gallons of milk."

The university's work is in the early stages and would need additional testing and, ultimately, approval by the Food and Drug Administration before becoming part of standard practice for dairy producers.

The research was funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Bradford said additional studies are being supported by a grant from the National Science Foundation.