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Q&A: WSU animal scientist helps Northwest dairies

Posted by | June 23, 2016
Researching improvements to help dairy farmers, WSU animal scientist Joe Harrison, left, holds a vial of phosphorus-based fertilizer derived from manure (WSU Photo).
Researching improvements to help dairy farmers, WSU animal scientist Joe Harrison, left, holds a vial of phosphorus-based fertilizer derived from manure (WSU Photo).

On the farm and in the lab, Joe Harrison works to improve the Northwest’s dairy industry.

As an animal scientist and Extension specialist at Washington State University’s Puyallup Research and Extension Center, he helps develop better nutrition for dairy cows, improve milk production and shrink dairy farming’s environmental footprint.

Below, he answers questions about how WSU dairy science betters the industry.

How long have you done dairy research?

My entire career. I grew up on a 10-acre hobby farm. My parents raised cows. I did my graduate work at Ohio State with an emphasis on dairy science. I’ve been at WSU for 31 years.

What issues are you working to solve?

We’re doing our best to improve cow nutrition and look for efficiencies. We also need to find ways to assist producers to manage their manure and have minimal impact on the environment.

When we feed cows better, we get more milk production. Some feed improvements can mean a smaller environmental impact. We’ve found that when we do a better job of meeting nutritional requirements for cows, they give more milk, so farmers have better efficiency.

What are you doing to lower environmental impacts?

My major focus is capturing excess phosphorus from manure in a form that’s easily transported from the farm to where it’s needed, including as fertilizer for crops. I also evaluate regulations, read documents and provide feedback and professional judgment on the science behind regulation.

What’s something that might surprise people about the work you do?

Ideas start at WSU, but a lot of what we do gets translated through advisors in the industry. We may discover something at WSU’s Knott Dairy Farm or the west side of the state that gets implemented through a company in the Midwest. By the time it gets here, producers might never know it actually originated at WSU.

What makes WSU’s dairy program special?

It’s not so much our size as the quality of the educational experience that a student gets at WSU. One of the unique things we have is CUDS.

In Cooperative of University Dairy Students, or CUDS, students work together to feed, milk and breed their own herd of dairy cow. They’re in charge of monitoring herd health, vaccinations, and a variety of management treatments.

What does the future of the dairy industry look like?

We have lots of opportunities to increase milk production, whether it’s more milk per cow, or more cows. Right now, the cost of production versus the price of milk is a real challenge. Some producers are struggling to stay in business, and a lot of it comes down to world market prices. There is a lot of product shipped to the world. In Washington, however, cow numbers are stable. Dairy producers in the Northwest have always been progressive and adaptive, and I think we will continue to see a stable dairy industry in Washington.

What’s kept you doing this for 31 years?

What gets me up every morning is the discovery process. That’s what I enjoy most: trying to find new information, asking questions as a biologist, and discovering what’s going on.


Contact: Joe Harrison, Animal Scientist and Extension Specialist, WSU Puyallup, (253) 445-4638,