A Groundbreaking Gut Check

You might expect that the most important break- through in feeding dairy cattle in years would rate
a snazzy name. Instead, you get “total tract neutral detergent fiber digestibility”—TTNDFD for short.

“Yes, I know. That’s a terrible name. But unless someone comes up with something better it’s TTNDFD,” says CALS dairy nutrition scientist David Combs.

No matter. For an idea this good, a clever name isn’t needed.

The discovery of TTNDFD, a new forage test, lays to rest a mystery that’s perplexed researchers and dairy farmers since scientific forage analysis began 40 years ago: Why cows would wolf down one finely tuned dairy ration but turn up their noses at another that, on paper, was identical?

“We couldn’t put a finger on it,” Combs says. “You’d get your forage analysis, balance the ration, and everything seemed fine. But one time the cows would eat everything up, the next time you’d get a high rate of refusal.”

That mystery cost money. When cows eat to capacity, they produce milk to capacity, and milk sold off the farm is what pays the bills. “It wasn’t so much good forage, bad forage. Those things we can detect. It was those times when everything seems fine and the cows would not eat as much as expected or not produce as well as before,” Combs says.

Cows are professional eaters and highly discern- ing about what gets served. They’ll eat a lot of differ- ent things but will eat a great deal more of the things they like best. What the Combs team figured out— through research that involved 20 years of reaching into the 30-gallon vats known as cow rumens—was that how much cows gobbled up and turned into milk was influenced by the rate of fiber digestion. Developing a test to account for it ushered in a new feeding system that offers several advantages.

For one, the new forage fiber test lets farmers
see the differences in the feeds they have on hand. For another, it helps them grow and buy the types of feeds most favored by cows. For yet another, plant breeders can use the test to create the type of crops cows want the most. And most important, the test can help milk producers make more money.

“How fiber is digested can easily make five to six pounds per day difference in milk production in a dairy cow,” Combs says.

There could also be some positive ripple effects. As people applied the test to all kinds of forage, they discovered that grass is something of a magic missing ingredient in the daily dairy diet. The right kind of grass is really good for cows, and the test can help farmers select the right grasses to grow.

Reintroducing grass to dairy diets on a large scale could be great for the landscape. Grass soaks up carbon and nutrients, holds soil in place, covers otherwise bare ground during the winter, and can help absorb manure applications.

The test also opens opportunities for entrepre- neurs. When Rock River Labs in Watertown hired John Goeser BS’04 MS’06 PhD’08, who’d earned a doctorate under Combs, it became the first lab in the world to offer this new analysis to the dairy community.

“It’s started a little slow. But it went from no
tests to 5,000 tests in a season,” Combs says. Now Combs uses a large spreadsheet to review the data being generated by thousands of TTNDFD tests performed by Rock River. More labs are looking into offering TTNDFD results as part of a forage analysis package.

Chris Barrett PhD’94

Chris Barrett PhD’94 Agricultural and Applied Economics • In January Chris Barrett began a new position as the David J. Nolan Director of Cornell University’s Charles H. Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management, whose undergraduate and graduate programs rank in the top five nationwide. Barrett takes on that leading role in educating applied economists at a crucial time for the field, he says, citing global challenges posed by the rapid growth in demand for food, feed, fuel and fiber. As a CALS graduate student Barrett found a collaborative network of scholars and practitioners who have been formative in his success as both a teacher and a scholar. Among Barrett’s experiences as a CALS student, he fondly remembers enjoying Babcock ice cream with his children while watching the UW Marching Band practice.

Rogier van den Brink PhD’90

Rogier van den Brink PhD’90 Agricultural and Applied Economics • As a Washington, D.C.-based lead economist with the World Bank in the department of poverty reduction and economic management, Rogier van den Brink works on economic policy and related concerns with a number of countries in Southeast Asia, his region of interest. Recently he helped establish a multimillion-dollar budget in support of relief operations following Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines. Now a Distinguished Alumni Lecturer with UW-Madison, van den Brink became aware of the “special powers” of agriculture in reducing poverty while a student at CALS, he says, a lesson that his career continues to affirm. When he’s not working, van den Brink pursues music production, an interest he discovered at Amy’s Cafe and Bar in Madison. Sometimes he mixes work and pleasure, most recently when he recorded an album, “Zsa Zsa Exactly,” while in Mongolia. Proceeds from the album will go to Typhoon Haiyan relief efforts.

