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.”

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 

Give: Honoring Our Teachers

Robert R. Spitzer BS’44 MS’45 PhD’47 has held such positions as president and CEO of the agribusiness firm Murphy Products, president of the Milwaukee School of Engineering and head of the U.S. State Department’s Food for Peace program.

But as the son of hardworking tenant farmers in rural Wisconsin, he understands the value of financial support. When Spitzer went off to study at UW-Madison in 1940 he received a $100 scholarship from Sears, Roebuck & Co.

“That $100 was a big number back when tuition was very modest,” says Spitzer. “I felt from day one that I owed a lot of people.”

During his time at CALS, where he eventually earned a bachelor’s degree in agriculture and master’s and Ph.D. degrees in biochemisty and animal nutrition, Spitzer learned from some of the college’s most illustrious figures. “I worked in a lab next to Harry Steenbock,” he says. “Conrad Elvehjem was one of my teachers.” Other early influences included E.B. Hart, Henry Ahlgren and Mike Foster.

“All these men happened to be not only good scientists but people of breadth and vision,” recalls Spitzer. “The teaching was not only about dairy chemistry or organic chemistry—it was teaching about culture, and about obligation and opportunity.”

The importance of good teaching stayed with him. “When I got out in industry I saw research recognized and I got the feeling that the teaching end of things needed more light on it,” he says. “And so in 1968 we established an outstanding teacher award at my company.”

When the company was sold, Spitzer stepped up to personally ensure that the award continued by establishing a fund at the UW Foundation and designating a portion of his estate to benefit future generations. The Spitzer Excellence in Teaching Award each year provides recognition and $1,000 to a worthy CALS educator.

“It’s motivational,” says this year’s winner Ronald L. Russell, a senior lecturer in animal sciences. “It drives me to want to do an even better job on the teaching front.”

Spitzer continues to serve in various civic organizations and on corporate boards—for example, he’s a director and senior mentor with Kikkoman Foods, Inc.—and, with his wife, Delores, advocate for the things he cares about.

Ensuring an adequate food supply for all—the subject of his book, No Need for Hunger—is one of his most abiding passions.

“To me the true avenue to peace in the world is agriculture training and agricultural independence so that people have enough to eat—and the pride that goes with that kind of life,” he says.

For information about establishing funds,
designating a portion of your estate or making a gift to CALS now, please contact Sara Anderson at the UW Foundation, tel. (608) 263-9537, e-mail Sara.Anderson@supportuw.org.

25th for CIAS: Looking Back, Looking Ahead

When the CALS-based Center for Integrated Agricultural Systems (CIAS) was founded in 1989, its mission and goals were far from mainstream.

“Twenty-five years ago, you ran the risk of being seen as marginal if you advocated a sustainable and integrated approach to agriculture,” says CIAS director Michael Bell, a professor of community and environmental sociology. “Now it’s central to our college’s mission and priority themes. This is a wonderful and quite fundamental change. And it’s due in part to the work of CIAS in integrating not just agriculture but the people involved in it.”

CIAS was created and funded through an act of the Wisconsin Legislature. Since then, it has provided leadership on managed grazing, community-supported agriculture, Farm to School, organic farming, integrated pest management and other agricultural innovations that have achieved mainstream acceptance over the past 25 years. CIAS has given farmers a voice in its work and connected them to CALS research through its Citizens Advisory Council.

As CIAS looks to the future, an emerging research direction is the “perennialization” of agriculture and the landscape. Integrating perennial crops—including hazelnuts, apples, forages and cover crops—with livestock and annual crops contributes to resilient ecosystems, farms and communities.

“One way to look at the perennialization of agriculture is to ask, can we make agriculture perennial?” says Bill Tracy, professor and chair of agronomy and a CIAS faculty associate. “Our current system is not. To make agriculture perennial, we need more perennials on the landscape, including perennial grasses.”

CIAS aims to help growers successfully “perennialize” their farms by helping them better understand the production and economics of a variety of perennial crops. Continued research and outreach on forage crops for graziers is central to CIAS’s future work in this area. Likewise, CIAS plans to research perennial specialty crops that offer multiple ecological, economic and quality of life benefits for Wisconsin farmers.

