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3 Open Minutes with Dr. Ken Nordlund

Progressive Dairyman Editor Peggy Coffeen Published on 17 October 2014

ken nordlund

If cows could talk, they would say “thank you” to Dr. Ken Nordlund.



From calf barn ventilation to freestall design to transition cow recommendations, Nordlund’s research at the University of Wisconsin – Madison was the basis for many of the gold standards that can be seen today on dairies across the country and around the world.

The University of Wisconsin School of Veterinary Medicine recently announced Nordlund’s retirement, yet his work will continue to revolutionize the dairy industry.

Progressive Dairyman Editor Peggy Coffeen caught up with Nordlund to reflect on his 25-year tenure as a veterinarian, researcher and educator.


What have been the three greatest achievements of your career at UW?


Nordlund: I’m reluctant to respond to terms like “greatest achievements” and would prefer to talk simply of work.

I was very involved in developing a rumenocentesis test in the early 1990s, at the time when subacute ruminal acidosis (SARA) was really rampant. We developed a needle test with rumen fluid and some group testing guidelines. Veterinarians started using this test. Later in the 1990s, ration changes came along that reduced the prevalence of that problem.

I have also been pleased with the transition cow index (TCI). TCI is a mathematical way to calculate fresh cow performance, which marks fresh cow health. It gives us an objective way to measure the quality of transition cow management on a farm.

Traditionally, when dairies had fresh cow problems, they tried to solve them with their rations. While doing TCI field studies, we identified that the big risks associated with TCI were insufficient feedbunk space, undersized freestalls, hard mattresses in stalls and excessive social regrouping around the point of calving.

A lot of this information has become accepted in the industry, and it all came out of the TCI studies. Until that point, all we were talking about was energy, fiber and calcium. TCI has been patented by the UW and marketed in Wisconsin through AgSource and nationally through Zoetis. It’s also used in eastern Canada and more recently in Switzerland.

The third thing I look back on has been the interest in ventilation. Because of a field trial, we started applying positive-pressure tube systems to naturally ventilated calf barns, and we were astonished at the way that technique has been adopted by the industry.


Literally thousands of barns have been retrofitted or new barns built with these tube systems. They are becoming standard across the upper Midwest and the Northeast. We’ve worked with dairy producers from Virginia to Texas to Washington, and there is a lot of interest in Germany, Finland, Japan and other places around the world.


Who has inspired you most throughout your career?

Nordlund: There were two individuals who were really inspiring to me as a young man. One was a veterinarian named Dr. Leon Weaver, who spoke at a number of veterinarian meetings in the late 1970s.

He was a veterinarian in California, and he is now a dairyman in Ohio. The other is a consulting nutritionist I worked with directly, named Tom Sawyer. He had a huge impact on me learning to think about the herd rather than individual sick cows.

Also, the dairy farm families we have worked with through research programs at the UW have been great. We’ve conducted research trials on over 180 different dairy farms who opened their doors and schedules to participate in these trials. We benefit from that directly, and we think they benefit in the long run. Certainly, the industry overall benefits from the generosity of those farms.


What part of your career has been the most rewarding? Most challenging?

Nordlund: The most immediate rewards are the teaching things – the pleasure of working with these enthusiastic young vet students, and longer-term, some of these research efforts (mentioned above) have been immensely rewarding as we see various things adopted around the industry. As far as the most challenging, those enthusiastic vet students at times are challenging.


What changes have you seen in the way we house and handle dairy cattle?

Nordlund: From my observations over the years as we transitioned from a stanchion and tiestall industry to a predominantly freestall-based industry, one interesting philosophical thing that comes up is that people often think dairy farmers make all decisions based on minimizing costs.

Yet when we started talking to dairy producers about larger stalls and reduced stocking rates, frequently the strongest objections came from various farm advisers, saying that would raise the cost, but as we interacted with the dairy farms, most of the dairy farm families just want to do the right thing for their animals.

Cost control was important, but they wanted to do the right thing for the beast first. Fortunately, we are still in an age where doing what is best for the animals is usually rewarding financially. That might change at some point, but right now, we are still in that phase where it is a win-win for the cows, calves and their owners.


What do you see as the greatest opportunities and challenges that lie ahead in dairy animal health and well-being?

Nordlund: Lameness is both the biggest challenge and the biggest opportunity. We’ve made a lot of progress, but the big opportunity for the dairy industry is reducing the prevalence of lameness. Lameness control is fundamental.

If more than 10 percent of the herd has an elevated locomotion score – and that is the majority of herds – there are huge opportunities for fixing that. Until lameness is really controlled, you cannot get good transition cow or fresh cow health, good reproductive performance or really high production. Nothing else works well if the cows are not walking well.

The average prevalence of lame cows in herds exceeds 25 percent. There is a tremendous opportunity to get that down to less than 10 percent. That’s what herds should be striving for.

If you go to the highest-performing herds in the state, you will find very high milk, very low turnover rates and very successful reproduction, and supporting all of that will be an extremely low prevalence of lameness. Achieving anything desirable with a lame herd is almost impossible.


If you could offer dairy producers one piece of advice, what would that be?

Nordlund: When making decisions about managing a dairy, do what is right for the cow, not necessarily what is most convenient for labor or what is cheap.

I must also make a pitch for veterinarians. One of the struggles of our profession right now is that at veterinary schools, we think we can provide excellent fundamental training, but these young vets need a lot of practical experience they can only get on farms doing basic procedures. As farms get larger, many of those basic procedures are being performed by farm staff or herdspeople.

It is getting to be more difficult for young, new graduates to get that basic experience. It’s worth it to the industry to have good, full-trained veterinarians who go into a role of being an adviser to management and helping out with herd-level problems, but they still need basic farm experience. I invite dairy farmers across the industry to look for ways to get involved with helping to train these young people.


With your colleague Dr. Nigel Cook, you co-founded the Dairyland Initiative. Has this project fulfilled your vision?

Nordlund: We had expectations, but it has grown way beyond what we expected. Now, there are just under 3,000 active users from 15 to 20 countries worldwide. The volume of activity is astonishing to us. We have had wonderful supporters.

Key among them being Dean Foods, which funded a grant that supports staff and gives access to dairy farmers across the U.S., and Zoetis, which gave us a grant that offers free access to veterinarians all around the world.

The workshops have exceeded our expectations tremendously. We thought there might be 50 to 60 people who might be interested in the ventilation workshops. Now, we have more than 300 people around the world who have been in these training programs. Recently, groups from Germany and Japan have been here to learn about ventilation systems.


Where does the Dairyland Initiative go from here?

Nordlund: Who knows where this will go from here? I am not a good predictor; I am a better responder to problems.

Originally, we had a vision for Wisconsin. Right now, we are dealing with a lot of questions and requests out of western Europe as the quota system is changing and they are looking for the most advanced dairy housing ideas.


What’s next for you?

Nordlund: I will continue on with emeritus status at UW on a very limited basis. I have a couple of research projects I will be finishing up, and I will continue to do some public speaking through DLI and have a number of trips planned throughout the U.S. and Europe.

I have six grandchildren, so I will be seeing more of them. I am an active gardener, have a strong interest in photography, do a lot of reading and some bicycling. I do plan to occasionally show up on dairy farms and plant myself on the farm and take pictures.

A number of those farm families who have helped with our field research projects in the past may get my phone call once in a while where I ask if I can hang around the farm with my camera. PD

peggy coffeen

Peggy Coffeen
Progressive Dairyman