A Tale of Two Cheeses

Many of the world’s greatest cheeses are made in Wisconsin. It’s a fact that begs the question: How do those cheeses get to be great?

A key ingredient is the Center for Dairy Research (CDR), based at CALS and operated with funds from dairy farmers, dairy food manufacturers and processors, and other industry partners. Located within a licensed, operating dairy plant on the UW–Madison campus, its facilities include a cheese pilot plant, a dairy ingredients pilot plant, a sensory lab, an analytical lab and an applications lab, all of which are available to cheesemakers and other dairy manufacturers for trial runs and testing new products. For experienced cheesemakers seeking rigorous additional training, CDR, in partnership with the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board, offers a three-year program of courses and mentoring leading to certification as a Wisconsin Master Cheesemaker.

CDR’s experts boast hundreds of years of combined experience in industry and academia. Those experts have something else in common: Many grew up in the same milieu as the cheesemakers they work with around the state.

We are pleased to present here the success stories of two very different kinds of Wisconsin cheesemakers who availed themselves of CDR’s support and expertise.

Mexican Melty 

When milk is converted into cheese, science alone takes you only so far, says Tom Dahmen, a second-generation cheesemaker who manages the Chula Vista cheese factory near Browntown, in southwestern Wisconsin.

“I’m a big believer in heavy-duty science, but there is always a bit of magic in making cheese,” says Dahmen, who began washing cheesecloths at age 6. Intuition and experience also play a role, he notes.

At Chula Vista, those ingredients are combined to produce a string cheese called Oaxaca (wa-HA-ka), which received the Best in Class award in the Hispanic melting cheese category at the 2016 World Championship Cheese Contest in Madison. The CALS com- munity can take pride in this honor, because CDR helped Chula Vista create the cheese.

Oaxaca is a white, mild-flavored cheese used in many Mexican dishes. The cheese gets its name from the Mexican state where the style originated.

At the Chula Vista plant, named for its beautiful view of Lafayette County dairy farms, people work two shifts making two styles of Mexican cheese.

Chula Vista and V&V Supremo of Chicago were cheesemaking partners for decades. Last September V&V bought the plant, where employment has risen to 80, up from 34 about seven years ago.

Although Chula Vista purchased and sold Oaxaca cheese for several years, “We were never happy with the qual- ity, so we decided to move production in-house,” Dahmen says. “I had spent 14 years making a related style, but there were challenges to our ‘make,’ so we went to CDR. They helped us from the beginning.”

Starting in around 2010, Dahmen and Alan Hamann, V&V’s senior man- ager of quality control, began talking with CDR researchers about the details of fat-protein ratios, milk solids, chemis- try and pH.

“You have to control all of these factors even as the milk changes subtly from one truckload to the next,” says Hamann, who has more than 36 years of experience in the dairy industry.

Once the ideas were collated, they needed to be tested. At Browntown, each test would require 5,000 pounds of milk, Hamann says. Vats at CDR, however, would require only 500 pounds, reducing cost and eliminating errors attributable to running tests with different batches of milk. “At CDR, we could test several variables at once,” Hamann says. “Working at CDR drastically cuts your timeline and offers much more control.”

When the improved Oaxaca reached the market in 2015, Chula Vista was producing one or two vats per week. Now the company makes that much in a day.

Oaxaca cheese is produced using a procedure similar to that used for fresh mozzarella. Pasteurized milk is set (coagulated) and cut in a stainless- steel vat and then turned into curd slabs that are moved to a cooker-stretcher, a machine where heating and repeated folding links protein molecules, forming the familiar elastic product called string cheese.

The stretched curd is then formed into cylinders by six nozzles, cut to length and packaged for shipment to stores ranging from “mom and pops” to Wal-Mart, says Philip Villasenor, V&V’s vice president of manufacturing.

Beyond technical advice, CDR offers business consulting to the dairy industry, says Vic Grassman, CDR’s technology commercialization manager. “We help firms develop products and expand,” says Grassman. “I help with economic development financing, permits, workforce information and development.”

As employment tightens, particularly in rural areas, CDR links manufacturers with existing resources for economic development. “It’s not just ‘Develop the product and you are on your own,’” Grassman says.

But when you visit Chula Vista, it’s all about the cheese. Even though Chula Vista aims for a standardized, pure product, “Every vat is a controlled experiment,” says Dahmen. “We are predicting what is going to happen, and we are pretty accurate, but this is a living system, and unplanned things happen: A pump dies. A cooler dies. People don’t show up. But once you start a batch, you have to finish.”