Farmer training plays an important role in increasing the diversity of perennial crops on farms. CIAS’s schools for beginning dairy and livestock farmers as well as apple growers have helped hundreds of students plan successful farm businesses that incorporate perennial crops. A new CIAS program—the Midwest School for Beginning Grape Growers—launched in March.

Other emerging program areas include labor and fair trade in local and regional food systems. CIAS is also looking at ways to help farmers adapt to a changing climate through sustainable agriculture.

CIAS seeks to secure its financial future with a 25th anniversary fundraising challenge. The goal is to raise at least $50,000 this year. The challenge is off to a strong start with several significant gifts from Wisconsin businesses and individuals.

CIAS is planning several public events in honor of its 25th, including a barn dance at Schuster’s Farm near Deerfield on June 27 and fall seminars on campus. Details for events and donations are posted at www.cias.wisc.edu.

Catch up with … Carl T. Wahl

Carl Wahl’s interest in farming was sparked during a stint with the Peace Corps in Zambia, a landlocked country in southern Africa. His work on maternal and child health and nutrition led him into agriculture as he sought to integrate edible legumes into local farms and diets. Wahl returned to the U.S. to study agroecology at CALS and then went back to Africa, first with the Peace Corps and now with the Ireland-based charity Concern Worldwide, which he serves as the conservation agriculture coordinator in Zambia and neighboring Malawi.

What’s your understanding of “conservation agriculture”? Conservation agriculture (or CA) is a practice to retain moisture and nutrients in the soil to boost short-term crop productivity and long-term sustainability of farmland. CA is essentially a combination of three principles: minimum tillage, retaining soil residues and crop rotation with legumes.

It is similar to what is increasingly a practice in the Midwest. However, in Zambia, Concern Worldwide is working with the poorest (i.e., resource-limited) farmers, who essentially have a hoe and possibly an axe as their entire repertoire of farming tools and farm in an incredibly less forgiving environment. Therefore we include such sustainable agriculture aspects as agroforestry, supplemental mulching and microdosing of inputs (fertilizer, manure, compost, indigenous tree leaves, wood ash, etc.) in order to better translate limited funds and labor into greater yields.

How does conservation agriculture work in Zambia and Malawi? In either country, the word “food” means maize (corn), specifically maize meal for a dish called nshima. Both countries consider nshima a staple food to the extent that they rank in the world’s top three per capita direct consumers of maize. However, a heavy feeder like maize in an environment with limited nutrient (fertilizer) supply and undependable rainfall is an unreliable crop. In Malawi and Zambia, CA practices help mitigate much of the risk associated with growing maize. Additionally, CA’s capacity to include legume crops provides more protein to the household’s diet.

How have you seen conservation agriculture help people? The Western Province of Zambia, where I work, is situated on a drift of eolian sand that is roughly the size of Wisconsin. In the 2012–2013 season, our cumulative rainfall was above normal; however, instead of being distributed over four to five months as usual, we received two-thirds of it over 4.5 weeks and the other third in three days. All the conventional maize failed. Though the CA farmers were also affected, nearly everyone reported that without CA, they would have had no maize whatsoever. That is a pretty powerful incentive to adopt the technology.

What projects are you most excited about?  The first is our effort to engage and develop certified seed grower groups on a larger scale to provide a variety of quality seed to farmers at lower cost. We are over 300 miles from most of the seed producers in Zambia, so bringing that resource closer can really relieve the chronic pressure of getting an adequate and high-quality seed supply.

The second is use of the burgeoning mobile phone network to send text messages that can pass on Extension messages as well as market information to farmers, enabling them to both produce more and sell more at a better price. The potential ability to transmit information quickly and cheaply could be a real game-changer in our agriculture picture in both Zambia and Malawi.

Field Notes: Potato Exchange Benefits Peruvians

In the growing region around Puno, Peru, farmers hedge their bets.

Located 12,000 feet above sea level, on the side of an Andean mountain, Puno has a growing season that’s short, cool and prone to frost. The staple food of the area is potato, and local farmers plant dozens of different varieties on their plots—some that they relish for their flavor, as well as some less palatable, frost-tolerant types.

In good years everything grows well and families have plenty to eat. In bad years—when there is an unseasonable or particularly hard frost—their preferred plants fail, and they must rely on the small, bitter potatoes produced by the hardy survivors.

Soon, however, they will have a better option. For the past two growing seasons, farmers near Puno and in three Peruvian highland villages have participated in a project to grow and test frost-tolerant versions of their favorite local varieties, with great success.

