A Big-City Ag High School Blossoms

It’s just after lunch at Milwaukee Vincent, and students are settling into their two-hour Advanced Animal Science class. Using their fingers to write on an electronic whiteboard, they quickly assign themselves animal care tasks. There is much to keep them busy.

While some kids clean the rabbit and chinchilla cages, others try to hold the hedgehog without getting pricked or feed the 1,000 crickets purchased for conducting breeding experiments. (They eat fresh vegetables.) The classroom is abuzz—not with the beehives located a few hundred yards away outside—but with talk about the newest member of the menagerie, a goat named Susan. A half dozen students head out to the pole shed that now accommodates Susan’s pen. Water sloshes out of the five-gallon buckets students pull in a wagon toward the goat, the 26 chickens and the two ducks. The refrigerator is already full of eggs, but kids find seven more under one broody bird.

Forty-two buses bring students to the 70-acre North Side campus from all parts of Milwaukee. While the school was built in the late ’70s to focus on international studies, agribusiness and natural resources, it has strayed from that specialization over the past few decades.

But new life is being breathed into the school’s original mission, in part due to the infusion of funding through a USDA grant obtained by the University of Wisconsin–Madison to develop an agricultural curriculum at the high school. This, plus four new ag teachers and a principal who is dedicated to the school’s agricultural roots, are starting to turn things around.

“Agriculture may sound like an unusual choice for a big-city high school, but our expansive campus and, more importantly, significant career opportunities in the field, make for a strong match,” says principal Daryl Burns. “All the agricultural pathways help students build the skills needed for in-demand STEM careers and the skills needed for success in almost any career, as well as in college and in life.”

Each freshman is required to take a yearlong Introduction to Agricultural Sciences class. Students can then pursue four different pathways: Animal Science, Horticulture Science, Food Science and Environmental Science. A three-room greenhouse is back in use, and an enormous vegetable garden, chicken coop, animal room, apiary and aquaponics facility in which fish and plants are grown together have been added.

And the school has been renamed Vincent Agricultural High School. Gail Kraus, an agricultural outreach specialist, is helping the Milwaukee Public Schools initiative to see Vincent grow into its new name. Now in her fourth year there, she is funded through the CALS-based Dairy Coordinated Agricultural Project grant.

“This transformation will provide Vincent students the opportunity to engage in hands-on learning that builds the necessary knowledge and skills for one of Wisconsin’s largest industries,” says Kraus.

Much of the inspiration for bringing the school back to its roots comes from CALS agronomy professor Molly Jahn, who had visited and was impressed by the Chicago High School for Agricultural Science (CHSAS). There, students clamor for enrollment space because of its curriculum and reputation as a safe school that promotes academic excellence.

“We want Vincent to be as desirable to attend as CHSAS,” says Jahn. “Through the new ag curriculum, students may be prepared for jobs right out of high school or go on to college to study things they would not otherwise have been exposed to. I envision the day when the ag curriculum at Vincent will be used as a model for other urban high schools in Wisconsin and elsewhere.”

Some Vincent students have completed the college application process. Jeremy Shelly, a senior who is a member of the National Honor Society, wants to become a veterinarian. Dawson Yang is aiming for UW–Green Bay.

“I took the Intro to Environmental Sciences class here and loved it,” says Yang, who also likes to hunt, fish and camp. “I want to study environmental sciences and maybe one day work for the Department of Natural Resources.”

The Science Farm

ON A STILL AND WARM SUMMER MORNING, as scientists drive along the dirt roads that crisscross the Arlington Agricultural Research Station, the fields sweep in a green carpet to the horizon.

This land some 20 miles north of Madison was once part of the vast Empire Prairie, a sea of grassland that stretched south to the Illinois border. So high and thick were those grasslands, history tells us, that they could swallow a rider on horseback.

Named by settlers from New York in the 1830s for their home state, the prairie and its rich soils would prove to be ideal for growing corn and other row crops that are the mainstays of modernday agriculture. And today, the region is home to hundreds of farms, some of which date back a century or more.

It makes sense, then, that this place with its productive soils and old farms would also be home to a most unusual agricultural endeavor— a 26-year-old research project aimed at bridging the gap between past and future farming practices. It’s called the Wisconsin Integrated Cropping Systems Trial, or WICST for short.

On 60 acres of land at the CALS-based Arlington Agricultural Research Station, university researchers from a number of departments within CALS are doing big science with tractors and combines and manure spreaders. Clad in blue jeans and work boots instead of lab coats, these scientists are engaged in ambitious longterm research that is relying upon the study of the ancient soils of the Empire Prairie to point the way toward a sustainable agricultural future.

From this effort, started in 1989 by an idealistic and insightful young agronomy professor named Josh Posner, has come research that shows farmers can both run a sustainable farm and grow enough food to play a significant role in feeding a burgeoning world population. It is important, forwardlooking work at a time when many farmers face an uncertain economic future as well as changing climatic conditions that are only going to heighten the risks associated with bringing a crop to harvest or livestock to market.

“It’s among the most important farm-scale research being done in the UW system,” says Dick Cates PhD’83, associate director of the CALS-based Center for Integrated Agricultural Systems, the administrative home for WICST.

Cates, who also owns and works a managed grazing farm near Spring Green, praises WICST for the quality of its research as well as its unusual long-term approach to studying varied approaches to farming. He uses the research in teaching young farmers in a program he helped found, the Wisconsin School for Beginning Dairy and Livestock Farmers.

The science on sustainable practices particularly resonates with younger farmers, Cates says: “They understand long-term consequences.”

Research at WICST has been conducted on fields that are farmed using three cash grain and three forage-based production systems common in the Midwest. They include 1) conventional corn; 2) no-till corn-soybean rotation; 3) organic corn– soybean–wheat rotation; 4) conventional dairy forage; 5) organic dairy forage; and 6) rotationally grazed pastures. In 1999, Posner added plots devoted to the study of switchgrass and diverse prairie, which has allowed for grazing and bioenergy studies nested within the bigger experiment.

Toiling in their plots at Arlington, WICST researchers (including a steady stream of graduate students) have compiled an impressive archive of publications showing that sustainable farming practices, such as managed grazing and crop rotation, make sense from both economic and ecological perspectives.

They’ve studied everything from the effect of alternative crop rotations on farm profitability to soil health and carbon sequestration. They’ve tallied earthworms and ground beetles. They’ve analyzed weed populations. They’ve learned more about manure than you would suspect is possible.

Among their key findings:

• Organic- and pasture-based farming systems have been the most profitable cropping systems at WICST.

• Organic systems produced forage yields that were, on average, 90 percent of conventional grain systems and as high as 99 percent in two-thirds of the study years.

• Over a 20-year period, all five grain and forage cropping systems— except for grazed pasture—lost significant soil carbon to the atmosphere.

It’s a record that would have impressed and pleased the late Posner, who died in 2012. It is rare for any conversation about WICST not to lead eventually to Posner and his pioneering idea of a decades-long research project dedicated to the science of agricultural sustainability.