Those snafus are familiar to both Chula Vista and CDR, says Dahmen. “The beauty of working with CDR is that they are heavy, heavy on science, but their people have all worked in the industry. They have this blend of science and art that you can only gain from experience. For our Oaxaca cheese, they greatly shortened the timeline to reach the product quality we were looking for.”

The collaboration with CDR also served as a rich educational experi- ence for Dahmen. Earlier this year he earned certification as a Wisconsin Master Cheesemaker for Quesadilla and Oaxaca cheeses.

Alpine Goodness

If you walk into Roelli Cheese Haus near Shullsburg in southwest Wisconsin, you’ll see plenty of succu- lent Wisconsin cheeses—but not Little Mountain, the company’s champion cheese. It lives behind the counter, with nary a sign.

Little Mountain, described by its maker as a “classic upland style from Switzerland,” is not contraband, but Roelli is practically running on empty after a “Best of Show” at the American Cheese Society contest last July. “We feel pretty honored,” says company owner Chris Roelli, noting that Little Mountain bested 1,842 other cheeses in the competition.

Although Roelli is a fourth-generation cheesemaker, in creating the recipe and honing the details of microbiology, timing and equipment, he got assistance from CDR. “For us as a small business, tapping the experience at CDR was invaluable,” says Roelli. “It accelerated our path to bring this cheese to the market, literally by years.”

Little Mountain requires at least seven months of careful aging to achieve its characteristic flavor, texture and rind. Aging occurs in an above-ground “cellar,” with cooling pipes along the walls. Forced air would waft microbes, threatening the cheese with spoilage.

Roelli’s great-grandfather, Adolph Roelli, immigrated from Altburon, Switzerland to Green County in the early 1900s. “He was a cheesemaker’s apprentice in different areas of the Swiss Alps,” says Roelli. “He settled here as a farmer and sold milk to a co-op, which offered him a job as head cheesemaker, based on his experience in Switzerland.”

Roelli says he’s been in and out of cheese factories all his life. “I watched my granddad make commodity cheddar,” says Roelli, but the factory closed shortly after Roelli got a cheesemaker’s license in 1989. “We weren’t able to compete.”

In 2005, unable to stay away from the family business, Roelli returned with “Cheese on Wheels,” a cheese plant mounted on an 18-wheeler.

The following year he started an artisanal cheese business in a new factory behind his store on Highway 11 east of Shullsburg, and started to envision a Swiss cheese that would go back to the family’s roots. In preparation, he says, “I went around and tasted as much Swiss mountain-style cheese as I could.”

Both Emmentaler and Gruyère were already produced nearby, and Roelli mulled a Swiss version of Parmesan before settling on an Appenzeller, a hard-rind cheese flavored with “washes” of brine as it ages.

He approached John Jaeggi, CDR’s cheese industry and applications coordinator, with some flavor profiles he was looking for. “I made a couple of batches here as total experiments, and we went to the CDR and made six batches to fine-tune the culture and process,” Roelli says.

In Jaeggi, Roelli found a particularly kindred spirit for this project. Jaeggi is a third-generation, Swiss-descended cheesemaker from Green County who, like Roelli, grew up in a cheese family. “If you look at the history of Wisconsin, a lot of cheese factories were family operations and the family was involved in all aspects of the business,” Jaeggi says. “The younger generation would start on the bottom floor, cleaning, sanitizing, packaging and working their way up.”

The initial conversations with Roelli, Jaeggi says, concerned flavor, texture and equipment. “We talked about aging, culture, the ‘make’ schedule. Chris came up to CDR and worked in our test vats, looking at cocktails of microbial cultures for different flavor profiles. Once we got close, we went to his plant two or three times to make the cheese, then optimized the make procedure to fit his plant.”

The cheese would be aged from seven to 16 months while being washed with a hush-hush recipe of salt, yeast and bacteria. The wash would break down proteins and fat to create the rind and desired flavor.

“Although artisan cheesemakers are pretty open in general, when it comes to world-class cheese, there are still secrets out there,” Roelli says.

Holding secrets is a point of pride at CDR. “To be able to draw from the knowledge base at CDR was invaluable,” says Roelli, who has earned certification as a Wisconsin Master Cheesemaker. “There is nowhere else you could get that. If John Jaeggi or Mark Johnson [a CDR cheese scientist] asks for help from someone in Europe, they will help. They don’t know me, but they know them.”

