The Method Maker

Gerry Weiss BS’67 admits he knew nothing about the steep-valleyed fields of southwestern Wisconsin when, back in 1975, he bought 350 acres in Grant County and started raising forage, row crops, swine, and beef cattle. A native of flatter lands in Dane and Columbia counties, he knew the unfamiliar geography would present a true challenge, perhaps decades of trial and error. But Weiss began farmwork at age five, and he was taught to appreciate an experimental attitude right from the start.

“My father and my two uncles were innovators,” says Weiss, now 72, as we sit at his kitchen table, stacked high with papers, research studies, and farm magazines. “I learned that you advance by being more efficient, more focused. They told me, ‘The answers are in front of you. Keep your eyes open.’”

Following their advice helped him earn agricultural accolades at an early age. He reveals to me that he is still the only FFA member to be named State Star Farmer, State FFA Speaking Contest winner, and State FFA Officer all in one year. That prodigious resume, combined with his incisive nature, propelled him to earn a B.S. (with honors) in animal sciences at CALS and a doctorate from Iowa State University, though he occasionally mocks his Ph.D. as standing for “piled higher and deeper.”

Weiss is intelligent, erudite, and challenging, with an unpredictable, probing sense of humor and a proclivity to pun in English and German — a vestige of his time as a postdoctoral researcher in the Netherlands and Germany in the 1970s. He followed his work abroad with a stint as senior meat scientist at Union Carbide and then a job as assistant to the president, focused on technology and science integration, at Dubuque Packing Company

His education and private sector career did not, however, teach Weiss much about permaculture, rotational grazing, humane ways to wean cattle, or a hundred other systems, tactics, and processes that he invented, honed, or proved on his land and in his barns. Thinking of these innovations, I suggest to Weiss that he seems to have carved his own furrow, but he balks at my words. “I have not plowed a single furrow in Grant County,” he says.

What he means is that, in 40 years of farming, he has not used a moldboard plow — the device that John Deere invented in 1837 and is still used today. By turning over the soil and exposing it to rain and wind, the moldboard plow raises conservation questions, at least to a visionary like Weiss.

The seven pastures on Weiss’ terraced farmland converge at this point to promote the easy movement of his herd of Gelbvieh cows. “After five days of grazing in one pasture, they come here to let me know they’re ready to move,” he says. “All you have to do is swing a gate. No trap pens, no catching cattle, no hauling them to the next pasture.” The use of this system of rotational grazing in Wisconsin was cultivated by Richard Vatthauer, an emeritus professor of animal sciences, and Bill Paulson, former superintendent at UW’s Lancaster research station, Weiss says. Rotational grazing keeps weeds in check while stimulating grass growth, which helps prevent soil erosion. Photo by Mark Hirsch

‘We Attitude’

Weiss’s sloping farm, located just a few miles from UW–Madison’s Lancaster Agricultural Research Station, sits inside Wisconsin’s Driftless Area. The region is known for its exceptionally rugged terrain due to the utter lack of glacial bulldozing (i.e., drift) and for the meandering paths that the Wisconsin and Mississippi rivers and their tributaries have slashed through the landscape.

Many Wisconsinites look upon this unique geography — and the adaptations necessary for living within it — with genuine pride. Likewise, many are proud of the connections between CALS and the economic engines of farming and food processing. These linked industries are vital to the state; they employ 413,500 people and generate $88.3 billion in economic activity.

Weiss resides at the heart of all of this — a born innovator who adjusts to the conditions thrust upon him and exemplifies the connection between academic experts and those who make a living raising crops and animals. And it’s a pipeline that flows in both directions. Weiss credits Bill Paulson, former superintendent at the Lancaster station, with valuable suggestions for weed control and a seed mix for improved pastures and other conservation practices, such as waterways, that still thrive today. It was the first of many connections that have benefited Weiss — and CALS — over the course of four decades.

Some of this collaboration pertains to permaculture, that basket of approaches to farming that develops sustainable agricultural ecosystems through thoughtful observation and creativity. Despite the name, permaculture is not, Weiss says, a “set-and-forget” operation. It takes real work to manage acres of permanent pasture. Fortunately, Weiss is energetic — and relentless.