Posner, who held a Ph.D. in agronomy and a minor in agricultural economics from Cornell University, had conducted significant sustainability research from South America to West Africa before coming to the University of Wisconsin–Madison. His interest in agriculture grew from his work as a Peace Corps volunteer in Cote d’Ivoire, Africa, in a school gardening program.

Posner was hired by UW in 1985 to coordinate a UW research program in Banjul, The Gambia. He arrived in Madison in 1987 and began teaching and research in the Department of Agronomy. In 1993, he and his family moved to Bolivia, where he led a UW research program on sustainable agriculture for several years. From 1998 to 2001, he directed CONDESAN, an international agency based in Lima, Peru, to support sustainable mountain agriculture across the six Andean countries in South America.

Posner’s widow, Jill Posner, who still lives in Madison, recalled that her husband first started thinking about the project that would become WICST while working in West Africa with farmers who grew crops without the benefit of modern-day fertilizers and pesticides.

“There was a real link between what he was doing in Africa and the low-input systems he wanted to study here,” Jill Posner says. “It was one of those things that he always kept on the back burner. No matter where we were, he was always thinking about that connection.”

In 1988, Posner, a focused and persuasive scientist, would pull together the team that created WICST. His plan was to establish a research project that would compare sustainable land management practices, organic agriculture and traditional approaches. And the project would be ambitious in both size and duration. Research would be conducted on a scale that approximated the conditions on an actual farm. The science would stretch over not just a year or two but decades. Wherever Posner’s work took him around the world, he continued to oversee WICST, reviewing the plans and results and returning to Madison to connect with his research team at least twice a year.

That Posner would propose such an audacious project didn’t surprise those who knew him. He thought big, recalls Dwight Mueller, director of all UW Agricultural Research Stations— and Posner saw something else that many others didn’t fully understand at the time: The eventual emergence of organic and other conservation-minded farming as powerful and necessary trends.

“If you knew Josh, you might have had an inkling,” says Mueller regarding Posner’s long-range vision of field research that would meet the challenges posed by increasingly stressed resources. This was a time, Mueller notes, when crop farming largely meant planting year after year of corn with little rest for the soil. And organic agriculture was thought of by many as a hobby or possibly a passing fad.

“‘Organic’ was a dirty word when we started,” says Mueller.

Randy Jackson, a CALS agronomy professor and grassland ecologist who now leads WICST research and has been involved in the project since 2003, says the crop experiments played an important role in bringing science to bear on organic and other sustainable practices. For such practices to become more widely accepted, it was important to demonstrate that these grain and forage production systems could yield as much as conventionally managed systems in most years, he says.

The two main questions posed by Posner are still in play at WICST, says Gregg Sanford, a research scientist in the Department of Agronomy who has worked on WICST since joining Posner’s lab as a graduate student in 2004: Whether organic agriculture would be able to provide enough calories to feed the world and whether agroecology, or sustainable farming, would be embraced as economically feasible.

Key to the project was its scale, its focus on the long horizon and its collaborative nature, Sanford explains while driving along the project’s dirt lanes.

Conducting the research on the scale of an actual farm-sized operation in large plots has proven a boon, Sanford says, because it lends more validity to the science. Farmers tend to take the results more seriously when they know that the research had to be conducted in the face of the same challenges they face—everything from bad weather to insect infestations to equipment breakdowns.

This element of the research project becomes immediately clear on a visit to Arlington. There is little doubt that this is a working farm with its crops, grazing livestock, and sheds and barns, where begrimed farmhands coax tractors and cultivators and other equipment into working order.

The true-to-life nature of the research is strikingly apparent in annual reports that are similar to the notes kept by scientists in their laboratory notebooks but refer instead to the vagaries of storm and drought and insect scourges.

In a report from 2011, for example, Posner and researcher Janet Hedtcke reported “unseasonable cold well into May resulting in delayed start to the cropping season.” We find out that “in late September, strong winds knocked down a lot of corn, especially the organic corn, which was tall, had big ears way up high, and thin stalks,” they wrote, referring to a particular cropping system treatment.

Or there is the 2012 report, in which Hedtcke laments that crops and livestock endured extreme heat and drought. “Springtime,” she noted, “arrived early with temperatures soaring to above 80 for eight days in March.” Then one can hear the relief of a real farmer when she writes that, after a dry June, “an unforgettable and precious soaking rain came on July 18.”

Such challenges make conducting the research much like farming itself. “We’ve had years where we’re trying to get manure applied and it starts snowing on us,” Sanford says.

“We’ve had years where we’ve had complete crop failures because of the rain.”

But there is a twist, of course. The harvest at Arlington isn’t just of crops but also of science. A lost crop year represents a loss of crops, but it also provides a critical piece of data in a realworld experiment that shows how risky growing particular crops can be.

Even so, the length of the project has allowed researchers to weather the ups and downs. And the many years of data collection have paid off in ways that traditional science, conducted over periods of months or maybe a year or two, has trouble duplicating.

“It has shown the value of a longterm project,” says Mueller. “That can’t be overestimated. There are things you learn only by having a trial for a long time.”

Jackson says such long-term research is crucial when studies involve dynamics that unfold over a period of years or longer. He cites climate impacts as an example.

“It allows us to separate the vagaries of interannual climate variability and actual directional changes,” Jackson says.

Also, natural systems can be slow to respond to change, Jackson notes. Sometimes when a particular treatment is applied to a parcel of farmland, the result does not become apparent for two or three years or more.

Both the size and the length of the project have made the data more realistic, says Sanford, allowing scientists to account better for variables thrown their way by weather and other obstacles.

The value of research flowing from WICST has also been enriched by another characteristic built in by Posner with his original plan—the project’s collaborative nature. From the beginning, WICST has involved not just CALS scientists but also farmers, business owners, nonprofits and, notably, UW–Extension educators.

And, as envisioned by Posner, the research on WICST’s 60 acres at Arlington has been conducted across multiple disciplines in CALS, from soil scientists to grassland ecologists to entomologists.

Entomology professor David Hogg, along with his students, has spent long hours on WICST land sifting through the soils looking for links between soil health and insect health.

“It’s a great laboratory for doing this kind of work,” says Hogg. “And it’s unusual.”

Much of the work at the Arlington plots has focused on the soil, the single resource that farmers value more than any other for providing them a living and the world its food.

The science of soil has been approached from many angles by WICST researchers, with a number of surprising and useful results. Among the more eye-opening work has been the study of soil for its ability to store atmospheric carbon to help mitigate the changing climate. This characteristic has thrust agriculture and soil health and management into the climate discussion in a big way, according to Sanford.

The issue has driven much of Sanford’s work with WICST. In fact, the subject of his dissertation was land management and its effect on carbon in soil, where he comments that “the importance of soil in the global carbon budget cannot be overstated.”

Soil, Sanford reports, contains almost twice the combined amount of carbon found in the atmosphere and vegetation globally. Through his work with WICST, Sanford has been able to demonstrate which practices—using cover crops, for example, or increased crop rotation—help keep more carbon in place and out of the atmosphere.