Diana Fletschner MS’95 PhD’02

Diana Fletschner MS’95 PhD’02 Agricultural and Applied Economics • China, Colombia, Russia, Peru and Uganda are just some of the places in which Diana Fletschner has had the opportunity to work. Fletschner serves as senior director of research, monitoring and evaluation for the Seattle-based NGO Landesa, which works to secure land rights for the world’s poorest populations. Fletschner’s role includes evaluating projects, fostering a network of professionals aimed at strengthening women’s land rights, and supporting national and international advocacy of land issues. For Fletschner, being a CALS student served as a platform for exploring new experiences from around the world as well as the opportunity to build formative relationships with “mentors with a capital M,” as she puts it.

Joseph Glauber PhD’84

Joseph Glauber PhD’84 Agricultural and Applied Economics • Henry C. Taylor, the first chief economist with the USDA, was a Badger—and today another alum, Joseph Glauber, holds that title. Glauber’s duties include preparing the department’s agricultural forecasts and projections as well as advising the Secretary of Agriculture on the economic implications of agricultural legislation. Time spent around the chalkboards discussing and debating economic issues belongs to Glauber’s fondest memories of CALS. He will also forever value the Department of Agricultural and Applied Economics for its diversity and an open climate that facilitated forming lifelong friendships. In his free time Glauber bikes 3,500 to 4,000 miles a year, including commuting to work—a hobby, he explains, that balances his love of food.

David Kaimowitz MA’86 PhD’87

David Kaimowitz MA’86 PhD’87 Agricultural and Applied Economics • Challenges facing marginalized rural groups—including chronic poverty, competition over land and environmental degradation—are just some of the issues that David Kaimowitz addresses as the Ford Foundation’s director of sustainable development. His efforts include negotiating grants, designing strategies for meeting the needs of particular groups, and monitoring the effectiveness of those strategies. The importance of institutions and property rights was instilled in Kaimowitz during his time at CALS and has proven relevant in nearly every economic problem the world faces, Kaimowitz notes. Kaimowitz misses the “luxury,” he says, that came with being a CALS student—being able to explore new ideas and theories, hear from professors who are leaders in their fields and browsing endlessly through the library stacks. On that wistful note Kaimowitz encourages current students to take full advantage of the enormous opportunity they have at CALS.

Bruce Larson MA’84 PhD’87

Bruce Larson MA’84 PhD’87 Agricultural and Applied Economics • Bruce Larson, a professor of international health at Boston University’s School of Public Health, considers his research on HIV/AIDS and improving health delivery and services in Africa to be among the most rewarding achievements of his career. His experiences in the field also have demonstrated the global presence of CALS. While on sabbatical in Kenya investigating a particular course of treatment for HIV-infected adults, nearly 20 years after leaving Madison, friends he had met while at CALS were living in Nairobi and were instrumental in Larson’s transition to life in Kenya.

Thomas Wegner BS’81 MS’83

Thomas Wegner BS’81 MS’83 Agricultural and Applied Economics • Thomas Wegner currently serves as director of economics and dairy policy for Land O’Lakes, Inc., a position that calls for him to monitor national, regional and state regulatory issues affecting dairy farmers and Land O’ Lakes as a member-owned cooperative. Wegner works alongside cooperative marketing agencies and strives to keep members informed of changes in federal and state milk marketing regulations. While at CALS Wegner developed an economic analysis approach that has proven invaluable as he evaluates the costs and benefits of federal agriculture policies from the perspectives of a farmer-member, a food processor and a government administrator. In his free time Wegner enjoys walking his dog and patronizing the burgeoning microbreweries of Minneapolis.

David Welsh BS’90

David Welsh BS’90 Agricultural and Applied Economics • As a corn specialist for Crop Production Services, David Welsh works directly with farmers in Wisconsin in an effort to maximize
their corn yields and profits. Welsh’s time at CALS proved integral to his future success. While a student, he was able to participate in two internships that helped jump-start his career, in addition to providing him with invaluable work experience. Welsh also was active in Alpha Gamma Rho, a professional agricultural fraternity. Today Welsh enjoys coaching his children in youth athletics and giving back to CALS through his service with WALSAA.

Made for the Shade

With the global population expected to reach 9 billion by 2050, the world’s farmers are going to need to produce a lot more food—but without using much more farmland, as the vast majority of the world’s arable land is already being used for agriculture.

One possible solution is to try to grow crops more densely in the field, thereby increasing yield per acre. But it’s not as easy as just spacing seeds more closely together at planting time.