“I have never worked with terraces that have had so much constant maintenance,” says Grant County soil conservationist Kevin Lange, who has worked with Weiss for almost 30 years. “He’ll fix the rodent holes, scrape the soil back to the top.”

Weiss does all of this in addition to testing the soil, fertilizing as needed, winning the war on weeds, and conducting his own research. The last one, according to Lange, is special — most farmers lack the time for it. “If they are interested in research, they are interested in reading somebody else’s work,” he says. “He’s always checking in, always got something new he wants to try.”

Any success he’s had, Weiss attributes to what he calls a “we attitude,” a propensity for collaboration. This mentality has led to fruitful partnerships with two land-grant institutions (UW– Madison and Iowa State University) and their associated extension units and agricultural research stations, as well as the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) at the U.S. Department of Agriculture. “I don’t know all of the answers,” he says. “And if I don’t know it, I’m on the phone, and I’ll admit that I don’t know it.”

To find the answers, Weiss asks some tough questions. Lange admits that he can be an acquired taste. “Sometimes when he calls, you have to take a certain amount of his guff and give back a little bit of lip of your own,” he says. “But it’s not too insulting. That’s just our thing. Somehow, I got to be his guy.”

 ‘The Animals Taught Us’

Weiss’s agricultural education, and his unusual approaches to the hurdles of farm life, began with his father’s wisdom about “open eyes.” One outcome of that observant nature appears as soon as we enter Weiss’s cattle housing. At first, I wonder whether I’m in a barn or a carnival fun house lightly scented with manure. The floor is nowhere close to level, the gates are built to telescope to different lengths, and odd angles are as common as right ones.

These peculiar features are all designed to get cattle to move where he wants, Weiss says, and they’re built to suit the innate tendencies of a herd. “The animals taught us,” he says. “They like to stick together, to walk along the wall, and to walk downhill. We don’t use sticks or prods to move them. Don’t need to.”

The highway guardrails outside the barn also represent lessons learned from the cattle. They’re part of a humane, common-sense system that started with fence-line weaning, the practice of allowing cows and their young to associate — but not nurse — to ease a traumatic separation. The technique presented itself as the solution to an obvious need if your eyes — and ears — were open, Weiss says.

After weaning, “You could look at the anxiety of the calf and its mother and could tell it was pretty high,” he says. “The calf would stand in the gate area, bellering until it lost its voice, and the cow would stand at the pasture gate somewhere and beller. Nobody was happy. You could bring a baton and direct the orchestra.”

But the whole equation changes if the pair can see, smell, and even touch each other. “They have less stress,” Weiss says. “Baby can talk to its mother, and she can look through the fence [or guardrail] and see that her baby’s okay.” Within days, both sides have quit singing the separation blues.

Decades later, fence-line weaning is gaining acceptance in beef operations. The benefits, Weiss says, are measurable. “We weigh when we wean and again before we sell the calves as feeders. They are gaining 1.8 or 2 pounds per head per day. With high-stress weaning, they are pacing, bellering. They’re pretty woundup little critters, and the gain is more like 0.75 or 1 pound per head per day.”

Defying conventional weaning wisdom led to another example of the “Weiss method,” one designed to address what he calls “another part of the horrible tradition” with calf weaning. “You would jab them with needles for antibiotics and vaccine,” Weiss says. “Talk about making a calf feel great! It would take four to six weeks to get past all that.”

That was the way it had always been done. But Weiss had better ideas, many of them related to vaccinations. In the late 1970s, he helped Norden Labs of Lincoln, Nebraska, demonstrate a protocol designed to prevent E. coli infection and rotavirus in calves, a method that involves no stressful catching or needle pricking. “We administered this to the beef cows two weeks prepartum to generate maternal antibodies for the mom to pass on to the newborn calf,” Weiss says. “Our calf scour [diarrhea] incidence dropped to zero and has remained at zero since our working with this vaccine.”

“That vaccine … which originally goes back to the Norden product, is one of the most, if not the most, commonly used methods to prevent E. coli and rotavirus diarrhea in calves,” says Simon Peek, a clinical professor of large animal internal medicine at the UW–Madison School of Veterinary Medicine. “It’s something pertinent, relevant to the state, and it’s definitely made a big contribution.”

 ‘We Developed Biosecurity Before It Was a Word’

To Weiss, continuous improvement is simply common sense. “You make advances step by step,” he says. “We saw the same attitude at CALS and at Iowa State. Once you do something, you see an opportunity to do it even better.”

