What makes Babcock ice cream so good to eat—and so good for science, students and industry?
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Geiss Meat Service in Merrill, Wisconsin, has been butchering livestock for farmers in Lincoln County and surrounding areas since 1956, cutting about 6,000 pounds of beef a day—that’s an average of eight to 10 beef cattle—into fresh steaks, chops, loins and roasts. But when third-generation owner Andrew Geiss took over the company in 2005, he was ready to try something new.
“I wanted to figure out a way to build up a retail business by expanding our sausage line,” he says. “I thought there was more money to be made by diversifying our products.” He added a smokehouse and started taking basic meat science classes at CALS—and soon discovered a satisfaction in crafting his own specialty meats that meat cutting alone couldn’t provide.
“There’s a lot of pride and art that goes into it. For instance, getting that perfectly round shape and uniformity in color when making a ham,” says Geiss. “You can’t imagine how much one thing in the smokehouse—for example, the humidity levels—changes everything, and how much work is involved.”
But the business side wasn’t going as well as he had hoped. “Honestly, I was at a point where we needed to make some serious changes with the consistency of our products in order to please customers and expand sales,” he says.
He found exactly the help he needed in 2010, when he was accepted into the inaugural class of the Master Meat Crafter training program at CALS. He and his classmates—16 men and one woman from small meat operations all around the state—traveled to Madison regularly over the course of two years for rigorous, hands-on instruction in meat science and processing, covering such areas as fresh meats, fermented and cured meats, cooked and emulsified sausage and meat microbiology and food safety.
That training earned Geiss the right to use the formal designation of Master Meat Crafter. But even more than the title, the program gave him the skills he needed to improve the quality, yields and markup on his products. “Now we’re doing a ton of different kinds of sausages, and everything is turning out just perfectly,” he reports. “And I don’t have to second-guess anything. I know that everything is exactly the way that I want it to be, and it turns out the same every time.”
The industry already has taken note of his improvements. Last summer Geiss Meat Service entered products for the first time in the American Cured Meat Championships and won awards in four categories, including first place in cooked ring bologna.
But even seasoned meat crafters see the value of the master course. The debut class included Louis E. Muench, a third-generation sausage maker who was inducted into the Wisconsin Meat Industry Hall of Fame in 2009. Since 1970, Louie’s Finer Meats in Cumberland has been crafting ham, bacon, bologna, breakfast links, salami, summer sausage and dozens of other products—and winning more than 300 state, national and international awards for their quality. Its creative staff also designs an extraordinary assortment of bratwurst, including applewurst, bacon cheeseburger, blueberry, pumpkin pie and wild rice and mushroom.
Why would someone with that level of expertise be interested in going back to school? “There’s so much technology that changes every day,” Muench says. As examples he cites new antimicrobials developed to combat foodborne pathogens and new government food safety, labeling and operations-related regulations, including changes that will for the first time allow Wisconsin’s state-inspected small processors to sell across state borders. “For our business to succeed in the long run, we need to keep current on everything and try to pass on as much knowledge as we can to keep the quality and the food safety up,” says Muench.
Within a year of completing the program, Muench had encouraged his son Louis and his brother William to sign up with the next group of students.
That’s the kind of success that the Master Meat Crafter program’s key partners—CALS, UW-Extension, the state Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection (DATCP) and the Wisconsin Association of Meat Processors (WAMP)—envisioned when they determined that state-of-the-art training was needed to take the state’s specialty meat production to an even higher level.
Program director Jeff Sindelar, a CALS professor of animal sciences and UW-Extension meat specialist, designed it to be like an academic postgraduate program that would benefit even the most skilled and experienced artisans. In both structure and intent, the new program mirrors the Wisconsin Master Cheesemaker program run by the Center for Dairy Research at CALS, which was a key player in turning Wisconsin’s specialty cheese business into a globally acclaimed leader that today accounts for more than 20 percent of Wisconsin’s total cheese production, up from a mere 4 percent in the 1990s.
The Master Meat Crafter program’s success will be measured over the long haul, says Sindelar: “It’s which of these plants will grow, add on, which plants are going to pass along the business, whether to family members or to other people who can continue the name. It’s really about longevity and viability of the industry.
