Upping Our Global Game

SUNDARAM GUNASEKARAN, a professor of biological systems engineering, was recently selected to serve as faculty director of CALS International Programs.

Gunasekaran—or Guna, as he is widely known—has made his mark as a food engineer. His research focuses on the rheology of food, especially cheese. More recently, he has focused on applying nanotechnology and other methodologies as tools for pathogen detection and processing validation in foods.

But it’s his life experiences, along with his research prowess, that distinguish him as ideal for his new position. Guna’s international experience is geographically diverse. He received his bachelor’s degree in agricultural engineering from Tamil Nadu Agricultural University in Coimbatore, India, his master’s degree in food process engineering from the Asian Institute of Technology in Bangkok, Thailand, and his Ph.D. in agricultural and biological engineering from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He’s been a visiting professor in South Korea, a Fulbright Fellow in Denmark, a USAID Farmer-to-Farmer consultant in Bangladesh and a mentor for a Syrian scientist under the Scholar Rescue Fund.

“I have also traveled widely and enjoy working with individuals and groups from different walks of life and interests,” he says.

As leader of CALS International Programs, Guna will identify and pursue international activities consistent with the college’s strategic goals. He will lead efforts to identify new resources for international activities and oversee the distribution of seed funding for new projects.

Why are international programs so important for CALS? 

The world has become very interdependent, and so have the problems we face. Many of today’s scientific challenges and practical problems can be solved not through isolated islands of intellectual pursuits, but rather by seeking out and incorporating ideas and approaches from different disciplines and across state and national boundaries.

Indeed, the scope of research and outreach performed by CALS faculty and staff extends far beyond the boundaries of the state and the nation. In a recent survey we found that more than 200 people in CALS have been working in about 80 countries around the world in various projects at one time or another. We are very engaged internationally.

International Programs can help elevate our international engagement from an “individual project” level to a more cohesive programmatic effort focusing on key areas of expertise in the college and implement a strategic framework for sustaining this activity in the long term.

What is your vision for CALS International Programs? 

My vision is for CALS to become one of the leaders among the nation’s land-grant colleges in international engagement, and for it to effect positive change in global agricultural, natural resource, energy, environmental and life science enterprises through research, education and outreach. We are a world-class institution, and CALS is among the very best land-grant colleges in the nation. Thus it is very appropriate that we envision an international program of similar stature.

How do we currently compare to other institutions? 

Other institutions have much larger international program activities. That’s something we want to see happen at UW– Madison.

Most major international collaborations deal with USDA and USAID projects. The United States government has resources to help developing nations solve their problems in securing a food supply, growing more food and developing infrastructure for storage, handling and distribution of food.

For example, the U.S. government has a large grant program called Feed the Future. We are one of the largest agricultural research schools that is not involved with that type of program. We are a player, but we are not considered to be a leader. That’s what I would like to help change.

How else is this work funded? 

In addition to funding from international agencies, there are local governments and private entities like the Gates Foundation. We also have support from alumni donors and alumni groups.

How has international research been changing over time? 

The United States is still a major intellectual and knowledge base—but now, as other countries and regions in the world are also growing their expertise, we can join hands and solve problems together rather than just being the problem solvers ourselves.

What are the hurdles to developing international research? 

Building relationships takes time. Normally if somebody is familiar with your institution or you as a person, that is the first point of contact. And then we get to know their strengths and needs, and then figure out how we can plug in our strengths and capacities. This kind of “feeling-out” process takes time.

We have to take time to travel and meet people and learn about their region and identify the problems they face there, and then identify researchers in Madison who have the capacity and the intellectual base to help solve some of those problems.

Does this process take resources away from our research endeavor here? 

On the contrary, it actually helps add to our research capacity and resources. Sometimes we develop a solution and international program activities provide additional resources to put that research output into action where it is needed. It takes some effort and capacity from our researchers to be able to focus their attention on international problems, but I don’t think it takes substantial resources away from what we are doing here.

How does international research enterprise affect students? 

We, as an institution, are responsible for developing future generations of citizens, and a student who is knowledgeable and well-versed in global issues and is sympathetic to different languages and cultures is a student who is able to solve the problems of the future. In that respect we believe that international engagement for students is critical for them to become future leaders and citizens of the world.

You held a number of listening sessions with faculty and staff from across the college to hear about their international work and their needs. What did you learn? 