As was Posner’s intent, the science coming out of the WICST fields has found its way into some of the most prestigious scholarly journals—and, importantly, into the hands of farmers. In the best tradition of the Wisconsin Idea, the shared knowledge from the trials has given farmers new tools for improving their yields, boosting the health of their soil, and protecting resources such as water.

Few are more aware of the power of WICST science than UW–Extension county agents, who spend their days in farm fields and barn lots working with farmers and sharing with them the latest knowledge gleaned from university research plots.

“Arlington research has helped greatly with crop production questions,” says Ted Bay, an agricultural extension agent in Grant County.

Bay cites a heightened interest among farmers in soil and water conservation and sustainable practices as reasons for sharing with them the results of the WICST research. More farmers, he says, are asking how they can use cover crops to protect and improve their soil in row crop production. Research from WICST has confirmed the value of using cover crops to protect soil, and provided information on integrating cover crops in grain production systems.

“Farmers are interested in the longterm impact of production practices that WICST research can help explain,” Bay says.

Gene Schriefer, the agricultural extension agent in Iowa County, in hilly southwest Wisconsin, says he’s had Sanford out to talk with farmers about the WICST research. He says farmers, who are nothing if not practical, tend to be more trusting of information that comes from a research program that has stretched over decades.

“Most research is over two or three years,” says Schriefer. “This research has been going on for nearly 30 years. That’s amazing.”

Schriefer sees particular interest among farmers in research that tells them how to return their soils to health and how to keep it in place in the face of storms that are both stronger and more frequent.

“We’re out here in the hills,” Schriefer says, “and any time it rains, there is not a clear stream out here. That’s our soil.”

Such growing consciousness in the farming community of the connections between agriculture and a healthy environment is heartening to researchers such as Sanford. For Sanford and other WICST researchers, it’s a testament to the power of Josh Posner’s vision all those years ago in distant Africa.

Sanford, tooling around the WICST fields on a summer morning in his beatup pickup truck, stops to show off a fading sign that dates back nearly to the start of the research. He notes the prominent mention of sustainability, agroecology and organic agriculture. Staffers, Sanford says, are reluctant to take the sign down despite its age because it is a poignant reminder of Posner’s hope and optimism.

“When Josh built this experiment, he was setting us up to understand how crop yields and soils respond not only to farm management, but also to a changing climate,” says Jackson. “These are critical questions whose answers should guide agricultural production in the 21st century.”

Inspiring Young Farmers, Then and Now

One hundred years ago, two men introduced a piece of legislation to the U.S. Congress that would forever change the future of agricultural education. Senator Hoke Smith and Representative D.M. Hughes, both from Georgia, brought forth the National Vocational Education Act, now known as the Smith-Hughes Act.

The Smith-Hughes Act encouraged establishing vocational agriculture to train individuals “who have entered upon or who are preparing to enter upon the work of the farm.” As such, the legislation created one of the first federal grant-in-aid programs, offering federal aid to states for high school vocational education courses.

Agricultural educators embraced the curriculum and a few short years later, some schools began to form student organizations for male students enrolled in their agriculture classes. In 1928, with interest growing across the country, a group of students gathered in Kansas City and created the Future Farmers of America.

That group, known today as the National FFA Organization, has grown to nearly 650,000 members in all 50 states, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, and encompasses ag-related areas such as communication, food science and genetics. Female students have joined and hold key leadership roles at all levels. No matter the student’s gender, religion or ethnicity, all members share a love of agriculture.

And over the decades, FFA members have been inspired by the words of a Wisconsin educator: Erwin Milton Tiffany, a CALS alumnus and professor of agricultural education. He expressed a love of and vision for agriculture in the form of a creed, adopted at the Third National FFA Convention, that nearly every member learns in his or her first year. The words are powerful, meaningful and passionate. They tell a story of pride and purpose. They are so impactful that many alumni, of all ages, can still recite them today:

“I believe in the future of agriculture, with a faith born not of words but of deeds—achievements won by the present and past generations of agriculturists; in the promise of better days through better ways, even as the better things we now enjoy have come to us from the struggles of former years.”

Tiffany not only wrote the creed, he lived by it and spread the word. As a CALS professor, he taught and mentored other educators who would continue introducing youth to the many opportunities offered in an organization whose mission is to make a “positive difference in the lives of students by developing their potential for premier leadership, personal growth and career success through agricultural education.”

Student members, alumni, agricultural educators and supporters alike all live by an oath penned by a Badger: “I believe that American agriculture can and will hold true to the best traditions of our national life and that I can exert an influence in my home and community which will stand solid for my part in that inspiring task.”

To read the complete FFA Creed, visit ffa.org/about/who-we-are/ffa-creed

Erwin Milton Tiffany, a CALS graduate and ag educator, has inspired millions with his FFA creed. Photo of EM Tiffany courtesy of IUPUI University Library Special Collections / Illustration by Diane Doering

Five things everyone should know about . . . Pulses

1. You’ve eaten them without knowing it. If the word “pulse” as a food leaves you flummoxed, fear not. The word pulse comes from the Latin word “puls,” which means thick soup or potage. No doubt you’ve enjoyed dried beans, lentils and peas in a soup or stew. Pulses are the edible dried seeds of certain plants in the legume family. Soybeans, peanuts, fresh peas and fresh beans are legumes but not considered pulse crops. Some lesser-known pulses like adzuki bean and cowpea play critical roles in diets around the world. Many pulses are economically accessible and important contributors to food security.

2. They’re very nutritious. Pulses contain between 20 and 25 percent protein by weight—twice the amount you’ll find in quinoa and wheat—and next to no fat. Around the world, they are a key source of protein for people who don’t eat meat or who don’t have regular access to meat. Pulses need less water than other crops, which adds to their appeal and value in areas where water is scarce.

3. Pulse crops have other environmental benefits as well. As members of the legume family, pulses are capable of taking nitrogen from the air and putting it back in the soil in a form available to plants. This makes legumes a critical part of any crop rotation and contributes significantly to sustainable farming. Pulses are grown worldwide but are particularly well adapted to cool climates such as Canada and northern states in the U.S.

4. We’re learning a lot about pulses from a recently sequenced genome. Adzuki bean was domesticated 12,000 years ago in China and is one of the most important pulses grown in Asia. There it is known as the “weight loss bean” because of its low calorie and fat content and high levels of protein. A recent genome sequencing collaboration among scientists in India and China revealed that genes for fat were expressed in much higher levels in soybean than in adzuki bean, while genes for starch were expressed at greater levels in adzuki bean. Their findings suggest that humans selected for diversified legumes in their diet—some that would provide oil and others that would provide starch.

5. It’s their year! The 68th UN General Assembly declared 2016 the International Year of Pulses, so now is the time to eat and learn. Events taking place all around the world focus on everything from cooking pulses (sample recipes: fava bean puree, carrot and yellow split pea soup) to growing them and incorporating them into school lunches. Learn more at www.fao.org/pulses-2016/en/.