TWENTY-FIVE THOUSAND YEARS ago, our Paleolithic ancestors got plenty of sun. Scantily draped in animal hides, they spent their days roaming outdoors, hunting and gathering food. With so much sun exposure, they made a lot of vitamin D, the “sun vitamin,” through their skin—around 10,000 units per day, biologists estimate.
Today, with lifestyles that keep us indoors and in vehicles, we don’t get out in the sun nearly as much. And when we do, we often slather ourselves in sunscreen to avoid skin cancer—a protective measure that unfortunately also blocks production of vitamin D. Although we get vitamin D from our food, primarily through fatty fish and fortified milk, yogurt and cereal, there’s been growing concern over the past decade that we aren’t getting enough, and that we may be missing out on a number of the vitamin’s health benefits that we’re just starting to understand.
And if newspaper headlines are to be believed, we could be missing quite a lot. Week after week, articles are published touting vitamin D’s protective role in a wide range of diseases and ailments—cardiovascular disease, hypertension, cancers of the colon, breast and prostate, cold and flu, asthma, autism, depression, osteoporosis, arthritis, neurodegenerative disease, multiple sclerosis, type I diabetes—and even longevity. But don’t count on all of these studies panning out, warns CALS biochemist Hector DeLuca. DeLuca should know—he’s a globally recognized authority on vitamin D whose six decades of research laid the groundwork for much of what we know and are discovering about it today.
“I’m really worried about how much attention vitamin D has received lately because we did this with vitamin E many years ago—where vitamin E was going to cure all kinds of things and of course it didn’t—and it’s completely off the radar screen now,” DeLuca says. “I don’t want that to happen to vitamin D because there are many places where it’s really effective.”
So what are vitamin D’s health benefits, and what do we need to do to maximize them? Both are huge questions in the scientific and medical fields. At this point, only one thing is certain: vitamin D is essential for strong bones. Beyond that, the jury is out because we don’t have the large, randomized human clinical trials required to make those calls—yet.
Nevertheless, there have been a significant number of promising in vitro and animal studies over the years, enough to convince many vitamin D researchers to increase their own doses. And when the U.S. Institute of Medicine in 2010 raised the Recommended Dietary Allowance for vitamin D from 400 to 600 units per day for adults—taking into consideration only the vitamin’s impact on bone health—it didn’t sit well with many members of the vitamin D research community who think the recommended intake should be considerably higher.
“Many people thought that was absolutely absurd—that people should actually be taking anywhere from 2,000 to 4,000 units a day,” says Wes Pike, another CALS vitamin D researcher who is internationally respected for his work. “But the committee didn’t take any risks. They discounted all the other things that people believe higher amounts of vitamin D could be beneficial for—muscle function, a healthy immune system, combating cancer and so much more. And some of those things are real, it’s just that there’s no strong clinical evidence for them yet.”
Fortunately, there soon will be a lot more solid evidence about vitamin D’s health impacts—on heart disease, stroke, cancer and more—thanks to a large clinical trial that’s gearing up at the Institute of Medicine’s request. As scientists, doctors and the public wait for answers, CALS researchers are working in parallel, leading an equally important effort to shine a light on vitamin D’s mode of action inside the body and to explore and understand new vitamin D-based treatments for disease—as they have for almost a century.
The story of vitamin D is largely a CALS story. It was identified by biochemist Elmer McCollum, who discovered vitamins A and B as a young faculty member at CALS before joining Johns Hopkins University, where in 1921 he found a substance that cured the bone-softening disease rickets—and named it vitamin D, as it was then the fourth vitamin known to science. In 1923 CALS biochemist Harry Steenbock figured out how to biofortify food with vitamin D by exposing it to ultraviolet light, a discovery that led to the almost complete eradication of rickets by the mid-1940s.
As his last graduate student, Steenbock in 1951 brought on Hector DeLuca, a promising young chemist from the University of Colorado. At Steenbock’s request, DeLuca stayed on to run his lab. “Steenbock was nearing retirement and wasn’t physically well, so he asked if I would stay after my Ph.D. and direct the research in his lab,” says DeLuca. The offer turned into a faculty position in 1959.