The general consensus is: 1) they value international engagement; 2) they’re very active in it already; and 3) they’d like international programs to support their cause so they can do it more and better.

For example, they’d like us to help with their administrative needs so that they can focus on the technical and scientific aspects. Our office can help with budgetary issues, signing MOUs, and dealing with interinstitutional or intergovernmental issues. They also want to be more actively involved in large projects. So we are in the process of identifying opportunities where we can have multiinstitutional, multiinvestigator-based projects. It is something that individual investigators are not able to do, but that CALS International Programs can facilitate.

Beyond funding, are there other ways for alumni to assist in this effort? 

Certainly our alumni can be the spokespeople, our ambassadors. Especially our alumni who are internationally inclined, who have gone on a study abroad, or people from different countries who studied here and went back home—or even if they stayed here but still have strong connections back home. They identify with UW–Madison, and this is the institution they think of first when they think of collaborating, and so we become the first point of contact for them.

And when we go to another country, we look for someone who has been here, and they become our first point of contact—a resource center, so to speak, to help us navigate the local bureaucracy or culture. They become very valuable partners in this process. We have a number of examples of alumni we work with in engaging with different countries.

Strengthening Our Global Engagement

Dean Kate VanderBosch

Dean Kate VandenBosch

“The boundaries of the university are the boundaries of the state.” That belief has broadened since the inception of the Wisconsin Idea early last century. The boundaries of the university are now the boundaries of the world—and no college embodies this more than CALS.

CALS faculty members conduct research in some 80 countries around the globe. Their work includes everything from increasing vitamin A content in local produce and breeding hardy crop varieties for challenging climates to economic development and opening new markets for Wisconsin products. Their activities have resulted in a multitude of discoveries that benefit CALS, Wisconsin and communities around the world.

But could we be doing even better? That question was considered when we embarked on our CALS strategic planning effort, and it was answered with a resounding “Yes!” What followed was a thoughtful, committee-led process that included a wide range of voices from within and outside of the college. In a final report the committee stated that “renewed investment in international activities will produce excellence in CALS scholarship and teaching, advance the college’s strategic planning goals, have a significant impact on our stakeholders and generate a substantial return on investment.”

In order to achieve optimal results from that investment, they deemed that a faculty-led International Programs unit is needed—something CALS has not had for about a half-dozen years. Faculty leadership is essential, the committee said, to “reach the threshold level of coordination and expertise required to win large international research and training grants such as those recently awarded to our peer institutions.”

Enter Sundaram Gunasekaran (photo left), a professor of biological systems engineering who has been selected to serve as faculty director of CALS International Programs. Gunasekaran—or “Guna,” as he is widely known—is brimming with ideas and enthusiasm about his new role. This past spring he held a number of “listening and learning” sessions welcoming all CALS faculty, staff and partners to discuss their international work and how a robust reenvisioning of CALS International Programs could help them better pursue it.

“My vision for CALS International Programs is for it to become among the leaders in the nation’s land-grant colleges for international engagement—and for it to effect positive change in global agricultural and life sciences enterprises through research, education and outreach,” Gunasekaran says. “CALS is among the very best land-grant colleges in the nation. Thus it is very appropriate that we envision an international program of a similar stature.”

We’ll be hearing more about CALS’ “new and improved” International Programs in the coming months, including here in Grow magazine. In the meantime, on behalf of the CALS community on campus and around the world, I’d like to extend a warm welcome to Guna in his exciting new role.

Even Cows are “Texting”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Moth Mating, Disrupted

It’s no fun being a male moth in one of Shawn Steffan’s cranberry research plots. When the time comes to mate, it’s tough to find a partner.

Here’s why: Using an approach known as pheromone-based mating disruption, Steffan and his team dot their test fields with hundreds of dollops of pheromone-infused wax—known as SPLAT® for short—that give off the scent of female moths ready to mate.

The males can’t tell the difference between the pheromone plume emanating from the SPLAT versus the real thing—and many die before they are able to home in on a real partner.

“We throw a wrench into their communication system with lots of false plumes. In essence, it’s moth birth control,” explains Steffan MS’97, a CALS professor of entomology and a USDA entomologist.