He learned this method early through his father and uncles, who were early adopters of farrowing crates for swine. “Originally there was a 5-foot by 7-foot pen, but we transformed that to put mother in a more confined area so it would be harder to lay on her little ones,” he says. “Then we hung a heat lamp to draw them away from mother. Then we raised the farrowing crate to keep the young pigs off the cold concrete floor, and manure would fall through the grate so the babies stayed clean.”

Demonstrating the ingenuity that has helped drive Wisconsin to the forefront of animal agriculture, the Weiss farmers developed a system that involves washing the sows to remove worm eggs and manure and then washing the crates as well. “A clean mom with a clean udder is a whole lot better than a dirty mom,” Weiss says. “We progressed to a much-improved, higher-growth performance with a much lower load of bacteria and worms. We helped develop biosecurity before it was a word.”

Weiss found other ways to focus his creativity on animals. In 1994, he built a specialized pig barn designed for scientific investigation. As proprietor of the on-farm science business Progress Plus LLC, Weiss has used the barn to perform contract research for the late Mark Cook, professor of animal sciences, as well as private firms in the hog industry. The building has five rooms, each with its own feed supply and manure pit, to enable side-by-side comparisons of input and output in swine.

“There are so many variables, so this barn was ideal for conducting complex trials quickly,” Weiss says.

It’s also the perfect place for a data-obsessed farmer-scientist, one who listens to an inner voice and never settles for “good” when “great” is begging to be invented.

The entrance and exit to special swine housing on Gerry Weiss’ farm sits at trailer height for ease of loading and unloading pigs. The ramp has shallow steps that are easier for animals to navigate and makes a 45-degree turn so pigs are urged on by their own curiosity rather than being driven. “They want to know what’s around the corner,” Weiss says. “I have never carried a weaned pig up that ramp.” The system, which he says he borrowed from Madison’s Oscar Mayer plant where he made swine deliveries in his youth, reduces stress for pigs and hassle for farmers and processors.   Photo by Mark Hirsch

‘I Didn’t Know Anything about This Stuff’

As we cruise Weiss’ farm on a tractor road, I notice the ride is exceptionally smooth — no ruts, wallows, or washouts. So he tells me about the 10-inch layer of breaker run and gravel beneath his pickup. The overkill design is not needed on this dry summer day, but when he has to tend the cattle or haul manure in the rain, it prevents wheels churning through the mud, which would translate into erosion.

Even after July’s staggering rainfall, there’s no mud, no hint of a gully, no erosion in sight throughout our drive.

The subject of erosion returns us to the 1970s and to the role of publicly supported science. “I grew up on the Arlington prairie,” Weiss says. “I didn’t know anything about this stuff out here.” From the USDA NRCS, he received advice on filling gullies and constructing terraces, diversions, and waterways to halt soil erosion that had measured 13.1 tons per acre per year on his land. Some of those gullies, he says, were deep enough to hide the bulldozer that he hired to repair them.

A despiser of waste, Weiss was loath to take the waterways out of production, and he figured hay or conservation practices would yield a saleable crop while preventing erosion. And so, unembarrassed by his ignorance, he contacted Bill Paulson, then the superintendent of UW–Madison’s nearby Lancaster experimental station.

“USDA had its own seeding specifications,” Weiss says, “but the difference was that Bill had actually done it. He’d perfected the seed mixture; it was an unbelievably positive addition to what we were doing. Bill knew what would work here.”

Thirty-eight years later, Weiss continues to do soil tests and fertilize as needed, but he has not had to reseed his pasture. “We just take the hay off,” he says. When waterways and terraces are always covered, soil and stream bank erosion are practically zero.

“It may seem obvious, but I’ve never had anybody mention [hay harvest from waterways] to me,” says Dan Schaefer BS’73 MS’75, longtime head of the Department of Animal Sciences, when asked about Weiss’ permanent seeding of these erosion protections. Meanwhile, Weiss is happily hauling hay, which is profitable in today’s market.

This initial interaction with Paulson led to many more collaborations with CALS. Weiss has opened his own land and crops for pesticide trials conducted by the departments of agronomy and entomology. Last summer, the only row crop on the farm was a soybean trial that assessed weed resistance to herbicide. All in all, Weiss has taken part in more than 220 research trials related to animals and crops.