Someday the world’s top cheesemakers may start to know Chris Roelli, who has built his future atop his history and the cheese wisdom brought by his great- grandfather from Switzerland. “If you make something really good, people will find it,” Roelli says. “We entered competitions to garner some interest from places where we don’t normally get it. You don’t have to set the world on fire with advertising.”

Between the store and the cheese plant, Roelli Cheese Haus has five employees. Chris Roelli also runs a larger business hauling milk from farms.

Demand for Little Mountain exploded after the award in July, Roelli says. “We beat the world champ from last year, and three other American Cheese Society Best of Shows from past years. We have upped production for the end of 2017 as much as we can. I still have a list as long as my right arm wanting the next batch.”

Dairy Dash Embodies the Spirit of Alpha Gamma Rho

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How to Make Quark

Quark (pronounced “kwark”), is a fresh cheese that is very common in Europe, where it mostly is eaten as a spread on bread–much the way we use cream cheese–or mixed with fruit or herbs and eaten like yogurt. Master cheesemaker Bob Wills, an alumnus of the CALS Center for Dairy Research (CDR) and owner of Cedar Grove Cheese in Plain, may be credited with bringing quark to our state. He’s producing it at Clock Shadow Creamery, his new cheese plant in Milwaukee. You can buy quark there or in a number of supermarkets under the Cedar Grove label–or you can be bold and try making your own. It’s easier to make than yogurt and requires no special equipment. You’ll need three cups to make the scrumptious German cheesecake recipe we provide below. Here’s a quark recipe from Mike Molitor, CDR process pilot plant manager.


Makes 1 1/3 cups of quark


4 cups whole milk
3 Tablespoons buttermilk with live cultures


Use a large pan with a lid. Heat milk to about 170°F for at least 30 seconds. It’s fine if a skin forms on it, but avoid scalding the milk to prevent a cooked or burnt flavor.

Remove from heat, put on the lid and let milk cool to room temperature. Then whisk buttermilk into the milk. Replace the lid and let the milk sit undisturbed at room temperature for 12 to 14 hours or until it’s the consistency of yogurt.

Once the milk has curdled, strain it by layering a sieve with cheesecloth, pouring the milk into the sieve and allowing it to drain overnight in the refrigerator. What’s left in the sieve is quark. You may need to stir the quark a few times to get it to drain thoroughly.

Even Easier, Buttermilk Only

Instead of adding buttermilk to plain milk—a process that essentially means you are “making” buttermilk—you can simply purchase a gallon of buttermilk (typically 1 percent butterfat) and strain it in the refrigerator as directed in the last paragraph above to obtain the quark.


Courtesy of Clock Shadow Creamery

Kasekuchen (German Cheesecake with Quark)


¼ cup unsalted butter
2/3 cup wheat flour (can substitute white flour)
¼ cup white refined sugar
1 egg
2 tsp baking powder


3 cups quark
2 eggs
1/3 cup cornstarch
1 cup white refined sugar
½ cup dry milk powder
2 tsp vanilla extract
½ tsp salt
Powdered sugar for dusting cake

To make dough:

Mix eggs and sugar thoroughly. Combine wheat flour and baking powder. Cut butter (in small pieces) into flour mixture. Add egg/sugar mixture. Knead all into combined homogenous dough ball. Take 2/3 of dough and roll flat ¼ inch thick. Place in bottom of spring form pan. Take the 1/3 and make a long roll (like a snake), place around the outer edge and press into place (create a little rim).

To make filling:

Combine cornstarch, sugar, dry milk powder, and salt.  Combine with quark. Separate egg. Mix egg yolks and vanilla extract. Mix thoroughly with quark mixture. Whisk egg whites to stiff peaks, and fold gently into the quark mixture. Spread the filling onto the dough in the spring form pan.

Bake at 325 F for 45-55 minutes. Cool to room temperature. Dust with powdered sugar and place in fridge for 30 minutes.


Where to find quark from Clock Shadow Creamery:

A New Way to Bucky

Tired of ice cream? Not a chance. But if you’re looking for a cold, milk-based coffee drink, consider Babcock Hall’s latest creation. Buckyccino, available at the Babcock Hall Dairy Store and other campus outlets, comes in coffee and mocha—and in taste tests, UW students, faculty and staff preferred it 9 to 1 over Starbucks’ Frappuccino.