Wisconsin is the nation’s leading producer of cranberries, growing more than all other states combined. Insect pests are a perennial problem, and while growers have insecticide sprays that largely do the job, notes Steffan, there’s room for improvement—especially in the interest of saving pollinators such as the honeybee.

“One of the typical spray-timings for the cranberry fruitworm is when the adult moths are flying, which is right during bloom when the honeybees are out,” explains Steffan. “That’s one of the huge drivers behind pheromone-based mating disruption—to avoid spraying when pollinators are active.”

In addition to such environmental benefits, this approach could also have a major impact on growers’ bottom lines. With growers doing fewer pesticide applications, the state’s cranberries should have an easier time entering European and Asian markets, which have stricter rules about pesticide residue levels.

“Wisconsin fruit has sometimes failed to meet those standards,” says Steffan, “but mating disruption is poised to change that.”

Growers of all stripes are eager to get their hands on this new option, including organic growers, who need more pest control options. “This will give them a powerful new tool,” says Steffan.

To speed things along, Steffan and his team are hard at work trying to mechanize the application of SPLAT. They are particularly excited about the potential of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs, better known as drones) and are working with Brian Luck, a CALS/UW–Extension professor of biological systems engineering, to build the perfect UAV for the job.

Steffan’s team is also exploring reformulating the SPLAT recipe. It currently works against two of the state’s top three cranberry pests: the aforementioned cranberry fruitworm and the blackheaded fireworm. But they want to go for the trifecta by adding the pheromone for the sparganathis fruitworm.

“I think this would be the first-ever three-species mating disruption blend,” says Steffan. “That’s what I dream about.”

PHOTO: Entomologist Shawn Steffan poses with SPLAT (in beaker) and a UAV—but the UAVs to be used in SPLAT application, now being built in partnership with BSE professor Brian Luck, will be bigger and better. (Photo by Joan Fischer/UW-Madison CALS)

To Eat It—Or Not

Food engineer Sundaram Gunasekaran, a professor of biological systems engineering, works with gold. But you won’t find the shiny yellow stuff in his lab; instead, the vials on his bench are mostly purple and red. Gunasekaran works with tiny pieces of gold—nanoparticles—that come in almost every color except gold. And those colors can tell a story.

Gunasekaran’s research focuses on food safety concerns, such as whether a food product was transported and stored properly or whether it has become contaminated. But how can a producer or consumer easily know a product’s history and whether it is
safe to eat? That’s where gold nanoparticles come in handy.

“The color of gold nanoparticles will change depending on the size and shape of the particle,” explains Gunasekaran. “At different temperatures, depending on how long you let the particles grow, they acquire different sizes and shapes. And that changes their colors.”

Gunasekaran’s lab is using those color changes for a difficult task—tracking the time and temperature history of a food product as it is packaged, transported and stored. Up to now similar sensors have given consumers some of this information, but they can miss such critical events as, for example, a short temperature spike that could be enough to kick-start the growth of a dangerous microorganism.

The sensors that Gunasekaran and his team are developing provide a more complete and accurate story. The new sensor can differentiate between food stored at high temperatures first and low temperatures second versus a product stored first at low temperatures and then at high temperatures. And that’s thanks to the properties of the gold nano-particles. The color of the first sample would be different than that of the second because of how and when the particles changed size and shape.

“We’re able to do this because the nanoparticle synthesis is affected by how the particles grow initially versus later,” explains Gunasekaran. “We call this the thermal history indicator, or THI.”

These gold nanoparticle sensors are being patented through the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation (WARF), and students in Gunasekaran’s lab won a UW–Madison Discovery to Product award. The student team also won a People’s Choice
award in the 2014 Agricultural Innovation Prize competition.

They are now working to further develop and optimize the system. Since different food products travel through different channels, some sensors will be best used to track long-distance travel over the course of a month, while others will track history for only a matter of hours. Some sensors will work best in frozen storage and others will be optimized for various room temperatures.

The goal of optimization is a simple-to-use biosensor customized for any given food product. Gunasekaran envisions the sensors—now being developed as self-adhesive dots or stickers—being used anywhere along the food production channel. Producers, packagers, transporters and even consumers could easily use the biosensors to understand the thermal history of their product, saving time and money and avoiding recalls and health issues.

“There are a number of ways to use this technology, and making a food product’s history easy to see is the key,” says Gunasekaran. “Food is being wasted because people are throwing it out according to an expiration date, or people are getting sick because they eat food that’s gone bad. Those things can be avoided by having a better product safety indicator.”

