Summer 2022


Sadegh Ranjbar flying a drone over a field.
Sadegh Ranjbar, a Ph.D. student in biological systems engineering, prepares a drone for a data collection flight over an alfalfa field at Arlington Agricultural Research Station. Photo by Michael P. King


In 2019, Wisconsin dairy leaders approached state legislators with a long-standing problem and a request for help.

The state’s dairy farm numbers were in a steady decline — today Wisconsin has about 6,500 dairy farms compared to more than 50,000 five decades ago — and at the time farmers were struggling with low milk prices. State milk production continued to set all-time records, but dairy leaders were still concerned that research wasn’t keeping up with the pace of change on farms. So they asked for a research-focused program to help keep the state’s dairy community viable.

Enter the Dairy Innovation Hub, an annual $7.8 million investment by the state of Wisconsin that focuses on research and development at UW–Madison, UW–Platteville, and UW–River Falls. The Dairy Innovation Hub was one of the top recommendations by a 2018 dairy task force made up of farmers, milk processors, dairy marketers, allied organizations, legislators, and university leaders and coordinated by the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection.

“We are often asked to ‘do something’ about the ag-industry crisis — I believe the Dairy Innovation Hub has the real potential to answer this call,” said state senator Howard Marklein when he and state representative Travis Tranel introduced the bill to create the program in May 2019.

In the nearly three years since its launch, the Hub has funded more than 100 research proposals and created multiple mechanisms to manage the annual investments. The Hub has also hired 13 new faculty: five at UW–Madison, five at UW–River Falls, and three at UW–Platteville. Faculty hires have included dairy economists as well as experts in land and water stewardship, human health and nutrition, and rumen microbial physiology, among other fields.

Starting this summer, Hub leaders expect to fund an additional 50 projects between the three campuses, which many say are collaborating like never before.

“I have heard that the data sharing across campuses has been extraordinary and unusual compared to past collaborations,” Marklein says. “They all share the same mission, and I am pleased with how it is going so far. We will be more productive in our research the more we collaborate instead of competing. We are making progress to keep Wisconsin a dairy superpower.”

The Hub is coordinated across the three campuses by its faculty director, Heather White, professor of nutritional physiology in the UW–Madison Department of Animal and Dairy Sciences. White leads research proposal reviews, helps with faculty hiring, and updates external stakeholders on the Hub’s progress.

“The Hub has done remarkable things to encourage collaboration for both research and instruction,” White says. “When leaders from the three campuses sit down together, we all have the same goals, and a lot of us have research that can be synergistic. Before the Hub was created, there wasn’t really anything that incentivized us to collaborate.”

Hub funding is split among the three participating UW campuses — 52% goes to Madison while Platteville and River Falls each receive 24%. Each campus has hired faculty members to make a long-term, deep impact on dairy research capacity. Faculty and other Hub scientists also carry out short-term, high-impact projects that provide an immediate benefit to the dairy community or answer pressing or emerging questions. Some examples: Hub researchers study ways to refine dairy crop rotations with cool-season annual grasses to help farmers develop sound fertilizer recommendations. They analyze dairy manure solids to recover manure nutrients. And they study consumer preferences for dairy products to help guide nutritional and marketing efforts.

White says one of the Hub’s primary goals is to attract top talent to Wisconsin to work on dairy-related questions and keep the state’s $45.6 billion dairy industry at the global forefront. So far, she is convinced it’s happening.

“During our first two rounds of faculty searches, we’ve hired some really incredible people, and they’re coming here, getting started, and hitting the ground running,” she says.

White says it is the job of Hub leaders to update the legislature on the program’s progress, so lawmakers are confident the state’s money is being spent wisely. “We certainly think it’s our job to be held accountable and to be good stewards of the funding,” she says. “Our reports to our advisory council, stakeholder groups, and legislators will allow us to keep everyone updated and knowing that we are doing what they challenged us to do.”