Finding a Cow’s Inner Dairyness

The cardinal rule in dairy judging is that, if you’re in doubt, you pick the cow with the best udder. Few people know that better than Brian Coyne, who grew up on a dairy farm near Eau Claire and began judging cows when he was 10. Yet in the biggest contest of his life, he was about to throw that maxim out the window.

Coyne, a CALS senior majoring in dairy science, was getting his first look at a group of Milking Shorthorns—four of the 48 cows he evaluated during the National Intercollegiate Dairy Judging Contest at the 2010 World Dairy Expo—and the first one in line really caught his eye. He liked every part of her, save one: She clearly had the worst udder of the group.

“She was huge,” Coyne recalled later. “She was really clean-cut. She had a big, sharp front end on her.” Despite her mammary shortcomings, she had what Coyne looks for in a great cow: “She was really dairy.”

Dairy” is a compliment paid often around venues like the World Dairy Expo. You hear it from judges at the event’s seven major breed shows, from onlookers at the big-money cattle sales held each night, and from the visitors who stream through the barns that house nearly 2,500 of the world’s best show cows. The term is a bit of industry shorthand, usually uttered in awestruck tones to explain what separates an outstanding cow from one that’s merely good: “She is just so dairy!”

To be successful in the milk production business, you have to be able to recognize a good cow. Dairy judging contests teach one of the oldest ways of doing that: giving her a good long look, from muzzle to hip bones and rump to hooves, to see how closely she conforms to “true type,” the hypothetical perfect cow. In the most practical sense, being dairy means that a cow has a body that promises great things in the milking parlor.

“We’re talking about openness to rib, a sweeping slant to ribs, overall angularity and length of neck,” explains CALS dairy science instructor Ted Halbach, who coaches the students on the UW-Madison dairy judging team. “It means she looks like she’s giving a lot of milk.” These are traits Halbach knows well. In his dozen years as coach, the UW judging team has won three national championships, including one in 2010. He won the contest himself as part of Wisconsin’s 1980 team, and he’s the son of a winner. His father competed and won as a UW senior in 1939.

But a lot has changed in the 90 years since the national judging contest began. These days, farmers use more than their eyes to tell them about a cow’s milk-making potential. They rely on extensive data about her pedigree and the performance of her mother and aunts and sisters. And now the sequencing of the cow genome—completed in 2009 by a team of 300 scientists from 25 countries—has opened a vault of new data and new possibilities.

That was demonstrated during one of Expo’s biggest events, the Friday night Holstein sale, when auctioneer Tom Morris brought down his gavel to sell a four-month-old calf for $87,000, the highest price paid all week. Two weeks before the auction, that calf had topped a ranking of Holstein heifers by Genetic Total Performance Index, a prediction of her future performance gleaned by scanning her chromosomes for the presence of certain genetic markers. Although the calf came from a long line of top performers, her outstanding genetic report card undoubtedly helped fuel the bidding.

When the University of Wisconsin proposed to set up a genetics department in 1910, it had the enthusiastic backing of W.D. Hoard, publisher of the influential Hoard’s Dairyman magazine. But he wanted a different name. “Genetics,” he said, was a technical term that the state’s dairy farmers wouldn’t understand.

It didn’t take them long to catch on. Through genetic selection, the dairy industry has been able to achieve astounding gains in the quality and quantity of milk that cows make. Since 1939, the nation’s dairy herd has shrunk by 60 percent, but it produces 20 percent more milk because the average cow’s production has more than quadrupled.

Those increases were accomplished through the development of a gene pool that is not only deep, but also extremely well cataloged. In the 1800s, breed associations began keeping herd books to record the pedigrees of high-performing animals. Soon after, the emergence of the Dairy Herd Improvement record system created a standardized way to compare various bulls and cows by keeping track of how much milk their offspring produced. Today the industry collects data on well over half of the nation’s nine million dairy cattle, recording not just milk yield, fat and protein, but also data related to things like health, fertility and milk quality. International producers have adopted the same framework, creating a vast database of cow performance that spans the globe.

For Kent Weigel, a CALS dairy scientist whose work focuses on genetic selection, the records offer a trove of data that can be mined to optimize breeding. “We can statistically analyze those data and figure out which are the best families to select as parents of the next generation,” he says. Currently, the way most breeding companies do that is to collect and sift data on the progeny of their breeding bulls. It’s dependable, says Weigel, but slow. “It’s at least five years before you get any information and can decide if it’s a good bull you want to keep or a bad bull that you want to get rid of.”