These special potato plants were developed in Wisconsin by a team of CALS plant scientists and plant breeders using germplasm stored in the U.S. Potato Genebank, located in Sturgeon Bay.

“I think this is the first case where a potato developed in the U.S. has been accepted by local farmers in these communities in the Andes,” says project coordinator Alfonso del Rio, an associate scientist in the lab of John Bamberg. As an employee of the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service, Bamberg serves as director of the U.S. Potato Genebank. He is also a professor of horticulture with CALS.

The plant materials used for the project, like the vast majority found in the U.S. Potato Genebank, were brought to the United States from the Andes, the potato’s site of origin. This makes the project a special opportunity for potato breeders in the United States to give something back.

“We’re interested in returning the benefits of our genebank to Peru and the broader Andean region because that’s the area that supplied our country with germplasm,” says Bamberg, who led the project’s breeding effort. Earlier work by CALS horticulture professor Jiwan Palta, the third member of the team, made modern marker-assisted breeding for frost tolerance possible.

To make the new potato lines, Bamberg took an exceptionally frost-tolerant wild relative of the potato family—a weed, basically—and crossed it with seven popular native Peruvian potato varieties to generate frost-tolerant versions of the native potato plants.

Although the new potato lines were originally meant to be added to Peru’s national potato breeding program as germplasm for further breeding, the farmers who were involved in the trials are eager to start growing some of them right away. And no wonder. This past growing season in Puno, after a late, hard frost, a few of the new frost-tolerant lines far outperformed the local varieties, yielding twice as many pounds of potato per plot.

The CALS team hopes these more dependable potato plants will help bolster Peru’s vulnerable rural communities.

“If the farmers could send part of their harvest to market, even 10 or 20 percent, they could have some money to invest in community development—in things like clinics, schools and libraries,” says del Rio.

Happy Cows Everywhere

AMY STANTON joined CALS and UW-Extension in 2012 as a dairy science professor with particular expertise in animal well-being. Prior to joining CALS she was a post-doctoral fellow in the department of population medicine at the University of Guelph in Canada, where she also had earned a BS in agriculture and a Ph.D. with a dual emphasis in epidemiology and animal welfare. Stanton started off her academic career as a farm kid from a large dairy who was determined to work with animals, specifically dairy cattle. She thought she’d become a veterinarian until the science of animal welfare caught her eye. “It was really then that I found my passion,” she says. “Rather than treating individual animals I could start to look at the big picture. How could we change dairy cattle management practices and improve well-being for all animals rather than just treating the sick ones?”

Can you describe to us what you mean by animal well-being?
Animal well-being, or animal welfare science, is basically evaluating how an animal is performing in its environment. We take three basic principles: one is, how is the animal feeling? Is it hungry? Is it thirsty? Is it frustrated? The other principle is, how are the animals functioning? Are they growing, are they healthy, are they productive? The third is the animals’ ability to express important behaviors. What behaviors are very important to them? Are they able to groom if grooming is important to them? Are they able to escape if they’re in a fearful or stressful situation? By looking at these three factors we can evaluate if an animal is in the best possible situation for itself and how we could potentially improve it.

How do you determine what’s important to a cow?
One way is to force them to make a choice. We do what’s called a preference test. An example for a cow would be if we wanted to see which was more important—feed or the ability to rest. We might restrict the cows’ ability to lie down and eat for a few hours and then give them an option where they must choose one or the other. What we’ve found is that cattle actually prefer to rest rather than eat. So if you keep the animals away from their home space, perhaps going to the milking parlor for an extended period of time, you will actually reduce their feed intake because they have a limited amount of time in which to feed and sleep and they will choose to sleep.

How might we apply this information? What are some goals you’d hope to achieve?
Our overall goal is to get the animals to be comfortable and feeling very happy so that they are productive in such a way that they are sustainable for the dairy industry. By providing this information we can alter the cows’ environment. Taking the example of feed and rest, we know that we cannot keep them away from their home pen for long or we’re going to compromise their feed intake, and that is a big driver for milk production. We need to know where these trade-offs are, and through that we can improve their productivity and well-being.