‘People Thought I Was Nuts’

Decades ago, the process of accounting for homegrown organic fertilizer became another element of the Weiss method. Working with UW researchers, he developed systems to track the nitrogen and phosphorus added to the soil by manure and legume crops.

“I was one of the first to utilize manure in a nutrient management plan, working with [Grant County] UW Cooperative Extension agent Ted Bay MS’80,” Weiss says. In two growing seasons, using soil analyses from the Marshfield Agricultural Research Station, he cut his fertilizer bill by 70 percent. As with his work with cattle, one improvement begat another. To maximize savings, Weiss bought a manure spreader able to change application rates to supplement nutrients based on variations in soil tests.

But the simple logic in favor of buying only as much fertilizer as you need would have been plowed under had Weiss listened to his neighbors — or his fertilizer dealer. “People thought I was nuts, yes, for 25, 30 years,” Weiss says, “but we were supported by the agronomy and soil science faculty in Madison.”

If you spend enough time with Weiss, you begin to assume that any allusion to conventional wisdom will be chucked to the wayside if not squarely onto the dung heap of history. It’s how he stays ahead of the curve. Today, the “nutrient credits” that can reduce fertilizer use and environmental damage are required on many Wisconsin farms. They’re also integral to SnapPlus, a software program created by experts at the Department of Soil Science.

“SnapPlus solves several problems at once, related to distributing manure and fertilizer efficiently, while meeting guidelines for protecting groundwater and surface water,” says associate scientist Laura Good MS’88 PhD’02, who has led its development and testing. “The program helps to maintain crop fertility without wasting money or endangering natural resources.”

Just like manure, legumes are a critical part of permaculture. Aided by soil microbes, plants like alfalfa and clover absorb nitrogen from the atmosphere and put it back in the soil to make it more fertile. Decades ago, when most farmers dedicated fields to pasture or row crops, Weiss planted legumes in his permanent pastures and pioneered the use of “rotational grazing.” Moving cattle from field to field not only protects the pasture from trampling and overgrazing but also reduces tilling and hauling of feed and manure. At the same time, it increases fertility and productivity, so any given field can support more animals. The practice of moving cattle is now a mainstay of organic and other low-impact agriculture.

Gerry Weiss surveys his farm from the seat of his pick-up truck while parked at a high point in one of the pastures. Photo by Mark Hirsch

‘You Don’t Need to Do This!’

Weiss’s collaborations with CALS have also involved planting innovations. At a time when planting and cultivating corn entailed at least a half-dozen passes across the field, he teamed up with frequent collaborator Paulson, soil science professor Larry Bundy, and agronomy professor Ron Doersch BS’58 MS’61 PhD’63 to develop a two-pass corn-planting system.

“You disk in manure and cornstalk residue with a heavy disk, doing primary tilling in one pass,” he says. Then, aggressive trash whippers on the planter clear a seven-inch row for the corn as the planter sprays a preemergent herbicide.

“We found that most years, with normal rain, we got such tremendous activity from the preemergent herbicide that we did not need a second pass of spraying, but a very limited number of people have picked that up,” Weiss says. “They are locked into four to seven passes for tilling, planting, spraying, and then spraying again. People, you don’t need to do this! We are reducing labor, soil compaction, and fuel burn, and also recreational tillage.”

But having a motive to disbelieve can overpower the evidence of open eyes, he adds. “I’ve had salesperson after salesperson come here to look at a field after the soybeans have been drilled and shake their heads,” Weiss says. “The field is still relatively rough, which I want for rain erosion prevention. I’ve had many of these guys come back at harvest, and say, ‘This is really a tremendous plant environment.’ When I respond, ‘But four months ago, you told me this was a disaster,’ they get real quiet. But it always seems easier to criticize than to try to understand why I keep doing it.”

A different attitude, both positive and more open-minded, prevails at UW–Madison and the other land-grant institutions, Weiss says, and the attitude is mutual. “He has always been respectful of faculty, though he will speak out if someone has a loony idea,” Schaefer says. “He’s principled, all about accurate data, accurate communication. There’s no varnishing, no window dressing. ‘Tell it to me the way it is.’”