Cows are a big part of the Hub’s focus, but the program addresses the whole dairy system, including four priority areas that impact everyone’s life: enhancing human health and nutrition; ensuring animal health and welfare; stewarding land and water resources; and growing farm businesses and communities. With dozens of ongoing studies and projects, it’s difficult to describe the full scope of the Hub’s endeavors. But the examples of research that follow, one in each priority area, are a good start.

Sidebar: Where the Hub Homes In

The Dairy Innovation Hub has established four priority areas that address the whole dairy system in Wisconsin. Learn more at

Land & Water
Focus: Water quality and use; soil health; air quality and land resources; alternative uses and income streams for manure.

Farm Business & Community
Focus: Agricultural start-ups; growing the market for specialty milk and meat products; workforce development; supply chains; global markets and areas of opportunity.

Human Health & Nutrition
Focus: Food-borne illnesses; using dairy foods to fight obesity and preventable health problems; lactose-intolerant and allergy-free alternatives.

Animal Health & Welfare
Focus: Alternatives to antibiotics; animal health technologies; reproduction; animal stress and consumer trust.

Whey for Weight Loss

Priority Area: Enhancing Human Health and Nutrition

Obesity is a major problem in the United States. It affects one in three adults and contributes to inflammation, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and premature death. Nutrition expert Denise Ney wants to do something about it. One solution may come from an unlikely source: cheese. Or, more specifically, a cheesemaking byproduct.

Denise Ney drinking a supplement shake.
Nutritional sciences professor Denise Ney samples a supplement shake for weight loss that she developed using a protein isolated from whey, a byproduct of cheesemaking. Photo by Austin Helmke

Ney, a professor in the Department of Nutritional Sciences, has determined through extensive research that a protein isolated from cheese whey has anti-obesity properties, especially in women. Based on studies in mice, the protein, called glycomacropeptide (GMP), reduces hunger hormones and tissue inflammation; improves the breakdown of fat; increases bone mineral content; and positively alters gut microbiota. Now Ney is examining the potential benefits of GMP for humans.

In her Hub-funded pilot study, 10 obese, postmenopausal women will each consume GMP supplements for two, seven-day periods at home. Then they will visit the UW Clinical Research Unit four times for meal-tolerance tests, followed by blood draws. Ney’s goals are to gather additional data supporting GMP as a weight-loss supplement, garner funding for further study, and ultimately license a patent through the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation.

Ney has a track record of developing a health aid from GMP. She pioneered the use of medical foods made with GMP for the dietary management of phenylketonuria, or PKU, a rare genetic disease that allows an amino acid to build up in the body and cause complications. GMP lacks this amino acid. The medical food she helped develop is being used by PKU sufferers around the world. (See “New Clues to Healthy Bones for People with PKU” in Grow, Fall 2017.)

“It’s extremely rewarding to see the impact of your research actually improve people’s lives,” Ney says. “For families affected by PKU, it has been huge. It has changed the standard of care for nutritional management of PKU.”

Ney worked with a whey-processing company to develop the GMP powder, which is mixed with eight ounces of water and comes in chocolate and vanilla flavors.

“From our early subjects, we know the product is well tolerated and pleasant tasting,” she says.

While there are countless protein supplements already on the market, this anti-obesity version Ney has developed is different because it contains GMP, which has unique properties to promote weight loss while supporting bone health. It’s also a prebiotic, which helps nourish the growth of good bacteria that exist naturally in the gut.

Ney hopes to have data from all 10 study subjects by this summer. If all goes well with the pilot and with longer-term research, she says a company could license and commercialize the product, and it could someday be found on store shelves next to other protein supplements.

“It has many applications for weight control as a meal replacement, as a source of protein for anyone who wants to build muscle mass,” Ney says. “When you lose weight, you lose bone, and that’s a problem for postmenopausal women. I could see people using it long-term, once or twice a day, to support and maintain weight loss.”