Dairy Dash Embodies the Spirit of Alpha Gamma Rho

This is one race where cows are welcome—or, rather, people dressed in cow suits.

In just three years, the Dairy Dash has become a campus institution that imbues health and fun times with a serious purpose. The event is held in honor of John Klossner, a CALS sophomore who died of a head trauma following an accident at the 2013 Wisconsin State Fair. All proceeds from the 5K run are donated to the Brain Injury Association.

“John was a gregarious soul who always enjoyed a good laugh. He made friends easily. People naturally gravitated toward him,” recalls his older sister, Kristin Klossner.

Klossner was making his mark at UW–Madison, in particular through his service as a member of Alpha Gamma Rho, the largest social-professional agricultural fraternity on campus. Now marking 100 years at UW–Madison, Alpha Gamma Rho promotes academics along with providing leadership and networking opportunities and fostering fellowship among its members.

Nothing embodies Alpha Gamma Rho’s mission more than the Dairy Dash, which members conceived of and run in Klossner’s honor. Each May over the past three years, some 300 people have turned up to raise money for the Brain Injury Association and honor Klossner’s spirited and giving life. The bovine attire donned by some runners celebrates Klossner’s passion for cows.

Alpha Gamma Rho has been a fixture on campus since April 29, 1916, and to date has had some 1,650 young men as members. The fraternity has been home to some of the top agriculture students on campus—students who continually step up to volunteer and advance agriculture.

One example is the Competitive Edge, an event founded more than 40 years ago to help incoming students and their parents become acquainted with campus and learn about the opportunities available at CALS. The Competitive Edge and other Alpha Gamma Rho scholarship events award some $20,000 in scholarships each year. That number should grow as the fraternity embarks on a $1 million fundraising campaign to expand its educational endowment.

To celebrate the fraternity’s rich history and bright future, more than 375 members and their guests—traveling from 24 states and Canada— gathered at the Madison Concourse Hotel in Madison this past April to renew their collective vision for the future.

Meanwhile, current members of Alpha Gamma Rho have added a deep and meaningful chapter in their history with the establishment of the Dairy Dash.

“After losing John, I learned how close of a family the agriculture industry is,” says Kristin Klossner. “I think he is with us every time we are at the Dairy Dash. We love what the AGR brothers have done and continue to do. The Dairy Dash helps to bring people together.”

To Market, to Market

If you’re familiar with the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences (CALS), you no doubt know all about Stephen Babcock and his test that more than 100 years ago revolutionized the dairy industry by providing an inexpensive, easy way to determine the fat content of milk (thus preventing dishonest farmers from watering it down). What you might not know is that his great discovery went unpatented. The only money Babcock received for his invention was $5,000 as part of a Capper Award—given for distinguished service to agriculture—in 1930.

Just years before Babcock received that award, another entrepreneur was hard at work in his lab—and his discovery would break ground not only in science, but also in direct remuneration for the university.

In 1923, Harry Steenbock discovered that irradiating food increased its vitamin D content, thus treating rickets, a disease caused by vitamin D deficiency. After using $300 of his own money to patent his irradiation technique, Steenbock recognized the value of such patents to the university. He became influential in the formation in 1925 of the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation (WARF), a technology transfer office that patents UW–Madison innovations and returns the proceeds back to the university.

Discoveries have continued flowing from CALS, and WARF plays a vital role for researchers wanting to patent and license their ideas. But today’s innovators and entrepreneurs have some added help: a new program called Discovery to Product, or D2P for short.

Established in 2013, and co-funded by UW–Madison and WARF, D2P has two main goals: to bring ideas to market through the formation of startup companies, and to serve as an on-campus portal for entrepreneurs looking for help. Together, WARF and D2P form a solid support for researchers looking to move their ideas to market. That was the intent of then-UW provost Paul DeLuca and WARF managing director Carl Gulbrandsen in conceiving of the program.

“The idea of D2P is to make available a set of skills and expertise that was previously unavailable to coach people with entrepreneurial interests,” explains Leigh Cagan, WARF’s chief technology commercialization officer and a D2P board member. “There needed to be a function like that inside the university, and it would be hard for WARF to do that from the outside as a separate entity, which it is.”

D2P gained steam after its initial conception under former UW–Madison chancellor David Ward, and the arrival of Rebecca Blank as chancellor sealed the deal.

“Chancellor Blank, former secretary of the U.S. Department of Commerce, was interested in business and entrepreneurship. D2P really started to move forward when she was hired,” says Mark Cook, a CALS professor of animal sciences. Cook, who holds more than 40 patented technologies, launched the D2P plan and served as interim D2P director and board chair.

With the light green and operational funds from WARF and the University secured, D2P was on its way. But for the program to delve into one of its goals— helping entrepreneurs bring their ideas to market—additional funding was needed.

For that money, Cook and DeLuca put together a proposal for an economic development grant from the University of Wisconsin System. They were awarded $2.4 million, and the Igniter Fund was born. Because the grant was good only for two years, the search for projects to support with the new funds started right away.

By mid-2014, veteran entrepreneur John Biondi was on board as director, project proposals were coming in and D2P was in business. To date, 25 projects have gone through the Igniter program, which provides funding and guidance for projects at what Biondi calls the technical proof of concept stage. Much of the guidance comes from mentors-in-residence, experienced entrepreneurs that walk new innovators down the path to commercialization.

“For Igniter projects, they need to demonstrate that their innovation works, that they’re not just at an early idea stage,” explains Biondi. “Our commitment to those projects is to stay with them from initial engagement until one of three things happen: they become a startup company; they get licensed or we hand them over to WARF for licensing; or we determine this project might not be commercial after all.”

For projects that may not be destined for startup or that need some additional development before going to market, the collaboration between WARF and D2P becomes invaluable. WARF can patent and license discoveries that may not be a good fit for a startup company. They also provide money, called Accelerator funding, for projects that need some more proof of concept. Innovations that may not be ready for Igniter funds, but that are of potential interest to WARF, can apply for these funds to help them move through the earlier stages toward market.

“Some projects receive both Accelerator and Igniter funding,” says Cagan. “Some get funding from one and not the other. But we work together closely and the programs are being administered with a similar set of goals. We’re delighted by anything that helps grow entrepreneurial skills, companies and employment in this area.”

With support and funding from both WARF and D2P, entrepreneurship on campus is flourishing. While the first batch of Igniter funding has been allocated, Biondi is currently working to secure more funds for the future. In the meantime, he and others involved in the program make it clear that the other aspect of D2P—its mission to become a portal and resource for entrepreneurs on campus—is going strong.

“We want to be the go-to place where entrepreneurs come to ask questions on campus, the starting point for their quest down the entrepreneurial path,” says Biondi.

It’s a tall order, but it’s a goal that all those associated with D2P feel strongly about. Brian Fox, professor and chair of biochemistry at CALS and a D2P advisory board member, echoes Biondi’s thoughts.

