AFTER spending more than a decade decoding the important health-promoting components of breast milk, a team of researchers in the Foods for Health Institute at the University of California-Davis (UCD) is now doing the same for cow's milk, finding potential benefits both for human health and the U.S. dairy industry.
Focusing on a group of naturally occurring milk compounds called glycans, the researchers are identifying molecules that — like those in mother's milk — interact with beneficial bacteria in the infant's gut to ease digestion, prevent inflammation and even fight cancer.
Their research recently received two more votes of confidence from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in the form of a $4.2 million grant from the National Center for Complementary & Alternative Medicine and a $2.7 million grant from the National Cancer Institute.
The first grant is led by David Mills, a professor and the Peter J. Shields endowed chair in dairy food science in the UCD department of food science and technology, and the second is led by Yu-Jui Yvonne Wan, a professor and vice chair for research in the department of pathology and laboratory medicine with the UCD Health System.
"We're working to better understand all of the bioactive molecules in milk, particularly those that promote growth of naturally occurring microbes in the intestine and, in general, boost human health," said Mills, who is collaborating on both grants.
Mills and his colleagues are concentrating on glycans because they selectively feed beneficial intestinal bacteria and block disease-causing microbes from gaining a foothold.
"In babies, these milk compounds interact with very specific infant-borne bacteria called bifidobacteria to reduce inflammation, boost immunity and restore calm to these very fragile infant intestines, especially in premies," Mills said.
He noted that knowledge of the mechanisms involving how these compounds function also will have tremendous applications for other life stages and health circumstances, including during chemotherapy treatments, for obesity management and for dealing with irritable bowel syndrome or inflammatory bowel disease.
"Given that we are working with cow's milk as a source of these bioactive molecules, there is the opportunity to scale up this process, especially with molecules that are derived from whey and other dairy byproducts," Mills said.
In the two NIH-funded projects, the researchers are working with Hilmar Cheese Co., a California manufacturer of both cheese and whey proteins, to obtain specific bioactive compounds from cow's milk in a scale large enough for animal studies. Findings from these studies will help determine if glycans in cow's milk provide the same protective functions — functions that would be helpful to a range of fragile intestines.
"As a company focused on delivering the nutrition in milk, we fully support research that will help further identify and understand the bioactive components of milk," said Tedd Struckmeyer, vice president for engineering at Hilmar Cheese.
The research team is hopeful that findings from these studies of milk-based compounds can be rapidly developed into products capable of enhancing human health.
"Given that milk is already a food, development of health-promoting compounds from milk would not involve the years of testing that are required when developing new therapeutic drugs," Mills said, adding that the research also will likely benefit the U.S. dairy industry by identifying and increasing value in whey and other milk byproducts.
University of Georgia researchers are currently studying drought-tolerant alternative forages to help the state's dairy producers safeguard their feed supply and save money.
Dr. John Bernard, an animal and dairy scientist on the University of Georgia's Tifton Campus, is studying the benefits of forage sorghum as a supplemental feed for dairy cattle since it is a drought-tolerant alternative to the irrigated corn that many farmers rely on for dairy feed.
"Corn silage is typically the forage of choice for feeding dairy cattle because it is a higher-energy type of forage compared to most other forages," Bernard explained. "The catch with corn is, if you don't have irrigation, you've got a greater likelihood of crop failure or not getting the quality ... you were expecting.
"Forage sorghum, on the other hand, is much more drought tolerant; it doesn't take as much water to grow a crop. With the improvements in forage varieties, the feeding value looks very good. It's still not corn silage, but it's a much better option today than what it was several years ago," he said.
Sorghum is not only more resilient but is also less expensive to plant and grow, according to the researchers. The cost to plant corn is approximately $200-300 per bag of seed, which covers just more than two acres, while a bag of forage sorghum seed can cost less than $100 and can be distributed over 8-10 acres. Additionally, the cheaper planting costs are boosted even more by forage sorghum's high nutritional value.
"In no way do I want to advocate forage sorghum to replace corn silage completely," Bernard said. "I want to evaluate how we can use the two to get the best response back in terms of our feeding program."
The two-year research trial just concluded its second year. Due to Georgia's long growing season, forages can be harvested twice each year.
In the first year, Bernard reported that results from the seven-week trial indicated that dairy diets based on forage sorghum "harvested from regrowth can support similar milk yield and composition as diets based on corn silage or first harvest of forage sorghum.
"Forage sorghum, by design, will tolerate periods of drought or lower water availability better than corn and still produce good forage in terms of yield and quality," Bernard added.
Over the next couple of months, Bernard said he plans to analyze the data generated from this past harvest.
Hawaii dairy approved
Hawaii Dairy Farms (HDF) announced Nov. 25 that Kauai County, Hawaii, has approved the building permits for its grass-based dairy farm after the Hawaii Department of Health completed its animal feeding operation review.
The original proposal of 2,000 cows on site was modified in July to 650-699 cows.
"By completing this positive review without requirement of an environmental assessment, the regulatory agencies have also protected all small-scale animal farmers on private land from the significant financial burden of doing an (environmental assessment) for any planned expansion or new operations," explained Kyle Datta, general partner for the Ulupono Initiative, HDF's funders. "It was the right thing to do for agriculture in Hawaii, and we appreciate the regulators' diligence in this decision-making process."
Although HDF has obtained the right to develop the farm, HDF recognizes that there is community concern over the potential impact of the dairy on the environment. To alleviate concerns, HDF is voluntarily conducting the highest environmental scrutiny standard of an environmental impact statement (EIS) prior to construction of any dairy facilities on the farm and will submit the EIS to the Hawaii State Department of Health, which will be the accepting agency.
"By going directly to an EIS, we are demonstrating our commitment to work with the community to address its concerns based on facts, not fears," Datta said. "As a matter of good faith, we pledge not to undertake the construction of the dairy buildings, utilities or effluent ponds until after the regulators have accepted the EIS."
He added that during the review period, HDF "will continue to maintain our pastureland and install fencing, as allowed by" the Natural Resources Conservation Service-approved conservation plan.
"We know some members of the community are concerned about the perceived impacts of the cow manure. We will work with experts from across the state, along with the community, to do an EIS to confirm that our farm is a superior method of farming that will regenerate soil quality and improve the overall environmental quality of the area," Datta said.
Located on 578 acres in Mahaulepu, Kauai, HDF is Hawaii's first zero-discharge grass-fed dairy. The operating budget is projected to be about $6 million annually to support Kauai's economy.