Are cows happier in California than in Wisconsin?
No comment! [laughs] No, regardless of whether a cow is in Wisconsin or California, what it really comes down to is how we manage the animals. It doesn’t matter what size or what type of farm you have. It’s the human-animal interaction that seems to be the biggest driver. The farmers who are very dedicated to cow comfort and cow management—that’s where you see the really good and happy cows.

Is there any relationship between how humans feel and how the animals either feel or are treated?
That has a huge impact, and there actually have been studies to show that really we feed off of each other. When you have a really close working relationship, which is what farmers and their cattle have, you see that how the producer feels will impact the cattle and their productivity. So, if a producer has very negative interactions with his animals you see that they are less likely to let their milk down in the parlor and that decreases their productivity. On the other hand, you can also have feedback the other way; if you have sickness and a disease outbreak, and I often see this with many farmers, there’s concern about depression and anxiety in the producer because these animals that many of the farmers are quite closely bonded with are sick. They don’t enjoy going to the farm as much and it’s very upsetting for them to have their livestock ill. You can have feedback both ways.

Can you tell us a bit about your research priorities?
One of my first priorities is to look at sickness behavior. My research project is twofold. One aspect is to try to identify when is the optimal time to look for sick animals, and two, what are their behaviors and how can we train people who are not familiar with dairy cattle to identify sick calves.
What we really find in the changing dynamics on farms is that there are a lot of people who have not grown up on a farm who are handling the animals on a day-to-day basis. If we can move beyond, “Look at that animal. Can’t you tell she’s sick?” to “Okay. Look at this animal. Perhaps her back is arched, she is lying down, she’s slower to get up.” What are some behaviors where we can say, “This is what a sick animal is doing very precisely.” We can then improve disease detection and prevent disease outbreaks by identifying the sick animal early to prevent the spread of disease.

You want to put some very objective measures on what that looks like.
Yes, exactly, and perhaps developing a score sheet so we can say, “Okay, if you see these one, two or three behaviors in dairy calves, go and take a closer look at them and do a physical exam.”

One of your colleagues, dairy science professor Pam Ruegg, took pictures of dirty cows. They’re the most remarkable four pictures: here’s a very, very dirty cow, here’s a somewhat dirty cow, here’s a somewhat cleaner cow, and here’s a clean cow. It’s as simple as it could be.
Yes, and that’s really the simplicity that I’d like to develop for identifying sickness behavior. This is what a sick cow looks like—and surprisingly, for people who haven’t grown up around cattle, and even for some people who have grown up around cattle, that’s a very difficult thing to identify. You start to see them as a whole group rather than the individuals and how those behaviors are different.

We’ve just opened a remodeled, state-of-the-art Dairy Cattle Center here on campus. What excites you the most about this facility?
In terms of cow comfort, I’m really excited about the changes in stall design. The previous barn was built in 1956 and our knowledge of what cows need and want for their comfort has advanced substantially in that time. An example is the size of the stalls, which have been considerably enlarged to accommodate the larger Holstein cows we are using today compared to the smaller breeds used in the 1950s. We have also improved our handling facilities so that they are designed with cattle behavior in mind. This allows for lower stress and safer handling of cattle for both people and the animals. In the summer months, the cows should be much more comfortable as we have also focused on cooling the air in the summer. Cattle prefer cooler temperatures and during the summer they can experience heat stress. The new ventilation system will allow us to keep the cows much more comfortable.

Helping women help themselves

A little assistance can go a long way. That’s the lesson learned from multiple trips by CALS dairy experts to the state of Uttar Pradesh in northern India, one of the poorest parts of the world.

Many farmers there keep only a few cows or very small herds that, for the most part, produce enough milk for a family’s own use. Caring for livestock is work that falls almost exclusively to women.

By teaching the women better dairy practices—such as proper hygiene in milking and milk storage, providing adequate water, shelter and vaccinations for livestock, the basics of improvements in breeding—CALS experts and their partners in India are helping women dramatically increase their cows’ milk yields. Not only does that improve their families’ nutrition, it allows women to sell excess milk, adding to the family income.

Dairy science instructor Jerry Guenther has been to India three times over the past three years. “Most of the women are unable to read and write. But they are very attentive and very hungry for information,” says Guenther, who interacts with the women through an interpreter. “With every point you talk about, they are making notes and thinking about it. And they come up with very interesting questions.”

Since CALS teams began going over in 2009—besides Guenther, instructors have included Bob Kaiser and Ken Bolton—they have trained some 1,400 women.