More Milk for China

Pamela Ruegg

Pamela Ruegg

Tell us what you are doing in China.
I’m leading an interdisciplinary team from UW– Madison in working with the Nestle company to help develop a $400 million Dairy Farming Institute (DFI) in northeastern China. Our role in this, through a three-year, $1.7 million agreement, is to develop a teaching curriculum for farmers, consultants, veterinarians and others throughout China.

Can you describe what the Chinese are trying to address with these dairy initiatives?
There is an enormous demand for animal proteins, specifically milk protein, in China. People want to feed their children high-quality proteins, just like we want to feed our children high-quality proteins. And one of the best ways to do that is with our very nutritious product, milk. This growing demand in China is so large that they’re estimating that, by 2020, meeting that need would require an additional volume of milk equal to the entire output of the dairy industries in Australia and New Zealand combined. And that need can’t bemet entirely by imports. So there’s a need to develop the Chinese dairy industry. The U.S. dairy industry and Wisconsin dairy suppliers are engaged in that work, and we are as well.

What can we here at CALS and in Wisconsin offer this new initiative?
Our role is a unique example of how the status of the Wisconsin dairy industry is recognized globally. We’re recognized here in Wisconsin as being leaders in the dairy industry, and they came to us because of that. The Chinese industry is seeking that knowledge base that we have here, they’re seeking the technology, and, specifically, the education we have here. They came to us and asked, “Could you help us develop a curriculum to help raise the overall level of our science knowledge base in a way that will result in safer and higher-quality food products?”

Please describe the project—how long is it going to last, how many people does it involve?
It will ultimately involve most people in the Department of Dairy Science and many people outside of it—for example, from the School of Veterinary Medicine and the CALS departments of biological systems engineering and agricultural economics. We’ve also got some curriculum designers from other colleges involved. As noted, our initial contract is for three years. The first courses took place this past fall—a threeday, introductory-level feeding course and a more advanced course about reproductive management of dairy cows. It is very likely that the project will go well beyond the three-year initial course development period. The institute itself is meant to be permanent.

How did the first courses go? Who taught them and what did they report back?
Both initial courses were fully subscribed, and all indications are that they were very well received. The learners especially liked the practical, on-farm training and case studies that reinforced the scientific principles that made up the lecture portions. For the first offering of these courses, several ofour faculty and staff from dairy science—professors Dave Combs and Milo Wiltbank, along with outreach program manager Karen Nielsen—flew to China to participate in the opening ceremony for the DFI and to work alongside industry partners and Chinese DFI trainers in delivering the classes. Ultimately, after the trainers are fully competent with the course material, level 1 and 2 courses will be offered without direct teaching by UW faculty. We will continue to develop and revise curriculum for these levels and provide oversight and quality control. Higher-level courses for veterinarians and top managers will continue to be taught by UW faculty.

Describe the partnership with Nestle.
Nestle is the leader and the primary initial investor in the Dairy Farming Institute, but there are partners from all around the world, including our own dairy farmers here in Wisconsin. Land O’Lakes, which is, of course, a cooperative, is the feed partner at the Dairy Farming Institute. And there are other companies in Wisconsin as well who have invested in the Dairy Farming Institute. Our participation is also meant to support their success.

How may this benefit the state of Wisconsin?
It will certainly lead to additional opportunities for our students here. We’re hoping that as this institute gets off the ground, we’ll be able to offer internships and have student exchanges. We also, through our participation, are supporting the Wisconsin businesses.

“We’re hoping our participation will enhance the markets for Wisconsin agribusinesses.”

Can you please look into your crystal ball for a moment and imagine what the Chinese dairy business might look like five years, 10 years, 20 years from now?
The first time I went to China was 10 years ago, and in that 10 years it’s just been remarkable, the transformation of that industry. The industry is rapidly growing. There’s a lot of investment in it. This particular project is meant to stimulate the development of Wisconsin-style farms—midsize dairies, for the most part, that are owned by private entrepreneurs, private farmers just like here. The goal of Nestle is to kind of replicate what we’ve got here that’s so beneficial for our state and our industry, where we have a lot of independent producers producing milk in a very sustainable fashion.