In contrast, genomic screening offers immediate feedback. Technicians can take a sample of blood or hair from a newborn calf, extract the DNA, and have an almost instant prediction of how she’ll perform in the herd. This is done by scanning the calf’s genetic code for the presence of certain markers, snips of DNA that are associated with various important traits. Roughly $150 will pay for a scan of 50,000 genetic markers. A new, slightly more expensive version will look at almost 800,000 markers.

“It’s not as accurate (as progeny testing)—not yet,” says Weigel. “We’re in this transition period, starting to move away from the progeny testing to the DNA testing. But decisions based on the DNA test results are taking a greater and greater role.”

Much of the industry’s excitement about genomic screening has focused on having a new to spot the same traits measured by progeny testing—like a cow’s potential for producing milk, butterfat and protein. But genomics promises a much richer lode of data. Over time, it will make it possible to predict traits that are too difficult or expensive to measure on the thousands of commercial farms that supply data to the progeny testing system, such as genetic predisposition to infertility (see related story), or resistance to disease, or how efficiently a cow converts feed into milk.

“To measure feed intake on an individual animal basis you need a lot of labor and specialized equipment. We couldn’t measure it on hundreds of thousands of animals. It would be prohibitively expensive,” says Weigel. “But you can do it on a few thousand cows in research herds and then DNA-test those animals. If it works as we hope, we’d` be able to take specialized traits and put them in a national breeding program.”

Identifying specialized traits could lead to specialized cows. For example, producers who feed their cattle on pasture might be able to select cows that are really good at converting grass to milk. “In the past all you could do is try to select different sire families whose daughters seem to have done better on grass than on total mixed rations,” says Weigel. “You didn’t really know what you were selecting. But now you could test individual animals and target them for grazing, target them for confinement, target them for producing cheese, or for a certain kind of cheese. ”

“It’s far fetched today,” says Weigel. “But not that far fetched. We can imagine being able to do it.”

Back at the World Dairy Expo show ring, it doesn’t take any data mining to see the cumulative effect that a century of breeding has had on dairy cows. Compared to the squat, rounded cows Ted Halbach’s father judged 70 years earlier, today’s cows are bovine supermodels—longer, taller and svelte. This form has followed function: The industry has selected for cows that put energy into making milk rather than meat.

In recent years, however, it’s become apparent that such cows may not have the resilience to thrive in the larger herds that are becoming the norm in the industry. “This cow has to be able to function in the housing environment. She has to have the physical attributes that sustain and support her production,” explains Halbach. “You can have an animal with great production potential, but if she doesn’t have the physical attributes to reach that potential, she won’t. It’s as simple as that.”

Concerned that cows were becoming too frail, the Purebred Cattle Association asked Halbach in 2007 to lead an effort to revise its unified scorecard—the standard for that hypothetical perfect cow. Halbach turned to research conducted by Weigel, who had analyzed 20 years of data on Holsteins and Jerseys to find links between a cow’s physical characteristics and how long she survived in the herd.

“There was a perception that what makes a good dairy cow was her ability to milk herself—to take all this body tissue, mobilize it, make all this milk from it and not have any extra fat on her,” says Weigel. “Well, she also has to do other things, like get pregnant and not get sick and so on. It became fairly clear that that was a trait where we’ve maybe gone too far.”

The revised standards emphasize more balance between strength and dairy character. “We’ve started to get people to think again that, yes, we want cows that produce a lot of milk, but we also want them to not kill themselves doing it,” Weigel says. “We want them to be able to maintain good health.”

Still, the ideal cow epitomized in the revised standards and in the show ring is geared toward a particular kind of dairying, in which cows live in large, open-stall barns and are fed a mixed ration that includes grain, forage, protein and mineral supplements. This is the dominant milk production system in the United States today, but plenty of cows across the nation and around the world live a different kind of life.

“Those cows are Ferraris,” says dairy farmer and UW-Extension agent Vance Haugen, describing the show cows at World Dairy Expo. “That’s wonderful, but I’m not going drive Ferrari on my back forty. I’d rather be driving my Jeep.” Haugen, who operates a pasture-based dairy farm, says he prefers cows with “a little more girth, maybe a wider muzzle so she can graze a little bit better. And smaller.”