But the team’s reach goes much wider. The women come from all over Uttar Pradesh—and when they return to their villages, they teach other women what they’ve learned. USAID, the program’s main funder, a few years ago reported that by adopting the new dairy practices, 32,000 women dairy farmers had seen a 25 percent increase in milk production, earning on average $11 more every month. The CALS team reports that since then the number of farmers helped has surpassed 50,000.

The initiative began as part of the Khorana Program run by agricultural economics professor Ken Shapiro and biochemistry professor Aseem Ansari, who was born and raised in India. It is conducted in partnership with the Babcock Institute for International Dairy Research and Development and the India-based Rajiv Gandhi Charitable Trust.

The dairy know-how provided by CALS fits into a bigger program of establishing women’s self-help groups throughout Uttar Pradesh. Guenther attended training sessions where women were taught how to pool their money to make loans to support each other’s growing dairy businesses or even cover each other’s emergency family health care needs.

Such a comprehensive approach is needed, says Ansari. “Women in this part of India are traditionally forbidden from making even the simplest decisions. While dairy work is assigned to women, for them to be truly empowered they need to be educated in the basics of how to interface with the world that lies beyond their front door—let alone the marketplace, banks and other financial institutions,” he says.

Women are seizing the opportunity to take part in that bigger world, Ansari says.

“Most of the rural, semi-literate women I met turned out to be incredibly bright and entrepreneurial,” says Ansari. “Once they figured out the system, they nimbly melded dairy management with the traditional constraints and then slowly pushed the constraints to gain new freedoms and develop long-term plans for their children and families.”

The Culture of Ag

The last thing you’d expect to see inside a university’s newly renovated, state-of-the-art biochemistry center is a 1940s Regionalist masterpiece celebrating rural life. Ditto for a rotating exhibition of paintings by contemporary rural artists ringing the grand vestibule of Agricultural Hall, seat of the University of Wisconsin–Madison College of Agricultural and Life Sciences.

CALS’ reputation as a scientific innovator is well established. Less heralded, and unique among agricultural colleges, is that CALS throughout its history has been a cultural innovator as well, taking pains to illuminate the ways in which the sciences and the arts intersect—and why each way of knowing the world is so important to the other.

John Steuart Curry’s 1942 mural in the Biochemistry Building offers a prime example. The Social Benefits of Biochemical Research powerfully illustrates the benefits made possible by vitamin discoveries and applications. On the left side of the main panel, the artist depicts a sickly hog and wan children, including a boy whose bowed legs are a sign of rickets. At the center and right, we see hale and hearty kids, adults and livestock. Men pictured at the back of the mural are some of CALS’ legendary figures in vitamin research, including Harry Steenbock, who eradicated rickets by discovering how to increase vitamin D content in foods.

Far from being accidental or casual, Curry’s decade-long association with the College of Agriculture was part of a deliberate aim to meld culture with agriculture. From 1936 until his death in 1946, Curry was artist-in-residence at UW in the first such arrangement at any American university—and his residency was in the College of Agriculture.

While artist-in-residence programs are now common at schools and universities across the country (and even in some businesses, such as Milwaukee’s Pfister Hotel), they were a novel concept in Depression-era America.

Yet Curry’s residency is just one facet of CALS’ longstanding interconnections with arts and culture, both historically and today. Such connections highlight the importance of agriculture for students and the general public. They also provide important pathways for rural people to express themselves and celebrate their livelihoods and communities.

Spotlighting the cultural side of agriculture is a deep part of Wisconsin’s heritage. And that tradition still burns brightly through new initiatives of which many CALS faculty, alumni and students are a part.

Keep on Farming

Sometimes there’s a moment in life when everything changes. For Arlington farmer Alan Kaltenberg, that moment happened twice.

The first was when he lost his arm four inches below the shoulder in a childhood accident involving farm machinery. “I’ve been without my left arm for 46 years,” says Kaltenberg, now 50.

The second came two years ago when Kaltenberg fell 30 feet off a grain bin, shattering both legs, including his ankles. “I landed standing straight up and down on my feet so the bones going up my leg just splintered,” he says. The accident left him with limited mobility.

Kaltenberg continues to farm about 300 acres of soybeans, wheat and corn, raise beef cattle and board his niece’s horse—a prodigious amount of work made possible with the help of AgrAbility, a federal program that for 20 years has had an active branch in Wisconsin housed at CALS.