Packed too tight, for instance, corn plants will grow tall and spindly as they try to outcompete neighboring plants for access to sunlight—a phenomenon known as shade avoidance.

“The problem with shade avoidance when it comes to food crops is that the plants are spending all this time and energy making stems so they can grow tall instead of making food that we eat,” explains CALS plant geneticist Richard Vierstra, who is developing a way around it. His team is reengineering a light-sensing molecule found in plants, known as phytochrome, to allow plants to grow normally even when they’re packed in tight.

“Instead of 30-inch rows, this technology could enable us to plant corn in 20-inch rows, boosting yields by as much as 50 percent—if we can get the plants to ignore their neighbors,” says Vierstra.

Phytochrome is the main photoreceptor that allows plants to tell when the lights are on and when they’re off. It’s what tells seeds to germinate and young seedlings to become green, and enables plants to establish circadian rhythms—an internal clock system, says Vierstra. “And it also allows a plant to sense whether it’s in full sun or whether it’s being shaded by other plants.”

In the lab, Vierstra and his team developed the first three-dimensional structures of phytochromes. Using these models, they are now trying to rationally redesign the photoreceptor to have altered light-sensing properties. This reengineering involves creating hundreds of possibly interesting phytochrome mutants, and then testing them for light sensitivity both in the test tube and inside plants.

Already Vierstra’s team has found a number of mutants that are extremely sensitive to light. These mutant phytochrome molecules, if genetically engineered into food crops, could trick the plants into thinking they are getting plenty of light, even when they’re growing in a crowded field.

Vierstra is in the process of patenting the technology and already knows of a large agribusiness company that’s eager to help commercialize it.

“We’re starting to engineer the phytochrome system in corn, in lines that will eventually be used for breeding,” he says. “It’s exciting to think about the potential this technology has to boost agricultural productivity.”

Gardening for the People

THREE YEARS AGO I was at a complete loss when it came to the grounds surrounding my home. What was I going to do with a huge yard overrun with weeds and invasive species? There wasn’t a single flowerbed, but there were two large crabapples with spotty leaves and burned-looking bark. Our fence line was populated with a tight row of buckthorn and invasive honeysuckle, and there was garlic mustard everywhere.

I learned this sad fact from an arborist we had hired to trim broken branches from the silver maple on our property. Determined to forge ahead and make something of the yard, I had him take out the diseased trees and the large buckthorn and honeysuckle bushes. After he finished, nothing remained but a few very old and overgrown lilacs, two peony plants, and a few bushes around the perimeter
of our lawn.

I was determined to turn my yard into something beautiful, but it was clear I needed help. Trial and error did little but show me how much I had to learn. As I began to investigate ways to acquire gardening expertise, people would mention advice from “master gardeners,” a title that conjured images of retired ladies in wide-brimmed hats and gloves tending gardens with lots and lots of rose bushes. I also thought of master gardener training as a kind of finishing school for skilled gardeners rather than a program that welcomed beginners.

I was wrong on both counts, as I learned from Mike Maddox MS’00, a CALS horticulture alumnus who directs the statewide Master Gardener Volunteer Program—a service of UW-Extension—from an office in the Department of Horticulture in Moore Hall. Master gardeners are, in fact, Master Gardener Volunteers—or MGVs for short—with the emphasis on “volunteer,” Maddox notes.

It’s a role that has become more salient over the years. “The volunteer requirement became a way for MGVs to assist and offset the barrage of gardening questions coming to Extension offices,” Maddox says. “We emphasize the volunteer aspect of ‘Master Gardener’ to distinguish it from a commercial endorsement, to differentiate it from a garden club—and to de-emphasize the expectation of the need to be an ‘expert’ on all subjects.”

Jessica Bateman BS’05 MS’11

Jessica Bateman BS’05 MS’11 Agricultural and Applied Economics • Jessica Bateman’s experiences at CALS, which included a health and nutrition study abroad program in Uganda and a course called World Hunger and Malnutrition, were formative in her decision to pursue a career in agricultural economics. Today Bateman is the nutrition technical quality coordinator for Mawa, a USAID-funded Feed the Future project with roots in Zambia. Collaboration with her Zambian colleagues and interacting with communities in the field are the most rewarding aspects of her career, she says. Bateman’s role in developing community-based approaches to improving nutrition allows her to witness small changes that greatly benefit the health of children, in particular. Those approaches include promoting consumption of locally produced foods, cooking demonstrations and training field staff in nutritional lessons for community outreach.