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Open Access Research article

Milk yield responses to changes in milking frequency during early lactation are associated with coordinated and persistent changes in mammary gene expression

Emma H Wall12, Jeffrey P Bond3 and Thomas B McFadden145*

Author Affiliations

1 Department of Animal Science, University of Vermont, Burlington, 05405, USA

2 Current address: Department of Medicine, University of Vermont, Burlington, VT, 05405, USA

3 Vermont Genetics Network Bioinformatics Core, University of Vermont, Burlington, 05405, USA

4 Department of Agricultural, Food and Nutritional Science, University of Alberta, Edmonton, AB, T6G 2P5, Canada

5 Current address: Division of Animal Sciences, University of Missouri, Columbia, MO, 65211, USA

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BMC Genomics 2013, 14:296  doi:10.1186/1471-2164-14-296

Published: 2 May 2013



The lactating mammary gland responds to changes in milking frequency by modulating milk production. This response is locally regulated and, in dairy cows, the udder is particularly sensitive during early lactation. Relative to cows milked twice-daily throughout lactation, those milked four-times-daily for just the first 3 weeks of lactation produce more milk throughout that lactation. We hypothesized that the milk yield response would be associated with increased mammary cell turnover and changes in gene expression during frequent milking and persisting thereafter. Cows were assigned to unilateral frequent milking (UFM; left udder halves milked twice-daily; right udder halves milked four-times daily) on days 1 to 21 of lactation, followed by twice-daily milking for the remainder of lactation. Relative to udder halves milked twice-daily, those milked four-times produced more milk during UFM; the difference in milk yield declined acutely upon cessation of UFM after day 21, but remained significantly elevated thereafter. We obtained mammary biopsies from both udder halves on days 21, 23, and 40 of lactation.


Mammary cell proliferation and apoptosis were not affected by milking frequency. We identified 75 genes that were differentially expressed between paired udder halves on day 21 but exhibited a reversal of differential expression on day 23. Among those genes, we identified four clusters characterized by similar temporal patterns of differential expression. Two clusters (11 genes) were positively correlated with changes in milk yield and were differentially expressed on day 21 of lactation only, indicating involvement in the initial milk yield response. Two other clusters (64 genes) were negatively correlated with changes in milk yield. Twenty-nine of the 75 genes were also differentially expressed on day 40 of lactation.


Changes in milking frequency during early lactation did not alter mammary cell population dynamics, but were associated with coordinated changes in mammary expression of at least 75 genes. Twenty-nine of those genes were differentially expressed 19 days after cessation of treatment, implicating them in the persistent milk yield response. We conclude that we have identified a novel transcriptional signature that may mediate the adaptive response to changes in milking frequency.