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the solution suggested by Andrei works on my side in gazebo2 on trusty if the <max_contacts>100</max_contacts> is put in the .world config after the physics tag (not in the urdf)

but I looked deeper to understand why the service to set physics properties does not work. I found the reason and this is a problem only before gazebo 3.0. From gazebo_ros the set physics properties service calls the generic PhysicsEngine setMaxContacts which does not in turn call the derived ODEPhysicsEngine setMaxContacts due to a mismatch between the arguments types between the class and its parent class (double vs unsigned int) This fix and the following probably solved the issue in gazebo 3.0

recompiling gazebo2.2 from source with the double to unsigned int worked for me, I could set max contacts with the set_physics_properties