 

Pamela Ruegg , DVM, is a CALS/UW–Extension dairy science professor and milk quality specialist whose expertise has taken her around the world. She has done international consulting work on milk quality and safety as well as enhancing on-farm implementation of best management practices to improve herd health. Her latest work has taken her to the northeast province of Heilongjiang, China, where the Nestle company is establishing a dairy training facility. The Dairy Farming Institute is a key element of Nestle’s effort to establish a larger, more reliable source of high-quality milk to supply its processing facilities in China. The institute will include a training center and three demonstration farms to teach farmers and dairy industry professionals the skills needed to manage larger, more sophisticated dairy operations. We sat down with Ruegg to discuss the university’s role in it.

Of Cows and Climate

ON A SUBZERO FEBRUARY day, Mark Powell stops his vehicle on the road a few miles outside Prairie du Sac. He’s been explaining that cows actually enjoy the polar weather—and as if to prove it, a frisky group in the barnyard across the road turns toward us and rushes the fence.

As a USDA soil scientist and CALS professor of soil science, Powell is focused on the ground beneath their hooves. A few years ago he led a survey of manure handling on Wisconsin dairy farms. He and his colleagues knew how much cows left behind—about 17 gallons a day—but had only educated guesses about the ultimate environmental impact of barnyard design. In open yards like this, says Powell, they found that 40 to 60 percent of the manure ends up uncollected. “It just stays there,” he says. In the decade since his survey, the manure challenge has only grown, both in Wisconsin and nationwide. Water quality has been the major concern, but air quality and climate change are gaining.

A few minutes later we turn into the 2,006-acre U.S. Dairy Forage Research Center farm, and the talking points all turn to plumbing. There’s an experimental field fitted to track how well nutrients from manure bond to the soil. Parallel to one barn are nine small yards with different surfaces, each monitored to measure gasses emitted and what washes out with the rainwater.

The manure pit is frozen over, but circumnavigating the complex—shared by CALS and the U.S. Department of Agriculture—we arrive at the southern terminus of the barns. Uncharacteristic ventilation ducts adorn the walls and roofline. Inside are four unique stalls that can contain up to four cows each. The manure trough is lined with trays so that each cow’s waste can be set aside for further experiments. When the cows return from the milking parlor, airtight curtains will drop, isolating each chamber.

Catch up with … Kifle Gebremedhin

As a professor of agricultural and biological engineering at Cornell University for more than three decades, Kifle Gebremedhin MS’75 PhD’78 is in a prime position to offer young people advice about the field. His contributions have been wide-ranging, particularly in the areas of animal thermal stress physiology and design of post-frame buildings. Two of his findings have become the basis for national standards set by the American Society of Agricultural and Biological Engineers.

But Gebremedhin is in a good position to offer life lessons as well. He recently visited the CALS campus to give two technical presentations—and one, for BSE students, that served to inspire. His talk, titled “Be the Best You Can Be,” emphasized hard work, persistence and flexibility—values that have served him well through many challenges.

Gebremedhin grew up on a family farm in Eritrea, a small country in the Horn of Africa. Although he was gifted academically, his parents could only afford to send him to a vocational high school rather than a university prep school because it offered room and board. That put him on track for a diploma program rather than a more prestigious degree program in college, which he attended in Ethiopia. An uncle who had earlier settled in Wisconsin helped him relocate and eventually attend the University of Wisconsin–Platteville, where he earned a B.S. in civil engineering. For graduate study at UW-Madison, however, he was able to get financial support only if he switched to agricultural engineering—a field for which he developed a great passion.

What made you fall in love with biological systems engineering?
It was through my research. I was working with animals in the Biotron [a controlled environment facility for biological research]. I raised three calves from their first week to eight weeks of age inside a chamber I’d built, measuring how much heat they produced. It was from that relationship that I came to love biological systems—the interface between the biological object and the engineering becomes very interesting. I’m still working on thermal stress physiology of animals.

You have some pretty funny stories about your first day in Wisconsin.
I came here in January. I had no idea about snow. The only thing I knew was hail. When I was leaving the plane, the flight attendant said, “You can’t go out like that. It’s cold outside. Why don’t you take a blanket and throw it around you?” I said, “Don’t worry.” When I got out, it was so cold, I went back to get the blanket. The flight attendant said, “I told you so.”

