Other universities are doing the same, or looking for other ways to cut costs, as high feed, fuel and labor prices make it difficult to keep animals during tight economic times. The sales are taking place despite growing enrollment in agriculture programs. The herds are mainly used for faculty research.
The University of Vermont plans to sell its 255 Holsteins and have faculty do their work on private farms that could be paid $20,000 a year for three years, said Tom Vogelmann, dean of UVM's College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. The farmers would benefit from the added income, while researchers would have access to more cows, possibly in more modern facilities.
"We're really excited because we feel that this is really a new model that land-grant institutions can work toward," Vogelmann said.
Most land-grant universities face similar challenges, he said, as the cost of keeping animals increases faster than the price of milk or state funding.
A minority of schools are discontinuing their herds but all institutions are looking at the costs of keeping their animals, said Jim Linn, vice president of the American Dairy Science Association.
"It is a major cost, and we try and offset some of those costs through research and teaching dollars but again it's more costly than plant sciences," said Linn, who is department head for animal science at the University of Minnesota, which, like the University of Michigan, is selling one of three herds.
Cows also will go on the auction block at the University of Kentucky, which hopes to reduce its herd from about 140 animals to about 100 by September. Along with being squeezed by low milk prices and costly upkeep, the school has run out of room to spread manure as other agriculture programs expand, said Nancy Cox, director of the Kentucky Agricultural Experiment Station and associate dean for College of Agriculture.
Kentucky had hoped to move its herd to a new facility at Eastern Kentucky University about 30 minutes away but money isn't available right now to build it, Cox said.
"We are losing money," she said. While the universities aren't into dairying to make money, many sell their milk to try to recoup some of their costs.
"Certainly the economy that's affected dairy farming in general has affected us and it's not sustainable," Cox said.
On top of that, states have been reducing funding for land-grant universities for about 20 years or longer, said Paul Hassen, a spokesman for the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities. That has only accelerated with the budget problems in many states.
Rutgers University opted to combine its herd with one at the University of Delaware, about two hours away, about eight years ago.
"We were facing the same sorts of difficulties and compounded with that was our dairy herd was housed in an old barn that was not the latest technology for teaching dairy science and so what we had was an expensive operation that wasn't even a good model of what the 21st century dairying is all about," said Larry S. Katz, director of Rutgers Cooperative Extension.
Rutgers moved its cows to Delaware's more modern dairy facility, and it now raises their offspring, the young females called heifers. Rutgers has focused its research on heifers' behavior, bedding and nutrition. When the animals have grown enough to be ready to produce calves, they move to Delaware, which specializes in dairy production research.
"It's worked out fantastic," Katz said. "In the old barn, we had about 40 cows that we were milking, and the various heifers of different ages. We now, at times, we've had as many as 180 animals on our campus for the students to work with."
Another plus is that Rutgers is nearly breaking even with its costs, he said.
UVM sees the sale of its herd and shift from centralized research as an opportunity to do more research, not less, Vogelmann said. The savings from not maintaining the herd - about $225,000 - will go into research possibly on forage, animal nutrition, environmental effects, and heifer and calf rearing.
While the school will keep 65 cows at its farm for research and its hands-on Cooperative for Real Education in Agricultural Management program, faculty will have access to many more.
"Before we were sort of limited to 255 animals for research trials," Vogelmann said. "But if you look at an hour's driving radius around here, that number is multiplied tenfold."