“D2P was created to fill an important role on campus,” Fox says. “That is to serve as a hub, a knowledge base for all the types of entrepreneurship that might occur on campus and to provide expertise to help people think about moving from the lab to the market. That’s a key value of D2P.”

Over the past two years, D2P, in collaboration with WARF, has served as precisely that for the 25 Igniter projects and numerous other entrepreneurs looking for help, expertise and inspiration on their paths from innovation to market. The stories of these four CALS researchers serve to illustrate the program’s value.

Reducing Antibiotics in Food Animals

Animal sciences professor Mark Cook, in addition to helping establish D2P, has a long record of innovation and entrepreneurship. His latest endeavor, a product that has the potential to do away with antibiotics in animals used for food, could have huge implications for the animal industry. And as he explains it, the entire innovation was unintentional.

“It was kind of a mistake,” he says with a laugh. “We were trying to make an antibody”—a protein used by the immune system to neutralize pathogens—“that would cause gut inflammation in chickens and be a model for Crohn’s disease or inflammatory bowel disease.”

To do this, Cook’s team vaccinated hens so they would produce a particular antibody that could then be sprayed on feed of other chickens. That antibody is supposed to cause inflammation in the chickens that eat the food. The researchers’ model didn’t appear to work. Maybe they had to spark inflammation, give it a little push, they thought. So they infected the birds with a common protozoan disease called coccidia.

“Jordan Sand, who was doing this work, came to me with the results of that experiment and again said, ‘It didn’t work,’” explains Cook. “When I looked at the data, I saw it was just the opposite of what we expected. The antibody had protected the animals against coccidia, the main reason we feed antibiotics to poultry. We knew right away this was big.”

The possibilities of such an innovation—an antibiotic-free method for controlling disease—are huge as consumers demand antibiotic-free food and companies look for ways to accommodate those demands. With that potential in hand, things moved quickly for Cook and Sand. They filed patents through WARF, collaborated with faculty colleagues and conducted experiments to test other animals and determine the best treatment methods. More research was funded through the WARF Accelerator program, and it became clear that this technology could provide the basis for a startup company.

While Cook didn’t receive funds from D2P to bring the product to market, he and Sand used D2P’s consulting services throughout their work—and continue to do so. Between WARF funding and help from D2P, Cook says starting the current company, Ab E Discovery, has been dramatically different from his previous startup experiences.

“D2P is a game changer,” says Cook. “In other cases, there was no structure on campus to help. When you had a technology that wasn’t going to be licensed, you had to figure out where to get the money to start a company. There were no resources available, so you did what you could, through trial and error, and hoped. Now with WARF and D2P working together, there’s both technical de-risking and market de-risking.”

The combination of WARF and D2P has certainly paid off for Cook and Sand. They have a team and a CEO, and are now producing product. Interest in the product is immense, Cook says. He’d like to see the company grow and expand—and stay in Wisconsin.

“It’s been a dream of mine to make Wisconsin a centerpiece in this technology,” Cook says. “I’d like to see the structure strong here in Wisconsin, so that even when it’s taken over, it’ll be a Wisconsin company. That’s my hope.”

Better Corn for Biofuel

Corn is a common sight in Wisconsin and the upper Midwest, but it’s actually more of a tropical species. As the growing regions for corn move farther north, a corn hybrid has to flower and mature more quickly to produce crop within a shorter growing season. That flowering time is determined by the genetics of the corn hybrid.

Conversely, delayed flowering is beneficial for other uses of corn. For example, when flowering is delayed, corn can produce more biomass instead of food, and that biomass can then be used as raw material to make biofuel.

The genetics of different hybrids controls their flowering time and, therefore, how useful they are for given purposes or growing regions. Shawn Kaeppler, a professor of agronomy, is working to better understand those genes and how various hybrids can best fit a desired function. Much of his work is done in collaboration with fellow agronomy professor Natalia de Leon.

“We look across different populations and cross plants to produce progeny with different flowering times,” Kaeppler explains. “Then we use genetic mapping strategies to understand which genes are important for those traits.”

Throughout his work with plant genetics, Kaeppler has taken full advantage of resources for entreprenuers on campus. He has patents filed or pending, and he has also received Accelerator funds through WARF. For his project looking at the genetics behind flowering time, Kaeppler and graduate student Brett Burdo received Igniter funds from D2P as well. The Igniter program has proven invaluable for Kaeppler and Burdo as they try to place their innovation in the best position for success.

“I found the Igniter program very useful, to go through the process of understanding what it takes to get a product to market,” says Kaeppler. “It also includes funding for some of the steps in the research and for some of the time that’s spent. I can’t fund my graduate student off a federal grant to participate in something like this, so the Igniter funding allowed for correct portioning of funding.”

The end goal of Kaeppler’s project is to develop a transgenic plant as a research model and license the technology, not develop a startup company. His team is currently testing transgenic plants to work up a full package of information that interested companies would use to decide if they should license the technology. For Kaeppler, licensing is the best option since they can avoid trying to compete with big agricultural companies, and the technology will still get out to the market where it’s needed to create change.

“In this area of technology transfer, it is important not only to bring resources back to UW but also to participate in meeting the challenges the world is facing with increasing populations,” says Kaeppler. “Programs like D2P and WARF are critical at this point in time to see the potential of these discoveries realized.”

A Diet to Treat Disease

Around the world, about 60,000 people are estimated to have phenylketonuria, or PKU. Those with the inherited disorder are unable to process phenylalanine, a compound found in most foods. Treatment used to consist of a limited diet difficult to stomach. Then, about 13 years ago, nutritional sciences professor Denise Ney was approached to help improve that course of treatment.

Dietitians at UW–Madison’s Waisman Center wanted someone to research use of a protein isolated from cheese whey—called glycomacropeptide, or GMP—as a dietary option for people living with PKU. Ney took on the challenge, and with the help of a multidisciplinary team, a new diet composition for PKU patients was patented and licensed.

“Mine is not a typical story,” says Ney, who also serves as a D2P advisory board member. “Things happened quickly and I can’t tell you why, other than hard work, a good idea and the right group of people. We’ve had help from many people—including our statistician Murray Clayton, a professor of plant pathology and statistics, and the Center for Dairy Research—which helped with development of the foods and with sensory analysis.”

Being at the right place at the right time had a lot to do with her success thus far, Ney notes. “I’m not sure this could have happened many places in the world other than on this campus because we have all the needed components—the Waisman Center for care of patients with PKU, the Wisconsin Center for Dairy Research, the clinical research unit at University of Wisconsin Hospitals and Clinics, and faculty with expertise in nutritional sciences and food science,” she says.

Ney is currently wrapping up a major clinical trial of the food formulations, referred to as GMP medical foods, that she and her team developed. In addition to those efforts, the new diet has also shown surprising promise in two other, seemingly unrelated, areas: weight loss and osteoporosis prevention.