Help for Hot Hutches

Priority Area: Ensuring Animal Health and Welfare

When Wisconsin dairy farmers think about ways to limit heat stress on their animals during the hottest days of summer, their milk-producing cows are likely their top priority. Calves can adapt and thrive more effectively under these conditions, while cows show their discontent with reduced milk production. So it’s more common to see various types of cooling methods for lactating cows and not for calves.

Solar-powered fan ventilation units.
Solar-powered fan ventilation units are attached to calf hutches at the Emmons Blaine Dairy Cattle Research Center at Arlington Agricultural Research Station. Photo by Michael P. King

But Jimena Laporta PhD’14, an assistant professor in the Department of Animal and Dairy Sciences, believes more could be done to make hutch-housed dairy calves healthier and more comfortable. Through prior research, Laporta has established environmental thresholds at which dairy calves start to experience stress, data that can help improve monitoring. Now, through her Hub-funded study, she’s looking for new methods of heat-stress abatement she can recommend to dairy farmers.

Early exposure to heat stress harms the welfare, health, and production of dairy calves, Laporta says, yet research on heat-stress abatement for dairy calves is primarily limited to animals living in subtropical and arid climates. As a result, there’s a lack of information on how to prevent heat stress in dairy calves in the Midwest. This gap persists even as summer temperatures rise in the region due to climate change.

A native of Uruguay, Laporta first came to Madison in 2010 for a three-month study-abroad program. She came back the following year to pursue her Ph.D., which led to a tenure-track position in lactation physiology at the University of Florida. She says her five years in Florida — the “epicenter of heat stress” — were instrumental in piquing her interest in heat stress biology.

Wisconsin and its flagship university have reputations as world leaders in the dairy industry, which once again drew Laporta to UW in 2020. “I felt I could contribute to the research and extension efforts in the Department of Animal and Dairy Sciences and help the dairy industry succeed in Wisconsin and globally,” she says.

Laporta’s Hub research project investigates solar-powered continuous mechanical ventilation as a heat-abatement method for dairy calves housed in outdoor hutches. Her first study, conducted in summer 2021, provided one fan per hutch to supply extra ventilation and decrease the ambient temperature. The fans were set to kick in when the hutch temperature topped 70°F. This summer, the project will direct air from a single fan into two or three hutches and record the results over a period of eight weeks.

“These studies will allow us to see if we can improve the air quality in the hutch and whether it translates into growth and health improvements for the calves,” she says, noting that poor ventilation can often lead to respiratory problems in young calves.

Jimena Laporta and a (cow) calf.
Jimena Laporta, assistant professor of animal and dairy sciences, uses a laser/infrared thermometer to measure the body surface temperature of a young calf at the Emmons Blaine Dairy Cattle Research Center. Photo by Michael P. King

Over time, the goal is to set up more powerful solar panels that would provide electricity to fans serving multiple hutches. A short-term option might be to use other power sources until solar energy becomes more affordable.

“In the near future I can see rows of solar panels with rows of calf hutches underneath,” Laporta says. “We are taking the first steps toward making that happen.”

Laporta says more long-term studies are needed to determine the return on investment of this technology.

“We know that the better the animals do during their early life moments, the better they’re going to perform later in life,” she says. “There is a lot of interest from the research community and farmers to try to improve early life experiences. We have shown that heat stress impacts the productivity and welfare of the calf. These calves are not going to be productive animals in the herd for two years, but if you can do something early on to give them a good jump start, I think you definitely should.”

Drones and Big Data for Decision-Making on the Farm

Priority Area: Stewarding Land and Water Resources

Zhou Zhang moved to Indiana in 2013 for graduate study at Purdue University. Her plan was to pursue the potential aerospace applications of remote sensing. At the time, she had no idea that what she was studying could someday be applied to the field of agriculture.