“At the time there was a lot we didn’t know about vitamin D and how it makes better bones,” says DeLuca. “I thought, ‘Why don’t we try to figure out how it works, and maybe we’ll learn how certain diseases take place?’ That was my motivation.”
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The cardinal rule in dairy judging is that, if you’re in doubt, you pick the cow with the best udder. Few people know that better than Brian Coyne, who grew up on a dairy farm near Eau Claire and began judging cows when he was 10. Yet in the biggest contest of his life, he was about to throw that maxim out the window.
Coyne, a CALS senior majoring in dairy science, was getting his first look at a group of Milking Shorthorns—four of the 48 cows he evaluated during the National Intercollegiate Dairy Judging Contest at the 2010 World Dairy Expo—and the first one in line really caught his eye. He liked every part of her, save one: She clearly had the worst udder of the group.
“She was huge,” Coyne recalled later. “She was really clean-cut. She had a big, sharp front end on her.” Despite her mammary shortcomings, she had what Coyne looks for in a great cow: “She was really dairy.”
“Dairy” is a compliment paid often around venues like the World Dairy Expo. You hear it from judges at the event’s seven major breed shows, from onlookers at the big-money cattle sales held each night, and from the visitors who stream through the barns that house nearly 2,500 of the world’s best show cows. The term is a bit of industry shorthand, usually uttered in awestruck tones to explain what separates an outstanding cow from one that’s merely good: “She is just so dairy!”
To be successful in the milk production business, you have to be able to recognize a good cow. Dairy judging contests teach one of the oldest ways of doing that: giving her a good long look, from muzzle to hip bones and rump to hooves, to see how closely she conforms to “true type,” the hypothetical perfect cow. In the most practical sense, being dairy means that a cow has a body that promises great things in the milking parlor.
“We’re talking about openness to rib, a sweeping slant to ribs, overall angularity and length of neck,” explains CALS dairy science instructor Ted Halbach, who coaches the students on the UW-Madison dairy judging team. “It means she looks like she’s giving a lot of milk.” These are traits Halbach knows well. In his dozen years as coach, the UW judging team has won three national championships, including one in 2010. He won the contest himself as part of Wisconsin’s 1980 team, and he’s the son of a winner. His father competed and won as a UW senior in 1939.
But a lot has changed in the 90 years since the national judging contest began. These days, farmers use more than their eyes to tell them about a cow’s milk-making potential. They rely on extensive data about her pedigree and the performance of her mother and aunts and sisters. And now the sequencing of the cow genome—completed in 2009 by a team of 300 scientists from 25 countries—has opened a vault of new data and new possibilities.
That was demonstrated during one of Expo’s biggest events, the Friday night Holstein sale, when auctioneer Tom Morris brought down his gavel to sell a four-month-old calf for $87,000, the highest price paid all week. Two weeks before the auction, that calf had topped a ranking of Holstein heifers by Genetic Total Performance Index, a prediction of her future performance gleaned by scanning her chromosomes for the presence of certain genetic markers. Although the calf came from a long line of top performers, her outstanding genetic report card undoubtedly helped fuel the bidding.
When the University of Wisconsin proposed to set up a genetics department in 1910, it had the enthusiastic backing of W.D. Hoard, publisher of the influential Hoard’s Dairyman magazine. But he wanted a different name. “Genetics,” he said, was a technical term that the state’s dairy farmers wouldn’t understand.
It didn’t take them long to catch on. Through genetic selection, the dairy industry has been able to achieve astounding gains in the quality and quantity of milk that cows make. Since 1939, the nation’s dairy herd has shrunk by 60 percent, but it produces 20 percent more milk because the average cow’s production has more than quadrupled.
Those increases were accomplished through the development of a gene pool that is not only deep, but also extremely well cataloged. In the 1800s, breed associations began keeping herd books to record the pedigrees of high-performing animals. Soon after, the emergence of the Dairy Herd Improvement record system created a standardized way to compare various bulls and cows by keeping track of how much milk their offspring produced. Today the industry collects data on well over half of the nation’s nine million dairy cattle, recording not just milk yield, fat and protein, but also data related to things like health, fertility and milk quality. International producers have adopted the same framework, creating a vast database of cow performance that spans the globe.