In this way, Weiss has managed to survive in the ever-changing farm economy for 40 years. Today growing forage is profitable, so hay is what he sells, usually delivered to horse owners in small bales.

The swine barn is now empty — another victim of harsh market conditions — so the Gelbvieh cows that Weiss collaborated to import from Germany in the 1970s are his only livestock. Having grown to understand (so I think) the many labor-saving and cow saving innovations on the farm, I ask why he has only 60 head. As the question hovers above the kitchen table, I immediately realize that I have plunged into the manure pit called conventional wisdom. Bigger is not necessarily better, and the answer is in front of my face, though Weiss is kind enough not to mention that.

“I match the cow herd to the rotational grazed pasture program,” he says. “Sixty head is my carrying capacity with my current 68 acres of permanent pasture, but we have plenty of room for more pasture here.”

Such an expansion, Weiss says, would best be carried out by the next generation of stewards of his land. He is now on the hunt for a “very special person or people” to continue where he leaves off. When students of the agricultural sciences visit his farm to learn from its innovations, he tells them his successor just might be among their ranks.

“I also tell them,” Weiss says, “that I haven’t made all of the mistakes yet, but I’m getting close.”

‘The Barbs Are Quite Dull; They Are Just Gerry Weiss’

Thinking back, Weiss’ meticulous attention to the land and his characteristic dry wit are both on display the moment we first meet. I drive onto the farmstead with my road bike racked behind my economy Honda and approach a weathered, white-haired guy pitchforking Canada thistles from the back of a white Ford pickup.

By way of introduction, I ask, “Aren’t you too old for that?” He responds, “Oh, I think we’re going to get along just fine. You can give it back.”

Later that day, as we tour the fields, I tease Weiss about a lone Canada thistle proudly blossoming above a pasture. Even a city fellow knows that those splendid purple flowers are one of Wisconsin’s premier pasture pests, and Weiss immediately promises to annihilate it to block it from reseeding.

I mention the thistle to Lange, the Grant County conservationist, and he remarks, “I’m surprised that he did not write down the location. If he was younger, he would have put it on GPS, but I’m sure it’s gone by now.” Indeed, when Weiss later meets me for lunch in Spring Green, he hands me a thorny, withered thistle. “Some salad from the farm!” he says.

“He’s very conservation conscious,” says weed expert Jerry Doll, professor emeritus of agronomy. “He once called after an 8-inch rain, happy that his grass waterways and terraces had no visible erosion, while his neighbors were looking at gullies.”

“His mind is always churning,” Doll adds. “I don’t know how he sleeps at night. I know his power of observation. When he sees something he can’t explain, he’s on the phone.”

Like Doll, others who have worked with Weiss typically cite his inquiring mind and diligence, as well as his devotion to conservation. They also like to mention his low-grade combative nature.

“Gerry is very bright and quite self-deprecating,” Schaefer says. “He can be prickly and takes pride in barbed comments, but he does that mostly for effect. He wants to know if he’s getting through to you. The barbs are quite dull; they are just Gerry Weiss.”

But underneath Weiss’ thorny exterior, Schaefer sees the embodiment of a precept of the great Midwestern public universities. “He’s a land-grant creation. To me, he epitomizes the application of science to agriculture.”

Experts in “Smart Energy”

For decades, American energy companies have tried to persuade customers to use less energy. Using giveaways and various other financial incentives, utilities have promoted new light bulbs, miserly shower heads and smart thermostats.

Part of the goal has been to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide and other pollutants. But another incentive hits utilities on the bottom line. Electric utilities must buy enough generation capacity to meet peak demand, which explains their interest in programs, for example, to taper the use of air-conditioning on hot summer afternoons.

The programs sound good, but do they work? That difficult analysis has been neglected, and the answers won’t come solely from classical supply-and-demand economics, says Bill Provencher, a CALS professor of agricultural and applied economics. To fill that gap, Provencher last year founded the Resource and Energy Demand Analysis (REDA) program, a rigorous one-year course of study and training leading to a master’s degree.

“Understanding why people do or don’t sign up and carry through with these programs involves new economic theory and methods, such as behavioral economics,” says Provencher. “Good intentions are not enough; results depend on whether energy is actually saved.”

No matter what happens in Washington, energy analysis will remain a growing field, notes Provencher. Graduates are also prepared for jobs forecasting the demand for energy, and there will always be a need for that, he says.

