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Thomas Overton

Thomas Overton

Professor; Chair, Department of Animal Science; Director, PRO-DAIRY

149 Morrison Hall
(607) 255-2862

The objective of my total program is to enhance the productive efficiency and profitability of dairy farm businesses in New York and beyond. My major emphasis is on the portion of the lactation cycle during which cows "transition" from late pregnancy to early lactation because it is the most critical period in terms of productive efficiency, health, reproductive performance, and overall well-being of dairy cattle. Substantial economic losses to the dairy industry occur as a result of compromised production, increased veterinary costs and culling, and delayed reproductive performance as a result of suboptimal transitions to lactation. The metabolic underpinnings of this transition are not well understood, and the dairy industry needs further insight into nutritional and managerial strategies to optimize productivity and health of cows during the transition period. The long-term goal of my research program is to enhance our understanding of these critical metabolic adaptations that must occur if cows are to successfully transition to lactation and to develop nutritional and managerial strategies that can be applied within the dairy industry to improve animal well-being and the profitability of dairy farm businesses. This research program provides the foundation for my extension program, which topically is oriented toward nutrition and management of dairy cows during this timeframe in the lactation cycle. The major programmatic emphasis of my extension program is to deliver these programs to agriservice professionals, dairy farm owners, and dairy farm employees in New York. In addition, I provide primary leadership to short courses in dairy nutrition for agriservice professionals and to major outreach efforts focused toward dairy farm owners and employees in conjunction with our PRO-DAIRY program. Finally, as Director of the PRO-DAIRY program at Cornell, I provide leadership within both statewide and regional efforts (NY Center for Dairy Excellence, Northwest NY Regional Dairy, Field Crops, and Livestock team of Cornell Cooperative Extension) to positively impact the dairy industry in our rural NY communities.

Research Focus

The primary objective of my total program is to support the productive efficiency and profitability of dairy farms in New York and beyond by focusing on developing management strategies to improve the well-being of dairy cows. My major focus within this program has been to increase our understanding of the metabolic changes that occur in dairy cows as they “transition” from late pregnancy to early lactation and develop ways to translate this knowledge into improved cow health and productivity on farms. This timeframe is generally considered to be the most critical of the lactation cycle of dairy cows because of increased risk for health disorders and because overall well-being of cows during this period largely determines subsequent productive and reproductive performance during lactation.

Recent research efforts in our group have determined that insulin resistance is an important metabolic adaptation that occurs in dairy cows during the transition period; however, modulation of specific aspects of insulin action through approaches similar to those used to treat Type II diabetes in humans may offer opportunity in cows to fundamentally decrease risk for health disorders. Other recent research efforts have focused on the relationships between specific aspects of nutritional management with health-related outcomes during this period, including how nutrition influences immune function and postpartum uterine health.

An important component of this program is the conduct of research in cooperation with dairy farms in New York. Recent efforts conducted with partner dairies have focused on determining whether physiological markers of stress or immune function can be used to predict cows that subsequently have health disorders or compromised well-being during the transition period and early lactation. We believe that these approaches will enable dairy producers to target opportunities for improved management of transition cows on their farms in the future. In addition, we determined in partnership with New York dairy farms that frequent milking of dairy cows during early lactation only can result in improved performance without detrimental effects on cow health and that dry period length of high producing cows can be shortened without affecting subsequent performance or health.

Outreach and Extension Focus

The major emphasis of my extension program is to work with agriservice professionals (nutritionists and veterinarians), local extension staff, and dairy farm owners, managers, and employees to enhance the profitability and sustainability of the dairy industry in New York and beyond. Most of the emphasis is driven directly from my research program in aspects of nutrition and health of dairy cattle, to the point where the on-campus and off-campus efforts are seamlessly connected. Off-campus efforts include conduct of industry-based research that involves our team, participating dairy farms, and the agriservice professionals that work with these farms. These efforts also combine with knowledge gained from on-campus research efforts for numerous presentations to the dairy industry in New York and beyond through conference, seminars, and workshops for both agriservice professionals and dairy producers and their employees. In addition, as Associate Director of Cornell Cooperative Extension and Director of the PRO-DAIRY program at Cornell, I provide leadership to both statewide and regional efforts to positively impact the dairy industry in our rural NY communities. The impact of the program can be gauged in part by the volume of activity and numerous invited presentations at both industry- and university-sponsored conferences and seminars as presented elsewhere in this document.

Teaching Focus

The focus of my teaching program is to enhance students' understanding of the principles of health and nutritional management of dairy cattle, with particular emphasis on the integration of real-world application with these principles. In addition, the senior capstone course that I teach focuses in part on orienting students to emerging issues that impact the dairy industry.