M600 drone in the sky.
The M600 drone used by Zhou Zhang’s Digital Agriculture Lab flies over an alfalfa field at Arlington Agricultural Research Station. Photo by Michael P. King

Zhang received both her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in engineering fields at Beihang University in Beijing. She was told that pursuing a doctorate degree at Purdue could advance her knowledge in the field of aerospace engineering.

“During the first year of my Ph.D. studies at Purdue, my supervisor told me that remote-sensing tools could be useful to agriculture to help accelerate crop breeding,” Zhang says. “I started doing some fieldwork to see if what I had learned could help farmers manage their crops.”

Zhang found her way to UW–Madison in March 2019, when she accepted a position as an assistant professor in the Department of Biological Systems Engineering. Now she combines advanced remote sensing with machine-learning techniques for agricultural applications.

Remote sensing uses airborne sensors on satellites or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to document environmental or structural information faster and more accurately than prior methods. And machine learning is the process by which a computer system develops the ability to mimic human reasoning. A familiar example is self-driving cars that can recognize obstacles and traffic signals.

Zhang is creating advances in remote-sensing techniques to permit data acquisition from multi-sensors across multi-platforms. In plain language, different types of sensors are mounted on platforms to collect data simultaneously. Data-science techniques are used to analyze the “big data,” defined as high-dimensional, high-volume data, to provide farmers with decision-making tools for cropping, automated phenotyping, and yield prediction.

Zhang has received two Hub grants to advance her research. One of the grants helped her upgrade her existing UAV-based hyperspectral imaging system to work in a precision farming system. The advanced equipment houses a high-resolution camera with LiDAR (light detection and ranging) capabilities. It can help crop-monitoring companies acquire crop height and maturity information to help predict forage yields and quality.

Jing Zhou and Jiahao Fan preparing a drone for flight.
Seen through the tailgate of a UW fleet minivan, postdoc Jing Zhou, left, and biological systems engineering Ph.D. student Jiahao Fan prepare a drone for flight over an alfalfa field at Arlington Agricultural Research Station. Photo by Michael P. King

In summer 2021, Zhang used Hub-funded equipment to collect multi-sensor data over a variety of field crops across multiple agricultural research stations. The second grant funds the next steps.

Improved forage crop varieties provide economic opportunities for livestock and crop-farming operations and promote more sustainable agriculture. However, the existing laboratory-based forage quality assessment approaches are labor-intensive and time-consuming and greatly limit the genetic selection and forage-breeding efficiency.

Zhang’s project aims to develop machine-learning tools that can estimate plant traits such as growth, development, yield, and quality in a high-throughput manner. Her hyperspectral imaging technique is uniquely suited for measuring the composition of forage in real time, saving the time and labor associated with traditional crop-scouting and lab-testing methods.

Zhang says it took her a while to learn about Wisconsin agriculture and understand the problems she might help tackle. “It took me more than a year to understand the problems,” she says. “I had never even heard of alfalfa. It was really challenging for me. When I was talking to collaborators with an agronomy background, it was like they were using a different language. They didn’t know what I was talking about, and I didn’t know what they were talking about.

“But once I understood, it became much easier. I can talk to the experts in agronomy and use technical language to explain what I’m doing.”

Zhang says the hyperspectral camera on her UAV provides colors that can’t be detected by the human eye. “A lot of the color and special information we can now see can be quite useful to detecting early disease and early stress in crops when the symptoms are not there yet,” she says.

The equipment, however, comes with a steep price, so it’s out of reach for most farmers looking to monitor their crops. But crop-breeding companies could use the system to glean important data that would otherwise have to be collected manually, which would benefit farmers indirectly. And down the road, Zhang says, the high-resolution camera on the UAV could also be used to fly over grazing cows to monitor animal behavior and health.

Plans for Pollution Control

Priority Area: Growing Business and Community

Much of the surface runoff problem in Wisconsin comes from manure runoff from farm fields. A Hub-funded research project set out to determine whether broader local regulations could do something about it.