Smaller is also better in Central America, says Ysidro Matamoros, an animal scientist from Honduras who brought a group of students to Dairy Expo. In his country, the average dairy herd has about nine cows that subsist on low-quality pasture and endure a brutally hot and humid climate. “She has to be smaller, because she has to dissipate a lot of heat,” he says. She also has to have some meat on her bones, literally. In Honduras—as in many places around the world—much of the milk comes from cows raised for both milk and meat.

In some parts of the world, farmers rely on indigenous breeds of cattle that are better tailored to handle the rigors of the environment. The tradeoff is that they don’t produce much milk. UW dairy geneticist Hasan Khatib thinks genomics can speed efforts to coax more production out of these breeds without sacrificing their native toughness. He is collaborating with scientists in Pakistan to compare the genome of Cholistani, a desert breed used for milk, meat and pulling carts, to that of Holsteins and Jerseys.

“It’s interesting for us to compare a breed that wasn’t under selection to some that were under intense selection for milk production,” he says. “This will allow us to identify genes that cause these trait differences, which could help us identify cows that will be better for this use and maybe apply that to other situations.”

What this means is that in an increasingly diverse global dairy industry, there is no ideal. One herd’s perfect cow might be a cull cow in a herd on the other side of the world.

The ability to find genetic markers for hundreds of discrete traits will continue to refine our ability to define perfection on a case-by-case basis. “The idea in the past was to look at what people thought the cow should look like intuitively. What they favored. What they liked to look at,” says Weigel. “Now you’ve got the data telling you what the cow should look like.”

But perfection will always be in the eye of the beholder. Brian Coyne says he will never forget that great Milking Shorthorn with the subpar udder that caught his eye during the national dairy judging contest. Nor will he forget his conversation with the Shorthorn judge in the final portion of the competition, in which contestants give their reasons for ranking the cows the way they did. Coyne dug deep into dairy-judging lexicon to explain why he picked that cow. He talked about her “decided advantage in dairyness, longer and cleaner head and neck and sharply chiseled top line.” But the judge wasn’t buying it. She pressed Coyne, asking how he would have rated the cows on udders alone. By that standard, he admitted, his first-place cow would have gone last.

“The judge gave me this funny look, and I was like, ‘Yeah, I started with my worst-uddered cow,’ and thinking, “I screwed this up really badly.”

Actually, he didn’t mess up much at all. He won the contest with the highest score in event history, and he did okay with the Shorthorns. The one he ranked first belonged in second place. She may not have been the perfect dairy cow, but she was a very dairy cow.


Genetic Counseling for Cows

Professor explores why the best milking cows are often the hardest to get pregnant.

When UW-Madison hired Hasan Khatib as an assistant professor in 2002, his colleagues knew not to expect a typical dairy scientist. A student of human genetics, Khatib had spent three years after earning his doctorate counseling couples about their chances of passing on inherited disorders.

These days, he’s working with a different species—but he’s still doing essentially the same thing.

In his lab. Khatib studies the genes of newly fertilized cow embryos to understand the connections among traits passed down from their parents. For the past several years, he’s been focused on a major frustration for the dairy industry—the fact that today’s super-producing milk cows often have trouble getting pregnant. In fact, during the past 20 years, as milk yields have gone up, pregnancy rates have headed in the other direction, falling by 20 percent.

“A large portion of infertility is because embryos die early, in the first few days of pregnancy,” says Khatib. “That’s why we are focused on this stage of development, where we can identify genetic factors leading to better survivability of embryos, hence increasing fertility of cows.”

Khatib has discovered one reason why increased milk production and infertility go hand-in-hand. He located a gene variant that, when present in homozygous form—two copies, one from each parent—the embryo dies soon after conception. But in heterozygous form, where the cow carries one lethal and one non-lethal variant, the gene is associated with increased milk production.

Because breeders select for higher milk production, Khatib’s data suggests that 65 to 70 percent of Holsteins have that genotype. Breeding heterozygous bulls with heterozygous cows, however, increases the chance of passing on the lethal combination of genes. To avoid that situation, Khatib developed a set of markers that indicate the presence of the gene, which he has patented and licensed to a breeding firm.

“This is like genetic counseling for bulls,” he says. “It’s the same principle: How to use your genetic markers to improve the trait that you’re looking at.”