“My hypothesis, which has been borne out with the research, is that GMP will improve bone strength and help prevent fractures, which are complications of PKU,” explains Ney. “I have a comprehensive study where I do analysis of bone structure and biomechanical performance, and I also get information about body fat. I observed that all of the mice that were fed GMP, whether they had PKU or not, had less body fat and the bones were bigger and stronger.” Interestingly, the response was greater in female compared with male mice.

To support further research on this new aspect of the project, Ney received Accelerator funds from WARF for a second patent issued in 2015 titled “Use of GMP to Improve Women’s Health.” Ney and her team, including nutritional sciences professor Eric Yen, are excited about the possibilities of food products made with GMP that may help combat obesity and also promote bone health in women.

“There is a huge market for such products,” says Ney. “We go from a considerably small group of PKU patients who can benefit from this to a huge market of women if this pans out. It’s interesting, because I think I’m kind of an unexpected success, an illustration of the untapped potential we have here on campus.”

Fewer Antibiotics in Ethanol Plants

Bacteria and the antibiotics used to kill them can cause significant problems in everything from food sources to biofuel. In biofuel production plants, bacteria that produce lactic acid compete with the wanted microbes producing ethanol. At low levels, these bacteria decrease ethanol production. At high levels, they can produce so much lactic acid that it stops fermentation and ethanol production altogether.

The most obvious solution for stopping these lactic acid bacteria would be antibiotics. But as in other industries, antibiotics can cause problems. First, they can be expensive for ethanol producers to purchase and add to their workflow. The second issue is even more problematic.

“A by-product of the ethanol industry is feed,” explains James Steele, a professor of food science. “Most of the corn kernel goes toward ethanol and what remains goes to feed. And it’s excellent animal feed.”

But if antibiotics are introduced into the ethanol plant, that animal feed byproduct can’t truly be called antibioticfree. That’s a problem as more and more consumers demand antibiotic-free food sources. But Steele and his colleagues have a solution—a way to block the negative effects of lactic acid bacteria without adding antibiotics.

“We’ve taken the bacteria that produce lactic acid and re-engineered it to produce ethanol,” says Steele. “These new bacteria, then, compete with the lactic acid bacteria and increase ethanol production. Ethanol plants can avoid the use of antibiotics, eliminating that cost and increasing the value of their animal feed by-product.”

The bacteria that Steele and his team have genetically engineered can play an enormous role in reducing antibiotic use. But that benefit of their innovation didn’t immediately become their selling point. Rather, their marketing message was developed through help from D2P and the Igniter program.

“Learning through D2P completely changed how we position our product and how we interact with the industry,” says Steele. And through that work with D2P, Steele plans to later this year incorporate a company called Lactic Solutions. “D2P has helped us with the finance, the organization, the science, everything. Every aspect of starting a business has been dealt with.”

Steele and his collaborators are now working to refine their innovation and ideas for commercialization using Accelerator funds from WARF. Steele’s work, supported by both WARF and D2P, is a perfect example of how the entities are working together to successfully bring lab work to the market.

“There is no doubt in my mind that we would not be where we are today without D2P,” says Steele. “On top of that you add WARF, and the two together is what really makes it so special. There’s nothing else like it at other campuses.”

With such a strong partnership campaigning for and supporting entrepreneurship at UW–Madison, CALS’ strong history of innovation is poised to endure far into the future, continuing to bring innovations from campus to the world. And that is the embodiment of the Wisconsin Idea.

 

The Road from Farm to Market

Consumer demand for regionally produced food is on the rise. But transportation and distribution logistics for mid-size shippers, distributors and farmers can be tricky. These supply chain partners are looking for ways to more efficiently move products from Wisconsin’s farms to markets, while upholding many of their customers’ sustainability values.

That’s where the CALS-based Center for Integrated Agricultural Systems (CIAS) comes in. CIAS is working with university and private-sector partners to bring regionally grown food to urban markets while growing rural economies and addressing the environmental impacts of food freight.

“When people think of local food, they think of farmers markets and community-supported agriculture,” says Michelle Miller BS’83, associate director of programs for CIAS. “While these direct markets are the gold standard for connecting us with the people who grow our food, they don’t address the need to get more high-quality regional products into grocery stores, restaurants and schools.”

Consumers tend to believe that food is more sustainable if it travels a short distance from farm to table. However, a USDA study found that compared to direct markets, the large truckloads and logistical efficiencies found in the conventional food system sometimes use less fuel per food item transported.

Helping mid-size farmers move full truckloads of their products into wholesale markets is one way to build a more resilient regional economy. However, farmers face numerous challenges when shifting from direct to wholesale marketing. Product aggregation is one major hurdle, as wholesale public markets for assembling farmers’ wares have largely disappeared from the landscape.

The Wisconsin Food Hub Cooperative (WFHC), founded in 2012, helps fill that gap by providing sales, marketing and logistical support for its 37 farmer-owners, with sales of $1.7 million in 2015 and anticipated sales of $2.5 million in 2016.

CIAS helped WFHC implement retail product quality specifications and food safety requirements. Access to CALS expertise in those areas has made a big difference for their business, according to WFHC development director Sarah Lloyd.

“Most retail outlets require growers to obtain voluntary food safety certifications,” says Lloyd. “The help we’ve received in working through this maze of regulations has been critical.”

According to Miller, much more work is needed to help Wisconsin growers move their products into regional metro markets. CIAS is investigating fair trade strategies to provide equitable compensation for farmers. The center is working closely with city, county and regional partners to increase food processing and related food systems economic development in southern Wisconsin. CIAS is also researching more sustainable truck fleets using alternative fuels, hybrid electric engines and day cabs.

“We can gain efficiencies across the food system, at the farm level and in the way we move food to markets,” says Miller. “Ultimately we want to make it easier for consumers to support Wisconsin farmers.”

Tara Roberts-Turner, a founding farmer and business manager of the Wisconsin Food Hub Cooperative, loads fresh produce onto a truck bound for Chicago.

Photo credit – Tara Roberts-Turner 

The Futures Market—and Students’ Futures

Using real-world commodity-trading software and armed with simulated trading experience in agricultural markets, a number of CALS students are finding paths to jobs after graduation.

“We prepare students by providing the knowledge of the trading software used by professionals and an understanding of how these sometimes-volatile markets work in real time,” says Sheldon Du, a professor of agricultural and applied economics.

Du says that the market for agricultural business management majors is promising—and students’ experience with professional software platforms and hands-on simulated commodity trading makes them more attractive job candidates.

Du has taught his spring undergraduate class, Commodity Markets, since 2012. His students learn about economic concepts related to commodity futures and options contracts, pricing mechanisms, and principles and techniques for using derivatives to hedge price risk. They also learn about commodity trading, wherein futures contracts of commodities—such as grains, dairy products and energy—are bought and sold through organized exchanges to generate returns or to manage price risks.