A research team led by Jeremy Foltz, a professor of agricultural and applied economics, developed a way to analyze how and under what circumstances county- level manure regulations might reduce runoff and improve water quality.

The findings were not surprising. But they do provide concrete data supporting the need for more nutrient management plans in Wisconsin. A nutrient management plan, or NMP, documents all crop nutrient needs, soil test results, and nutrient applications (including manure). This kind of monitoring helps farmers account for what they put on their fields and what runs off. Thirty-three Wisconsin counties require that all farms have an NMP, and about a third of the state’s crop area is covered by a plan. Those numbers have been stagnant in recent years.

“Water quality is kind of a whack-a-mole type of a problem,” Foltz says. “Nutrient management plans solve a lot of the problem. Mind you, it’s not just having a plan, but following it.”

If more counties required NMPs, and if county land conservation departments followed up to make sure they were being followed on farms, Foltz believes the state would see a major improvement in water quality.

“I don’t think our study says making everyone have a nutrient management plan will solve all the problems, but I think what it says is having a nutrient management plan is shown to be an effective way to reduce manure runoff,” he says. “Our research shows if you are in a watershed where more counties have an ordinance that says every dairy farm needs a nutrient management plan, you have cleaner water. If you want to clean up the waters of Wisconsin, you would want every county to have a requirement that all dairy farms have an NMP.”

For this project, Foltz teamed up with postdoctoral researcher Marin Skidmore PhD’20 and research assistant Mason Flanagan BS’20 in the agricultural and applied economics department and Tihitina Andarge, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Massachusetts.

Skidmore and Flanagan contacted every Wisconsin county to determine what types of regulations are in place. While nutrient management plans are a state regulation, they cannot be required by county officials unless county-level ordinances are put in place.

Foltz and his team focused on 10 county-level regulations and found NMPs to be the most effective for improving water quality. Other regulations reviewed by the researchers included manure storage rules; standards for different types of erosion; phosphorus limitations; and required spacing between tillage and waterways, among others.

The research team predicted that if an additional 10% of farms in a watershed had an NMP requirement, they would expect to see a 7.5% decrease in ammonia and an 8.8% decrease in phosphorus entering surface waters over a three-year period.

Skidmore says there are generally more state funds available for NMP implementation each year than are used, so the long-term question is why farmers have not been adopting the plans on their farms.

A tractor hauling dairy cattle manure.
A tractor hauls dairy cattle manure for a research project at the U.S. Dairy Forage Research Center in Sauk City, Wis. Photo by Sevie Kenyon

While people often think of large-scale farms as the biggest polluters, they are actually subject to stricter oversight than small farms, Skidmore says. Large livestock farms are generally subject to federal law, including an NMP requirement, and the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources monitors those farms to make sure they are complying with the regulations. Smaller farms don’t have the same requirements.

“When a county requires nutrient management plans on all farms, that puts somebody local, your county conservation agent, in charge of overseeing that regulation,” Foltz says. “That county conservation agent has many ways to cajole you and say, ‘Oh, you need to get in compliance during this time period or you could be fined.’ At the federal level, with a (large-scale) concentrated animal feeding operation, it’s often a full-on lawsuit.”

Skidmore says county-level enforcement is generally more palatable to farmers, but with less than half of the counties requiring NMPs, that oversight and enforcement is “patchwork” at best.

Foltz notes that requiring NMPs would be neither elaborate nor technologically sophisticated, and they are typically a win-win proposition for the counties and the farmers. The study concluded that connecting farmers to their county conservation offices with an NMP requirement might also introduce them to additional information or cost-share opportunities that might help them manage their manure for better profitability.

“In general, a nutrient management plan tells the farmers if you do the following things, your crops are actually going to grow better,” Foltz says. “Once farmers have an NMP on their farm, they have a pretty strong incentive to actually follow it because it helps their bottom line. In that sense, it’s different than a lot of other regulations we’ve studied that just cost the farmer money.”

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