Improving Dairy Cattle Reproduction
CALS student works to improve reproductive performance of dairy cows
Four mornings a week, Whitney Sandberg wakes up at 3 a.m. to travel from Moscow to Pasco, Washington, where she spends her day on a 12,000 head family-owned dairy farm.
Sandberg, who is pursuing a master’s degree in animal science from the University of Idaho’s College of Agricultural and Life Sciences, is conducting research at the Pasco dairy on various methods of estrus resynchronization — a manipulation of the reproductive process. By resynchronizing estrus, or heat, cows can be artificially inseminated in a timely manner, which improves their reproductive performance.
Her research focuses on developing protocols to achieve estrus resynchronization that reduces the amount of animal handling, the number of injections and the cost and labor associated with existing protocols that are often more complex. Decreasing these factors, in turn, increases protocol compliance standards.
“We are working to make everything more efficient and easier for dairy producers,” Sandberg said.
Sandberg collects blood samples from about 50 cows on four days of each eight-day protocol, which will later allow her to determine the concentration of hormones in their blood. She hopes the data will be ready to analyze before the end of December 2020. She will investigate how the hormone levels affect the cows’ fertility at the beginning, middle and end of each period.
The goal of Sandberg’s research is to help improve reproduction efficiency in dairy cattle, which is critical to any operation’s economic viability.
“It’s really eye-opening to be able to see that we can actually make a difference in not just one dairy producer, but in dairy producers all over the country, that we can actually help them remain viable for years to come,” Sandberg said.
Discovering A Passion for Dairy Science
Sandberg is working under the supervision of Amin Ahmadzadeh, a professor of dairy science in the Department of Animal, Veterinary and Food Sciences. Ahmadzadeh was Sandberg’s academic advisor for her undergraduate degree in animal and veterinary science, which she earned from U of I in May 2019.
Sandberg is grateful for the opportunity to continue working with and learning from Ahmadzadeh during her graduate program.
“He takes every single chance that he possibly can to make it into a learning moment to teach us something,” Sandberg said.
Ahmadzadeh received funding for the project from the Idaho Agricultural Experiment Station and Zoetis, a large producer of medicine and vaccinations for livestock. He is proud of Sandberg’s ability to effectively manage the project and admires her thirst to learn.
“I can train a student how to do things, but I cannot train them to have enthusiasm, optimism, energy,” Ahmadzadeh said. “She has all the above.”
Sandberg, who is originally from Mountain Home, said her interest in agriculture began at a young age when she started horseback riding. Knowing she wanted to pursue a career in agriculture, Sandberg decided to attend U of I. But it wasn’t until the summer after her freshman year when she completed a weeklong internship on a dairy farm in southern Idaho that she discovered her passion for dairy science.
“I did everything from feeding calves, herd health checks, milking cows and learning how to use their record systems — pretty much everything you would do on a normal dairy operation,” Sandberg said. “That’s when I knew I wanted to continue studying and eventually working in the dairy industry.”
Since then, Sandberg has continued developing her expertise in dairy science in various ways. She competed in the North American Intercollegiate Dairy Challenge in 2019, attended the U.S. Dairy Education Consortium in New Mexico and works at the U of I Dairy Center helping manage and care for the animals.
When she graduates with her master’s degree in May 2021, Sandberg hopes to move back to southern Idaho to help dairy farmers in the area with reproductive management.
Article by Jean Parrella, College of Agricultural and Life Sciences
Photos provided by Whitney Sandberg
Published in July 2020