Last year, Du—with the enthusiastic backing of his department—received a grant from UW– Madison’s Educational Innovation initiative to expand the class experience to include an optional 10 weeks of training during the following fall on technical analysis using X_TRADER® software, a professional trading platform that was donated to CALS in 2014 by Trading Technologies International, Inc. The school has since migrated to Trading Technologies’ new TT® platform, which became commercially available in 2015.

Students can also go on to compete in the CME Group Trading Challenge, a simulated trading competition that pits hundreds of college teams from around the world against one another as they make real-time commodity trading decisions. Du’s students participated in the event in 2015 and then again this year.

Competing in the challenge requires students to use electronic trading software to execute trades on the CME Globex trading platform, offering students added experience with real-world tools and techniques. This spring, seven UW–Madison students on two teams took part in the competition.

Andrew Berger BS’15, who was on one of two trading teams last year, went on to become a risk analyst for Henning and Carey Technologies in Chicago after graduating.

“The fundamental knowledge that I gained about futures and options contracts, hedging techniques and financial market analysis prepared me well for the interview,” says Berger, who returned to campus this spring to speak to Du’s students.

Brad Jaeger BS’16, a fresh grad who landed a job as a grain merchandiser at Wisconsin’s Country Visions Cooperative, says his two years of competing in the challenge, plus the academic grounding he received, were instrumental in launching his career.

“We learned fundamental analysis, and although we never advanced in the trading competition, we received a lot of great live trading experience,” says Jaeger, who led a team this year.

Exposing students to the theory of commodity markets, along with practical trading situations and tools, helps them get a taste for the profession and the experience to impress prospective employers, says Du.

“I am always looking for ways to increase the trading component, which is important for students’ understanding of the markets,” Du says. “It’s also important for their professional futures.”

PHOTO – Students in the 2016 CME Group Trading Challenge included (left to right) Jackson Remer, Brad Jaeger, Carly Edge, Cory Epprecht and Sam Seid, with agricultural and applied economics professor Sheldon Du (far right).

Photo credit – Sheldon Du

Training to Make a Difference

People have around 40 productive years during adulthood to make a positive impact on the world, according to Howard G. Buffett in his book, 40 Chances: Finding Hope in a Hungry World.

It’s a concept that Kate Griswold BS’16, who graduated in May with a degree in life sciences communication, is keenly aware of.

Griswold was among 40 college students nationwide selected in 2012 to participate in the nonprofit Agriculture Future of America’s 40 Chances Fellows program. The goal of the four-year program, funded by the Howard G. Buffett Foundation’s 40 Chances awareness campaign, is to prepare young people to address global agriculture- and food-related challenges.

“I’m passionate about international food security and transparency in the American agricultural system,” says Griswold. “Thanks to my experiences, I feel excited and ready to go out into the workforce and help contribute to the conversations—and solutions—related to these important topics.”

Griswold and her cohort participated in leadership conferences, agricultural institutes, career mentoring sessions and professional development workshops. The program culminated in a two-and-a-half-week international experience—which, for Griswold and eight other students, meant going to Bolivia.

Guided by native Bolivians, the students visited processing plants and production facilities as well as farmers in various regions. Two of the country’s main crops are soybeans and quinoa, a small, gluten-free grain that is highly nutritious and growing in popularity worldwide. But according to Griswold, “Bolivia, which is one of the biggest producers of quinoa, is still one of the poorest countries in South America.”

A key lesson, Griswold says, is that education alone is not enough to change the standard of living and way of life in other cultures.

“The fact that there isn’t an easy fix to get people out of poverty is something I’ve learned to appreciate a lot more,” says Griswold. “I now have a much better understanding of the time it takes to implement change and the trust that needs to be built with the local people in order to do so.”

As a fresh graduate, Griswold is using the first of her 40 chances by joining John Deere as a marketing representative.

Photo Credit – Kate Griswold 

A growing appetite for food systems

As a CES major, Desire Smith discovered a love for urban ag.

As a CES major, Desire Smith discovered a love for urban ag.

Anyone looking to see exciting growth of a new field should talk with the Department of Community and Environmental Sociology. Since changing its name from Rural Sociology in 2009, the number of undergraduate majors has quadrupled. And a big reason for that rapid growth is the increased visibility of environmental issues in general—and food issues in particular.

“Perhaps as many as half of our undergraduates want to work on local food issues,” says professor and department chair Gary Green. “Some would like to start a community-supported agriculture (CSA) farm, others would like to work for a nonprofit and still others see themselves in food policy positions in the future. In addition, there is growing interest in urban agriculture programs in major cities. We believe we have the potential to make an important contribution to CALS through preparing students to work in this growing field.”

The department is taking a two-pronged approach to meeting this demand. They are raising funds to support one or two graduate student fellowships specifically in the area of food systems research—and they also seek to hire an assistant professor with a focus on food systems. These new positions would serve not only to advance research and outreach in the field, but also to help meet high undergraduate demand for related classes and field opportunities.

“There is a growing interest in CALS in developing a certificate in food systems, and these positions could play a key role in supporting that effort,” notes Green. Three food systems courses now being piloted in CALS, with the participation of five departments, could serve as the core of a future food systems certificate program.

The department is not a new player in the study of local food systems. Indeed, emeritus professor Jack Kloppenburg, who retired last year, is a nationally renowned pioneer in the field. The loss of Kloppenburg and two other professors with local food systems expertise— Jess Gilbert and Jill Harrison—has left the department less able to continue leading the charge.

“It is critical to recruit new faculty to continue to provide teaching, research and outreach in this area,” notes Green. The position would also enable the department to take advantage of numerous funding opportunities for food systems research.

“We foresee no drop-off of interest in food and agriculture, but rather a longrange increased demand in this area,” Green says.

PHOTO – As a CES major, Desire Smith discovered a love for urban ag. 

 

Milk, Motherhood and the Dairy Cow

In the 1990s, dairy farmers were seeing a troubling trend in their herds. As cows produced more milk, their reproductive performance declined. This downward slope in reproduction, related to changes in the hormone metabolism of high-producing cows, spurred researchers into action. And CALS scientists found a solution—a reproductive synchronization system that could save Wisconsin dairy farmers more than $50 million each year.

“The development of these systems has been one of the greatest technological advances in dairy cattle reproduction since artificial insemination,” says Paul Fricke, a CALS professor of dairy science and a UW–Extension specialist. “It is highly, highly significant.”

For the past 20 years, Fricke has been working on the synchronization systems with fellow dairy science professor Milo Wiltbank. The systems, called Ovsynch, consist of treatments with naturally occurring hormones and are based on Wiltbank’s research into the basic biology of the cow reproductive cycle. The hormonal treatments synchronize the cycles so that farmers know when their cows are most likely to become pregnant.

Pregnancy rates in a herd are a product of two numbers: the service rate (the percentage of eligible cows that are inseminated) and the conception rate (the number of inseminated cows that become pregnant). Historically, farmers relied on visually recognizing when cows were in heat in order to time insemination—a tricky feat that often resulted in missed opportunities and low service rates.
“One of the biggest problems in dairy cattle reproduction is seeing the cows in heat,” says Fricke. “If you can proactively control the reproductive cycle, you can inseminate cows without waiting for them to show heat.”