For Kent Weigel, a CALS dairy scientist whose work focuses on genetic selection, the records offer a trove of data that can be mined to optimize breeding. “We can statistically analyze those data and figure out which are the best families to select as parents of the next generation,” he says. Currently, the way most breeding companies do that is to collect and sift data on the progeny of their breeding bulls. It’s dependable, says Weigel, but slow. “It’s at least five years before you get any information and can decide if it’s a good bull you want to keep or a bad bull that you want to get rid of.”
In contrast, genomic screening offers immediate feedback. Technicians can take a sample of blood or hair from a newborn calf, extract the DNA, and have an almost instant prediction of how she’ll perform in the herd. This is done by scanning the calf’s genetic code for the presence of certain markers, snips of DNA that are associated with various important traits. Roughly $150 will pay for a scan of 50,000 genetic markers. A new, slightly more expensive version will look at almost 800,000 markers.
“It’s not as accurate (as progeny testing)—not yet,” says Weigel. “We’re in this transition period, starting to move away from the progeny testing to the DNA testing. But decisions based on the DNA test results are taking a greater and greater role.”
Much of the industry’s excitement about genomic screening has focused on having a new to spot the same traits measured by progeny testing—like a cow’s potential for producing milk, butterfat and protein. But genomics promises a much richer lode of data. Over time, it will make it possible to predict traits that are too difficult or expensive to measure on the thousands of commercial farms that supply data to the progeny testing system, such as genetic predisposition to infertility (see related story), or resistance to disease, or how efficiently a cow converts feed into milk.
“To measure feed intake on an individual animal basis you need a lot of labor and specialized equipment. We couldn’t measure it on hundreds of thousands of animals. It would be prohibitively expensive,” says Weigel. “But you can do it on a few thousand cows in research herds and then DNA-test those animals. If it works as we hope, we’d` be able to take specialized traits and put them in a national breeding program.”
Identifying specialized traits could lead to specialized cows. For example, producers who feed their cattle on pasture might be able to select cows that are really good at converting grass to milk. “In the past all you could do is try to select different sire families whose daughters seem to have done better on grass than on total mixed rations,” says Weigel. “You didn’t really know what you were selecting. But now you could test individual animals and target them for grazing, target them for confinement, target them for producing cheese, or for a certain kind of cheese. ”
“It’s far fetched today,” says Weigel. “But not that far fetched. We can imagine being able to do it.”
Back at the World Dairy Expo show ring, it doesn’t take any data mining to see the cumulative effect that a century of breeding has had on dairy cows. Compared to the squat, rounded cows Ted Halbach’s father judged 70 years earlier, today’s cows are bovine supermodels—longer, taller and svelte. This form has followed function: The industry has selected for cows that put energy into making milk rather than meat.
In recent years, however, it’s become apparent that such cows may not have the resilience to thrive in the larger herds that are becoming the norm in the industry. “This cow has to be able to function in the housing environment. She has to have the physical attributes that sustain and support her production,” explains Halbach. “You can have an animal with great production potential, but if she doesn’t have the physical attributes to reach that potential, she won’t. It’s as simple as that.”
Concerned that cows were becoming too frail, the Purebred Cattle Association asked Halbach in 2007 to lead an effort to revise its unified scorecard—the standard for that hypothetical perfect cow. Halbach turned to research conducted by Weigel, who had analyzed 20 years of data on Holsteins and Jerseys to find links between a cow’s physical characteristics and how long she survived in the herd.
“There was a perception that what makes a good dairy cow was her ability to milk herself—to take all this body tissue, mobilize it, make all this milk from it and not have any extra fat on her,” says Weigel. “Well, she also has to do other things, like get pregnant and not get sick and so on. It became fairly clear that that was a trait where we’ve maybe gone too far.”
The revised standards emphasize more balance between strength and dairy character. “We’ve started to get people to think again that, yes, we want cows that produce a lot of milk, but we also want them to not kill themselves doing it,” Weigel says. “We want them to be able to maintain good health.”