How does it feel to be back here?
So many firsts happened to me in Wisconsin. My first experience with snow, I got married here, my first child was born here, I got my first degree at UW–Platteville, my master’s and Ph.D. at UW–Madison, and I started my academic career here. So this is my second home. I have a fond relationship with Wisconsin.

Your talk for students emphasizes global challenges (adequate food, water and energy supplies, clean air, soil health, etc.). Why?
I want them to think globally—and to think about how biological systems engineers can help meet those challenges, from the smallest to the largest ecological systems.

Wisconsin’s “Brown Gold” Rush

Earth’s petroleum stores are dwindling, but a Wisconsin project aims to produce energy from a resource that’s in little danger of running low: cow manure, or “brown gold.”

The University of Wisconsin–Madison and several state companies, funded by a $7 million grant from the USDA Biomass Research and Development Initiative (BRDI), have partnered to pilot the conversion of dairy farm manure into useful product streams—a project that is expected to have significant environmental and economic benefits.

The Accelerated Renewable Energy (ARE) project is in progress at the 5,000-cow Maple Leaf Dairy in Manitowoc County, where animal waste is separated into different streams, or fractions, of processed manure.

After small plant fibers in the manure are separated and anaerobically digested to biogas, liquids from the digestion process are used to fertilize crops, while solids can be converted into useful chemicals and bio-plastics. Larger plant fibers make great animal bedding and mulch, not to mention a starting material for ethanol fermentation.

Meanwhile, at the new Wisconsin Energy Institute at UW–Madison, project co-investigator Troy Runge, a CALS professor of biological systems engineering, is analyzing the ARE project’s separation techniques to improve their efficiency. “We are performing many of the same separations that occur on the farm, but in the controlled environment of
the lab to both measure and optimize the system,” says Runge.

Tom Cox, a project collaborator and a CALS professor of agricultural economics, sees great potential for the initiative. “This is a triple-win situation; we would like to make money by doing the right thing by the environment and society,” he says.

Aicardo Roa-Espinosa MS’85 PhD’89, president of partner SoilNet LLC and an adjunct faculty member in biological systems engineering, developed the manure separation technology behind the project. Roa-Espinosa and Runge will monitor the quality, quantity and composition of biogas produced and analyze processed manure streams to identify chemical constituents. Student researchers will conduct life cycle assessments to evaluate the project’s environmental impact.

The goal for the four-year grant, researchers say, is to improve these manure separation technologies until their sustainability benefits can be realized on a broader commercial scale.

Runge notes that the public-private, multidisciplinary project exemplifies what the university hopes to do with the Wisconsin Energy Institute. “It’s also an example of a project that’s important to Wisconsin,” he says.

Indeed, the project may help farmers manage manure with benefits for both the environment and human health. A 5,000-cow dairy farm like Maple Leaf produces approximately 25 tons of manure per day, which require millions of gallons of water to manage. Although some manure may be used as fertilizer, nutrient imbalances and runoff can create environmental problems. However, manure processed using SoilNet’s technology yields concentrated, homogenized fertilizer that can be applied with greater control over nutrient content.

In addition to its environmental benefits, the cellulosic—or non-food—plant biomass derived from dairy manure avoids the conflict of “food versus fuel.”

That’s a promising basis for exciting innovations at dairy farms. For ARE project leaders, farms are not only the heart of agriculture. They also have the potential to serve as foundations for cellulosic biorefineries that could prove key in supporting a local green economy and a sustainable energy system throughout the region.

Better Barns for Dairy

Gaining independence from the Soviet Union in 1991 left the tiny nation of Moldova with plenty of barns and other structures from former collective farms—but not enough money or expertise to catch up with modern agricultural practices.

In recent years, however, capital has been flowing into Moldova’s dairy industry—and with it, a desire to upgrade old Soviet facilities. Most of them consist of tie stall barns housing a maximum of about 100 cows each, and milking is done with bucket milkers. Between securing, feeding and milking the cows, such facilities require significantly more labor than the freestall barns and milking parlors commonly used in the United States and elsewhere.

That’s where CALS can help. Biological systems engineering professor and UW-Extension specialist Brian Holmes recently spent two weeks in Moldova under the auspices of CNFA, a nonprofit that focuses on rural economic growth in developing countries. Holmes visited four dairy farms and provided hands-on training and presentations on everything from building ventilation, freestall barn arrangements and milking parlor design to feed
storage and manure management.