Synchronization systems take the guesswork out of insemination, increasing service rates and pregnancy rates. Since the technology was first published in the mid-1990s, Fricke, Wiltbank and their colleagues have worked to optimize the systems. Researchers now see conception rates of more than 50 percent, and pregnancy rates of 30 percent or higher. Just 15 years ago, average conception and pregnancy rates were around 35 and 15 percent, respectively. A 30 percent pregnancy rate in herds producing high volumes of milk was unimaginable.

With impressive pregnancy rates and the safety of the system—the natural hormones used are short-lived and do not end up in food products—researchers and farmers alike are excited about further adoption of the technology. The payoff is substantial, considering the costs and benefits of breeding dairy cows, says Kent Weigel, professor and chair of the Department of Dairy Science.

“If we say that this technology will result in a 6 percent improvement in pregnancy rates, and we assume that it costs about $4 for each extra day that a cow is not pregnant, the technology could save Wisconsin dairy farmers about $58 million per year with just 50 percent of farmers using it,” explains Weigel. “This is a prime example of basic biology that turned out to have a practical application with huge economic benefits.”

PHOTO—Dairy scientist Paul Fricke has developed a way to inseminate cows before they show signs of being in heat.

Photo by Sevie Kenyon BS’80 MS’06

Even Cows are “Texting”

Douglas J. Reinemann is a professor and chair of the Department of Biological Systems Engineering at UW–Madison and a milking equipment/energy specialist with UW–Extension. His research focuses on machine milking, energy use and energy production in agricultural systems. He is a member of the sustainability group of the UW–Madison-based Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center, where he examines environmental impacts of biofuels production systems. He also leads UW–Madison’s “green cheese” team, which investigates synergies between dairy and biofuels production systems in Wisconsin. Reinemann has directed activities of the UW Milking Research and Instruction Lab since 1990. His extensive work with machine milking includes serving as the U.S. representative and chair of the International Dairy Federation’s working group on machine milking as well as the U.S. representative on machine milking committees with the International Standards Organization. He also has chaired machine milking committees with the American Society of Agricultural and Biological Engineers and the National Mastitis Council.

What kinds of things are cows texting their owners?
This is a development that’s come about through the implementation of robotic milking systems. A robotic milking system has a computer for a brain, and, of course, computers can communicate with us, so dairy farmers have the option of selecting what sorts of information they’d like to get from the dairy herd and how often and when they’d like to get that information.

For example, earlier this year I was at the National Mastitis Council meeting and some dairy farmers there were frequently checking their cell phones to monitor what was going on back home—how’s the robot doing, are the cows showing up to be milked, is the machine working—and even tracking individual cows’ health status and milk production. How’s this cow doing today?

What kind of information is texted to a cell phone?
There are several levels of alert. There are more important things such as, for example, if the machine breaks down and it’s not working—that’s a very high level of alert. And the computer will call you up on your phone and say, “We have a problem with unit No. 2, it doesn’t seem to be operating. Come out and have a look at it or send someone to have a look at it.”

What other kinds of information are dairy farmers collecting from their herds?
With robotic milking in particular, but also in conventional parlors, we can collect the most basic information—milk yield, for example, so that we know how much the cow is giving at each milking. With that information you can determine that if today’s yield is down by a certain percentage, you might want to have a look at that cow. That’s a text message you might receive: “Cow No. 3765, Elsie, is down to half of what we should expect, and you might want to have a look at her today.”

What are some advantages of this kind of technology on the dairy farm?
It falls into the general category of precision agriculture. This kind of information allows a dairy manager to track individual cow information, as opposed to the more general trend in the industry toward group management in the last decade or so. This is a move back toward more individual cow management, which allows the farm to be more efficient.

You mentioned that this is “too much information’ for some farmers. . .
[Laughs] The game changer with robots is that when a robot is milking the cow, there’s not a person standing there. That really created the need for some kind of automated communication system. The robot has to be able to communicate with a human being in the event that something goes wrong. When you install a robot, one of the big questions is, “Who gets the call?”

Some farmers think that this is just fantastic. They say, “I don’t have to worry about the robot, I can just let it run,
and if something goes wrong, it will give me a call and then I’ll go look at it, but otherwise I don’t have to worry about it.”

On the other hand, you have people who hate it because they say, “I’m always on call and I’m always nervous about
getting the call, and it’s driving me crazy!”

So that’s a really interesting dynamic, I think. And it raises all kinds of questions. Do we trust this technology? Do we want the information? We certainly want to know when something’s going wrong—but on the other hand, sometimes we really don’t.

What other information can be collected on a dairy cow?
Right after milk yield, mastitis detection is near the top of the list. Even in conventional parlors we have ways of detecting whether a cow might be developing a mastitis infection. But in a robotic milking system, that detection technology is more sophisticated.

How about feed management, walking activity. . .
There’s a whole variety of sensors that tell us about different aspects of cow activity. The one we’ve been using the longest would be a simple pedometer to tell us how many steps the cow is taking. I recently got a Fitbit myself, so now I’m counting my steps as well.

Activity monitoring is used for a number of things, primarily reproduction—it’s used for heat detection—but it also can be used for lameness detection. And more sophisticated systems can actually locate the cow in the barn, so we know whether the cow is in the feed bunk or whether she’s lying down. That allows us to look at time budgets, the percentage of time spent resting or eating. An even more sophisticated technology detects the rumination activity of a cow. Rumination monitors can be put in the rumen, like a large pill, and they transmit information wirelessly.

How does such up-close information about the rumen help a dairy farmer?
It’s used to manage nutrition. Cows are ruminants, and rumination is what drives milk production, so a decrease in rumination activity is an indication that there is something wrong either with animal health or potentially something wrong with the dairy ration.

What resources are available to help farmers adopt these new technologies?
I actually ran a series of user groups for managers of milking parlors, which we established through UW–Extension agents. We got milking parlor managers together and talked about what technologies they were using and how they were using it. It was a very effective way to break the chicken-or-egg syndrome. You don’t really know what the technology can do for you until you actually start using it. And you don’t even know how to go about using it unless you know what it can do for you. The user groups are farmers saying, “I tried this and it really helped.”

One of the challenges is, salespeople sometimes make big promises about what their technology can do, and it can’t really do it. So people become hesitant. Once you’ve had a few experiences with some technology that promises you the world and then it doesn’t work, it sours you on technology in general. User groups are a way to get feedback from someone who’s tried it and can confirm that it’s helpful in managing dairy operation.

There are also user groups organized by companies that produce a particular technology, including robotic milking. These companies seem to be doing a good job facilitating
user groups.

Look into your crystal ball. Where can this go from here?
The move toward automation in dairy farming has been steadily progressing over the last 100 years. So this progression is really just a continuation of more automation in the dairy industry. What that means for dairy producers is economic efficiency, better animal welfare and better quality of life for the cow and the farmers.