Educating Idaho’s dairy industry


TWIN FALLS — Sometimes Mireille Chahine can tell what’s wrong with Bessie’s diet just by watching the cow walk.

When a cow’s diet isn’t balanced, acid builds up in its stomachs, causing toxins that can affect its hooves, she said.

Chahine is the University of Idaho extension dairy specialist at the Research and Extension Center on the College of Southern Idaho campus.

Being able to identify early indications of a problem is key to preventing serious problems in a dairy herd, she said. But knowing such information is only half her job.

The other half is “extending” that information to those who need it, she said.

Chahine is one of three extension dairy specialists in the state. Some of her research takes place in a lab, but most of her work is done on southern Idaho dairy farms.

Research and extension has led to a better understanding of what dairy cows go through to produce milk, she said.

“Cows must be treated well or production will suffer,” Chahine said. And in the dairy industry, production is what it is all about.

Nine million cows today produce 59 percent more milk than 25 million cows produced 70 years ago, she said.

Or, in simple terms, one cow now produces the same amount of milk as 4.5 cows produced then.

In turn, the carbon footprint of the dairy industry decreased 63 percent, she said.

Chahine’s research is valued by the dairy industry, said Tony Vanderhulst, president of Idaho Dairymen’s Association.

Vanderhulst owns Westpoint Farms, a dairy operation near Wendell.

The dairymen’s association occasionally sponsors Chahine’s research, said Executive Director Bob Naerebout.

“We financially contribute to some of the work she does in educating dairy workers,” Naerebout said.

Chahine was born in Beirut, Lebanon, studied in Spain, then came to the U.S. 16 years ago. She earned a doctorate at the University of Minnesota and has been a faculty member in the UI Department of Animal and Veterinary Science for 10 years.

She’s fluent in four languages, including Spanish, which helps her communicate with local dairy workers.

While nutrition plays a huge role in the health and production of a dairy cow, other factors contribute to its overall well-being, Chahine said.

She teaches dairy workers all areas of dairy management, “such as how to identify a sick animal, how to properly follow a milking routine, how to identify if a cow has feet problems, how to appropriately mix feed in a mixer and how to raise healthy calves,” she said.

According to industry sources, a typical milking herd of 100 cows consists of 92 healthy cows, four cows that have recently given birth and four cows with special needs. In addition, 70 to 90 replacement heifers wait in the wings.

The natural life of a cow is 12 years or more, Chahine said. But the life of a dairy cow is shorter.

“Dairy cows spend two years maturing, then three or four years producing,” she said.

Once a cow’s production rate begins to decrease, the cow is sold for meat. And a replacement heifer takes the culled cow’s place in the milking parlor.

This doesn’t mean that the cow is “spent” or “dry,” she said.

“Dairy cows go into the food supply while still healthy,” Chahine said.