On Dairy, He's a Bull

Mark Stephenson came to campus in July as the college’s new Director of Dairy Policy Analysis and Director of the Center for Dairy Profitability. In these positions, he will take a leadership role in education and research related to dairy policy and dairy market analysis. He comes here from Cornell University, where he spent 17 years as a dairy economist. Before that he spent three years on the faculty at UW-River Falls.

In the early 1990s a lot of people thought Wisconsin’s days as a dairy leader were behind it. You were here then. Did you agree?
Actually, I thought Wisconsin’s dairy industry had a bright future, but it wasn’t clear to most people back then. That was when California had double-digit growth year after year and surpassed Wisconsin as the number-one milk-producing state. It was not obvious at the time that we were going to have the kind of turnaround that we have seen in the last few years in this state.

Why are you bullish about America’s Dairyland?
For the same reason that W.D. Hoard was more than a century ago: He looked at the agronomic resources of this area—the climate, the soils, the potential to grow—and recognized that you could grow terrific grass here. You could grow corn. You could grow what you needed to support animal agriculture, and in his mind the best animal agriculture was dairy. It would yield the most and it would give back to the land the animal waste. We still have those resources here today.

How does that help us compete?
Farms here average an acre-and-a-half or two acres per cow. A California farm may have 10 or 12 acres altogether. They buy all of their feed. We buy part of our feed, but we grow an awful lot of it. That means that in times of price volatility we have more stable input costs. With the price swings and downturns in 2009, farms out west got clobbered much worse then farms in the upper Midwest.

How has Wisconsin dairying turned itself around?
For one thing, our processors aren’t so commodity orientated. Twenty years ago. we were making a lot of cheese, a fair amount of butter and some nonfat dry milk, but these weren’t highly differentiated products. Today our processors have really brought up the game. They’re making a lot of specialty cheese and other products that stand out from the rest of the pack.

What about our farmers?
They looked at what was happening in the West and realized that they could do that too—think about economies of scale and employ a variety of business models, including smaller, pasture-based systems. They began to remold the dairy industry in this state. Our milk production is showing it today.

Milk prices paid to farmers fell by nearly half last year. Why didn’t the price of a bottle of milk follow suit?
There is a strong relationship between retail prices and what farmers receive, but you wouldn’t expect them to move in lockstep. Milk may be the major ingredient in dairy products, but it is not the only cost. Other costs—labor in the plants, transporting the milk, the energy used in the plant and the store, everything needed to get it to the checkout counter—haven’t changed. The other thing is that consumers do not like prices bouncing around a lot. We all like a sale, but we don’t like it to be $2 a gallon one week and $4 a gallon the next, so retailers try to buffer those changes. Sometimes their margins shrink, maybe even to negative numbers, and sometimes they grow.

We now have farms milking 5,000 or 6,000 cows. Is this is a positive thing for Wisconsin?
I don’t think it is a bad thing. I think that the state would do itself wrong to automatically decide not to allow these farms to look for opportunities to lower their costs. I think folks who have a negative connotation about those types of farms should visit one and take a tour. Your image of a “factory farm” might evaporate. You might see that cows are treated very comfortably and humanely. It is not the case that because these farms are big, they are bad. And it is not the case that because they are big, they aren’t family farms.

Will there still be a place for 80- or 100-cow herds in Wisconsin?
There will. Some might need to change their business model, for example, going from a tie-stall barn and selling milk to a co-op to becoming a grazer, perhaps even seasonal grazing. This lower-input approach could be particularly useful for a farm that needs a capital refresh that the operator isn’t prepared to make—where the silos and buildings and equipment are too worn-out to function. Those who want to milk fewer cows can also consider adding value to their milk—sell it not as milk, but as a finished consumer product. This requires a lot of new skills and homework, but some farms are doing it and doing it well.

But that’s not a panacea?
Those approaches work for individual farms, but they can’t account for the volume of milk that we produce in Wisconsin. You couldn’t have 10,000 small value-added dairy processors. We don’t have the consumer market here for that much dairy product, so those folks would have to be become much more intelligent marketers and get well outside of their geographic boundaries.

So who’s going to consume all the additional milk and cheese and yogurt?
If we want to support that growth, we have to look for new markets. We are finding new ways to use milk and entice consumers into using different kinds of dairy products, but a lot of that growth is going to be through export. Other countries have been doing it for a long time and we need to get better at it. We need to understand our customers better. If we delivered a product that a retailer didn’t want in this country, we would take care of that quickly. We’ve been a bit more relaxed in dealing with export customers. It is harder to service customers overseas, but we need to get them the products and the packaging they want. We are only beginning to become deeply involved in that.