Still, the ideal cow epitomized in the revised standards and in the show ring is geared toward a particular kind of dairying, in which cows live in large, open-stall barns and are fed a mixed ration that includes grain, forage, protein and mineral supplements. This is the dominant milk production system in the United States today, but plenty of cows across the nation and around the world live a different kind of life.
“Those cows are Ferraris,” says dairy farmer and UW-Extension agent Vance Haugen, describing the show cows at World Dairy Expo. “That’s wonderful, but I’m not going drive Ferrari on my back forty. I’d rather be driving my Jeep.” Haugen, who operates a pasture-based dairy farm, says he prefers cows with “a little more girth, maybe a wider muzzle so she can graze a little bit better. And smaller.”
Smaller is also better in Central America, says Ysidro Matamoros, an animal scientist from Honduras who brought a group of students to Dairy Expo. In his country, the average dairy herd has about nine cows that subsist on low-quality pasture and endure a brutally hot and humid climate. “She has to be smaller, because she has to dissipate a lot of heat,” he says. She also has to have some meat on her bones, literally. In Honduras—as in many places around the world—much of the milk comes from cows raised for both milk and meat.
What this means is that in an increasingly diverse global dairy industry, there is no ideal. One herd’s perfect cow might be a cull cow in a herd on the other side of the world.
The ability to find genetic markers for hundreds of discrete traits will continue to refine our ability to define perfection on a case-by-case basis. “The idea in the past was to look at what people thought the cow should look like intuitively. What they favored. What they liked to look at,” says Weigel. “Now you’ve got the data telling you what the cow should look like.”
But perfection will always be in the eye of the beholder. Brian Coyne says he will never forget that great Milking Shorthorn with the subpar udder that caught his eye during the national dairy judging contest. Nor will he forget his conversation with the Shorthorn judge in the final portion of the competition, in which contestants give their reasons for ranking the cows the way they did. Coyne dug deep into dairy-judging lexicon to explain why he picked that cow. He talked about her “decided advantage in dairyness, longer and cleaner head and neck and sharply chiseled top line.” But the judge wasn’t buying it. She pressed Coyne, asking how he would have rated the cows on udders alone. By that standard, he admitted, his first-place cow would have gone last.
“The judge gave me this funny look, and I was like, ‘Yeah, I started with my worst-uddered cow,’ and thinking, “I screwed this up really badly.”
Actually, he didn’t mess up much at all. He won the contest with the highest score in event history, and he did okay with the Shorthorns. The one he ranked first belonged in second place. She may not have been the perfect dairy cow, but she was a very dairy cow.
Genetic Counseling for Cows
Professor explores why the best milking cows are often the hardest to get pregnant.
When UW-Madison hired Hasan Khatib as an assistant professor in 2002, his colleagues knew not to expect a typical dairy scientist. A student of human genetics, Khatib had spent three years after earning his doctorate counseling couples about their chances of passing on inherited disorders.
These days, he’s working with a different species—but he’s still doing essentially the same thing.
In his lab. Khatib studies the genes of newly fertilized cow embryos to understand the connections among traits passed down from their parents. For the past several years, he’s been focused on a major frustration for the dairy industry—the fact that today’s super-producing milk cows often have trouble getting pregnant. In fact, during the past 20 years, as milk yields have gone up, pregnancy rates have headed in the other direction, falling by 20 percent.
“A large portion of infertility is because embryos die early, in the first few days of pregnancy,” says Khatib. “That’s why we are focused on this stage of development, where we can identify genetic factors leading to better survivability of embryos, hence increasing fertility of cows.”
Khatib has discovered one reason why increased milk production and infertility go hand-in-hand. He located a gene variant that, when present in homozygous form—two copies, one from each parent—the embryo dies soon after conception. But in heterozygous form, where the cow carries one lethal and one non-lethal variant, the gene is associated with increased milk production.
Because breeders select for higher milk production, Khatib’s data suggests that 65 to 70 percent of Holsteins have that genotype. Breeding heterozygous bulls with heterozygous cows, however, increases the chance of passing on the lethal combination of genes. To avoid that situation, Khatib developed a set of markers that indicate the presence of the gene, which he has patented and licensed to a breeding firm.
“This is like genetic counseling for bulls,” he says. “It’s the same principle: How to use your genetic markers to improve the trait that you’re looking at.”
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