Because capital is still limited, dairy farmers often have to make decisions based on thriftiness rather than on labor efficiency or the benefit of the cow, Holmes says. Upgrades often come through remodeling existing facilities rather than building new ones—and therein lies the challenge.

But Holmes was able to provide options that farmers can put into practice even under resource constraints. “Producers who implement these recommendations should expect to see improved animal performance, reduced labor costs, improved profits and improved environmental protection,” Holmes says.

Sudden change in how a society is governed does not necessarily result in sudden change in how people behave, Holmes observes. “The old ways and ‘the way we’ve always done things’ persists for extended periods,” he says.

For example, some of his recommendations require farmers to think in new ways about animal care.

“A classic situation is to convince the dairy operator that the prefabricated concrete sidewall panels should be removed for good summer ventilation and to use curtains to close the sidewalls in winter,” says Holmes. “There’s a strong belief that cold temperatures are detrimental to cows and that they should be kept warm in winter.”

There’s still much work to be done in the former Soviet Union, and not just in Moldova, Holmes says—and he’s ready to keep doing his part. Earlier this year he traveled to Belarus and worked with dairy farmers who had very similar needs and goals.

Better Fishing and Hunting

When his grandfather would complain to him about the difficulty of fishing on choppy days out on Green Bay, biological systems engineering student Justin Vannieuwenhoven did more than listen. He came up with a solution.

His invention, a boat-mounted holder for fishing rods that self-adjusts to keep bait steady relative to the bottom of the water, won the top prize and $10,000 in this year’s Innovation Days competition, held by the College of Engineering for undergraduates to showcase their creative and marketable ideas.

And in a separate Innovation Days contest, another BSE student took the top prize of $2,500 for a device that improves safety for hunters. Luke Stedman teamed with mechanical engineering senior Steve Burbach to create TreeREX, a portable tree stand equipped with steel “jaws” that clamp around a tree trunk and use the hunter’s weight to secure the clamp. The heavier the hunter, the firmer the grip on the tree.

Both avid hunters, the students said they were interested in addressing safety because falls from tree stands are the leading cause of death during Wisconsin’s gun deer season. (Stedman once took a bruising 20-foot fall from a tree stand himself.)

As for fishing, Vannieuwenhoven says his device, which he calls the CFS Holder, works so well because keeping bait steady makes it look more natural to the fish. In addition—unlike other fishing rod holders on the market—its construction makes rods less likely to pull out when a fish bites, and allows fishers to quickly change bait after a catch. Also unlike other holders, the CFS Holder also can be used on ice or land.

Vannieuwenhoven tested his invention with several experienced anglers who reported higher success rates during rough weather. He has filed a provisional patent application for his design and is launching a business called 3 in 1 Holders. Meanwhile, he continues to gather feedback for further improvements.

At least one target market is already satisfied. “My grandpa has six to eight on his boat at all times,” Vannieuwenhoven says. “He’s in love with it.”

“Red Barns” Go Green

Lofty red barns may be Wisconsin icons, but the real workhorse structure in agriculture today is the post-frame building. You can’t drive very far down a rural road without spotting one being used to house livestock, store and repair equipment, shelter hay or myriad other uses. Virtually every new structure on a modern farm gets built this way, and with good reason. Post-frame buildings are versatile, easy to assemble and affordable.

And now they’re becoming more sustainable, thanks to a “Green Frame” building system being developed by Dave Bohnhoff, a CALS professor of biological systems engineering.

Unlike traditional post-frame construction, Bohnhoff’s system isn’t based on preservative-treated wooden posts embedded into the ground. He uses non-treated wooden “I-posts” affixed to precast concrete piers. The I-posts are sandwiches of dimension lumber and laminated-strand lumber that are structurally and thermally more efficient than timber posts. Another sustainability feature relates to how the frame parts go together. The frame members that tie and brace the vertical posts and roof trusses have reinforced, deep notches at the ends that mate with adjoining pieces. This makes assembly easier, safer and more accurate. It also makes it easy to disassemble and reuse the components when a building outlives its usefulness as the farm enterprise grows and evolves.

Will all of those non-standard parts drive up the cost? Not at all, says Bohnhoff. The beams, connecting pieces and concrete piers can be fabricated on site using materials available in most lumberyards, tools found in any farm shop and basic construction skills.