Can the university help with that?
We can help processors to better understand global markets. The United States has tended to use world markets to sell what we have in surplus—like nonfat dry milk. But the rest of the world isn’t used to nonfat dry milk—they are used to skim milk powder. Most of the world wants butter that is 82 percent fat. We produce ours at 80 percent. If we want to sell a commodity around the world, we have to make what the world wants.

What counsel can you offer to farmers who have seen their profits evaporate and their net worth plunge in the last couple of years?
I don’t anticipate prices having the kind of rebound that will restore all of the lost equity we had over the last year and a half in any short time period. I think it’s going to be a crawl back for a lot of people. That’s the reality of this. But prices have been stronger here than in the rest of the country, and the costs of producing milk have been relatively lower. So people can look for a better margin of profitability here. They will be restored more quickly than in most places.

So there’s a good reason that we’re America’s Dairyland.
Some of the best operations around the country have moved from the West and Southwest to the Midwest because they see this. It’s an advantage to be able to grow your own forage base as opposed to buying it. It’s an advantage to be in a cooler climate with these high-producing cows. We’ve had also had a lot of growth internally from dairy producers who have realized that a different type of farming system could be even more profitable. They’ve done it because they recognize that this is a great place to produce milk.

Ron Paris

When Ron Paris began turning milk from his neighbor’s farm into cream-line yogurt, he figured he might sell a few gallons to locals in cheese-crazy Green County. But Sugar River Dairy, which he runs with his wife, Chris, an alum of the UW-Madison dance program, has earned fans throughout Wisconsin. The Parises now churn out 4,000 pounds of yogurt a week in their Albany, Wis., dairy, and they are mainstays at Madison and Milwaukee farmers’ markets. Ron also has worked with a local distributor to bring artisan dairy products like his own to customers’ doors.

Jill Makovec

Raised on a dairy farm in Muscoda, Wis., Makovec fulfilled a dream of many young dairywomen by becoming Wisconsin’s 60th Alice in Dairyland in 2007. She spent a year as the state’s most visible dairy ambassador, traveling more than 40,000 miles to promote Wisconsin’s food, fuel and fiber industries. Makovec, who has also worked with Wisconsin Fairest of the Fair committee and the Association of Women in Agriculture, ended her Odysseyan public-relations stint last May, but she remains tuned in to rural life as an account executive with Learfield Communications, representing the Wisconsin Radio and Brownfield Ag networks.

Pete Knigge

In 2000, Pete Knigge and his brother, Charles, dove headlong into the dairy modernization movement by becoming Wisconsin’s first dairy farm to use robotic milking equipment. Now, the Knigges’ 105 cows basically milk themselves, ambling up to the automated machinery whenever they feel full. Knigge says the equipment does the work of two full-time employees, saving labor costs and freeing up his time to focus on other aspects of running the Omro farm.

Pete Kappelman

Kappelman’s blend of small-farm roots and business savvy makes him a force in both the barn and the boardroom. Eighteen years after being named the Wisconsin Farm Bureau’s young farmer of the year, he co-owns Meadow Brook Dairy Farm in Manitowoc, Wis., and chairs the board of directors of the powerful Land O’Lakes cooperative, where he has served on the board since 1995. He also sits on two national dairy councils-the National Milk Producers Federation and the National Dairy Promotion and Research Board-and has a significant role shaping U.S. dairy export policy. He’s been president of the Professional Dairy Producers of Wisconsin and chairman of UW’s Center for Dairy Profitability-and when he’s not busy with those things, he finds time to coach his kids’ basketball teams back in Manitowoc.

Lloyd and Daphne Holterman

Back in 1980, Lloyd Holterman was milking 70 cows with his parents on their family dairy farm. Now he has more than 800 in his herd at Rosy-Lane Holsteins, which he operates with his wife, Daphne, and partner Tim Strobel FISC’99, on 1,200 acres near Watertown, Wis. The Holtermans have grown the business by thinking vertically. They raise their own heifers and operate a trucking subsidiary to ship their milk. And it’s a lot of milk, too-more than 8,000 gallons a day. The couple also has been active in international dairy development, hosting a stream of international visitors on their farm. Daphne organized an international forum for women in dairying as part of last year’s World Dairy Expo.