AgrAbility has a simple mission: to help people keep working in production agriculture, even in the wake of an accident or basic wear and tear on the body. The program is run as a partnership between the CALS Department of Biological Systems Engineering (BSE), UW Extension and Easter Seals of Wisconsin. Another key partner is the state Department of Workforce Development’s Division of Vocational Rehabilitation, which provides farmers with assistive technology—the nuts-and-bolts devices that allow farmers to keep working.

AgrAbility’s team of rehabilitation specialists and extension agents serve around 400 farming families each year, helping with problems ranging from arthritis and respiratory conditions to hearing and visual impairments, chronic back pain and amputations.

“We cover a broad umbrella of people with limiting conditions working in every area of agriculture—you name it,” says Vicki Janisch, AgrAbility’s outreach coordinator. “We help everybody who wants to continue farming.”

A farmer’s disabilities may change over a lifetime, and AgrAbility adjusts services accordingly. Kaltenburg’s second accident, for example, made climbing ladders impossible.

“They set up a skid loader that’s operated all one-handed, a stairway in our shop, a boom lift, and a feed mill I can use to unload from the tractor,” says Kaltenberg. “AgrAbility also helped look at ways to eliminate the repetition of doing things with one arm, to save wear and tear.”

Although loss of a limb and impaired mobility were big blows, the most important thing to Kaltenberg is that he can keep doing what he loves.

“It’s a life that’s tough but rewarding. It’s hard to explain how rewarding it really is,” says Kaltenberg. “It’s in your blood.”

Five Things Everyone Should Know About…Raw Milk

1.     Wisconsin is not alone in its interest in raw milk. In May Wisconsin Gov. Jim Doyle vetoed a bill that would have allowed farmers to sell unpasteurized milk to consumers on a limited basis. But this is likely not the last we will hear about raw milk. Nationally consumer interest in raw milk is peaking, and 28 states now allow raw milk to be sold either directly to consumers or through retail outlets. Raw milk is also used in some forms of cheese, such as Parmesan or Cheddar, that are aged over long periods of time.

2.     The risks associated with drinking raw milk are real. The federal government and public health agencies oppose consumption of raw milk because it can harbor pathogens such as Salmonella, Listeria, Campylobacter and toxic strains of E. coli, which can cause serious and sometimes fatal illnesses. More than 100 years of scientific study bear these risks out. Moreover, no farming practice can completely eliminate the presence of these pathogens. Only pasteurization, the process of heating milk to rid it of dangerous microbes, has proved effective.

3.     The risks are also relatively small. Multiple surveys have shown that between 1 and 10 percent of raw milk samples are likely to contain pathogenic bacteria. It’s estimated that at least half of Wisconsin’s 13,000 dairy farm families consume raw milk, and we have not seen catastrophic consequences from this consumption. Farmers argue there is a bigger risk of getting hurt driving to a farm than there is from drinking raw milk, and that may well be true. But the reality of that risk remains.

4.     Paradoxically, some people drink it for health reasons. Michael Bell, a CALS professor of community and environmental sociology, has done survey research to investigate why consumers drink raw milk despite its health risks. Many of the consumers in his study reported that raw milk helps them deal with personal or family health issues, including psoriasis, allergies, intestinal diseases, digestive problems and nervous system diseases. The root causes of these health problems are uncertain, and this is partly why sufferers seek alternative treatments. Although almost no reputable research has been done to test these potential health benefits, clearly many consumers have deeply held beliefs that drinking raw milk is worth the risk.

5.     Food is usually presumed guilty until proven innocent. In this country, most regulatory systems put the burden on food manufacturers to prove their products are safe. There are clearly public safety reasons for that bias, but business interests also play a significant role. Food suppliers and their insurance companies don’t want to risk being liable in incidents of food contamination, and so they have a powerful incentive to err on the side of safety. The national chain Whole Foods, for example, has decided not to sell raw milk because of the high cost of potential liability.

Scott Rankin is an associate professor and current chair of the CALS Department of Food Science.An expert on the characterization of dairy food flavors, he studies the chemical reactions and compounds that create the unique flavors of cheese and other dairy products. He works closely with dairy processors throughout Wisconsin to solve flavor problems and improve techniques for making dairy products.