News & Advice

Healthier herds a sustainable outcome, too

Jan 16, 2023 | Cognosco, Dairy, News, Working at Anexa

Richard Rennie, Farmers Weekly
A top researcher’s field may not be as sexy as sustainability, but it’s having a huge effect on the ground.

Dr Scott McDougall of Cognosco has overseen some of the most significant clinical trials in dairy production.


The bucolic Waikato dairy town of Morrinsville is about as far from an ivory tower as one can get, but this suits dairy researcher Dr Scott McDougall fine, knowing he is close to the cows and their farmers. Both have benefitted from his 20-plus years of practical, respected dairy production research.

He has headed up the low-profile Cognosco Animal Health & Production Research company in the town for much of that time, overseeing some of the most significant clinical trials in dairy production and health, with findings that are now part of industry best practice.

With more than 7,000 citations of his academic papers in the past eight years alone, McDougall’s work has been absorbed as much by his veterinary peers as by his farmer audience.

Talking easily to both academics and farmers is a rare ability, but McDougall has it, communicating the science and practicalities of dealing with dairying’s challenging triplets of mastitis, poor fertility and antibiotic resistance.

In the process he has contributed greatly to improved dairy cow welfare, production and ultimately sustainability over the largest growth phase the New Zealand dairy industry has ever experienced.

“I have never wanted to be in an ivory tower. I am always conscious I am spending someone else’s money with the work we do, often farmers’ money, and wanting to do stuff that is relevant to them as end users. That’s always been a big driver, to solve real problems on real farms and communicate to help farmers,” said McDougall.

His interest in livestock was sparked after he took a year off from veterinary studies at the University of Sydney and spent it working on a vast north eastern Tasmanian sheep and beef station.

I had done my thesis on wallaby reproduction, which funnily enough proved to be a good fundamental training  for livestock reproduction.”  

It was a faxed job offer back in 1990 from his academic idol, dairy scientist Jock McMillan, that drew McDougall across the Tasman to work at the nascent Dairy Research Corporation as the corporation’s first PhD student.

“That early work, focusing on the key causes of seasonal dairy cow anoestrus, was an exciting time. We were using early ultrasound technology to try and better understand follicle formation in cow ovaries.” 

He learnt that egg-bearing follicles come in waves, and it is not their absence but the lack of hormonal support to sustain them long enough that often causes cows to be anoestrus.

With that knowledge they were able to significantly enhance CIDRs (controlled intravaginal drug release), a tool farmers were already using with varied success to lift cow fertility at mating.

Adding hormone treatment at each end of CIDR use significantly lifted its performance. With that the likelihood of a treated cow getting in calf at first mating went from 36% to 48%, with CIDRs proving to be highly economic even at very low payout levels.

McDougall’s 2009 trial work on 2500 anoestrus cows using CIDRs remains one of the definitive examples of a clinical trial delivering direct, measurable success that is still relevant to farmers today.

His work on managing mastitis better in the national herd was prompted after the average bulk somatic cell count started to lift nationally from a respectable 170,000 to over 200,000. This had a serious impact on milk quality and a rising level of herd mastitis problems.

It also coincided with a massive surge in dairy cow numbers through the early 2000s.

“We found farmers were getting big problems with mastitis in first-calving heifers from environmental Strep uberis bacteria, something we had never really seen before with rates as high as 30% in some herds.”

His teams’ work identifying bacterial infections on a bulk and individual animal basis lent much to understanding the infection’s nature and helping push it back down again using non-antibiotic teat sealants prior to heifers calving to block infection entry.

Previously teat sealants had only been used when drying cows off in autumn.

“We found it worked beautifully, reducing infection rates by three quarters, and saved a lot of heifers.”



He counts the work as something he is most proud of, particularly the many practical innovations that came from it including in-paddock heifer holding pens to administer sealant, and training technicians on the tricky job of administering the sealant.

His work on studying antimicrobial resistance in dairy cows has also helped dairy farmers better target their use of antibiotics at drying off, helping to keep use tighter and prolonging the industry’s ability to use the drugs without resistance developing.

“We have proven that good stewardship and practices mean resistance is minimal and doesn’t appear to be getting any worse.”

Meantime McDougall is excited by the emergence of new talent and technology to help meet dairying’s challenges around the environment.

He acknowledges his nuts-and-bolts research may outwardly appear to be out of research “fashion”, as the industry focuses on sustainability and environmental practices.

However, McDougall’s work has also ensured dairying’s sustainability,  helping farmers keep their herds healthy, fertile and by default far more efficient than if infertile and ill.

Meantime, he also intends to keep dialogue with his valued farmer subjects flowing.

“As the late Arnold Bryant said, you have not done your job if you have not communicated your science – it is no use unless farmers and vets are using your research.”

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