“In terms of moving toward renewables, the horse is out of the barn,” says Provencher. “For some states, federal changes may make a difference, but for others, not much.”

Last year’s REDA graduates readily found jobs in the energy industry. Graduate Emily Morris MA’16 works at New York City utility company Con Ed.

“One of my responsibilities is benefit-cost analysis of the Brooklyn-Queens demand management program, which has been able to postpone a $1 billion substation construction project for 10 years,” Morris says. “Con Ed has to invest in providing the energy in other ways, or encouraging enough customers to cut back on their usage. I look at whether the program is cost-effective.”

Did the CALS program help her land and perform the job? Says Morris: “I would not be here without REDA.”

Another graduate, Michael Francis MA’16, works for the U.S. Energy Information Administration. He, too, credits the REDA program with exceptionally good career preparation. His REDA experience included attending as many as 20 seminars led by experts in the field. “Today I was reading a report at DOE and realized that I had personally met some of the authors during REDA,” Francis says. “After the program, you will find connections in whatever city you end up working in, no matter what specific segment of the energy industry you are in.”

Provencher came up with the idea for REDA in part, he says, because in his previous work for a large energy consulting firm, he was surprised at the difficulty of finding qualified applicants for analyst positions.

The analytical tasks are complex, Provencher notes. Imagine that a utility with 50,000 residential customers starts a demand reduction program—perhaps it will give four high-efficiency LED light bulbs to any customer on request. To prove whether that significantly reduces energy demand in the next year, the utility must consider a wide range of fac- tors, including how many customers get the bulbs; changes in economic activity (people may use more electricity when they feel prosperous); and feedback to the customer (does the utility measure consumption and congratulate them for acting “green”?). And those are just a few questions.

Crunching those numbers and reaching sup- portable conclusions is no easy matter, Provencher says—but it’s exactly what the REDA program is designed to do. In one year, graduates get grounding in econometrics—think of it as the meshing of economics with statistics—and the energy industry. They meet analysts, consultants, executives and economists in the field, and complete a “capstone” project with a local or distant utility or firm, where they must base conclusions on real customer data.

A major part of the class is learning rigorous statistical analysis, using an open-source program called R. “R is a statistical program language that I had never heard of before, but now I use it daily,” says Morris, over at Con Ed. “It’s been a huge tool for me.”

REDA is a “terminal” master’s degree, which is meant to prepare students for their careers rather than serve as a stepping-stone for a Ph.D. That limitation doesn’t seem to bother grads.

“I was looking to go down the public policy route, but I was not convinced of the value of spending two years on the degree,” says Justin Margolies MA’16, now an analyst at Wisconsin Energy Conservation Corp. in Madison. “I realized that REDA would be a better, more focused route.”

The one-year master’s program is particularly attractive to people with “green” values, says program coordinator Bethany Glinsmann MS’11: “Some states and utilities are starting to pay attention to climate change and reducing their carbon footprint, but they need to make hard choices: ‘Given our limited set of resources, we want to be sure we are spending money in the most efficient manner.’ And that’s where program evaluation comes in. Did it work? Or could they find a way to spend those dollars in a more effective way?”

By applying statistical analysis of human behavior to energy—a field previously dominated by engineers and technology—REDA offers a more realistic and insightful way to assess the success or failure of demand reduction programs, says Margolies.

“The energy industry was historically built by engineers, and they used engineering algorithms to estimate the available savings from technology—say, installing an LED or a new air-conditioning unit— but were a little weak on verifying the savings,” says Margolies. “They did not take into account the behavioral element. People may not use the technology, or it may not be installed correctly. Those are the questions we are now equipped to answer.”

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.”

Mystery Solved

White-nose syndrome, a fast-spreading disease that over the past six years has been decimating bats in North America, is caused by the fungus Geomyces destructans, scientists at the USGS National Wildlife Health Center in Madison have proven. Their work provides the first direct evidence that G. destructans is responsible for the disease.

Researchers from the U.S. Geological Survey, CALS and other institutions showed that all little brown bats exposed to G. destructans in their study developed white-nose syndrome while hibernating in captivity.

“Identifying G. destructans as causing the disease will help direct future research toward elucidating what makes the fungus pathogenic, what makes North American bats susceptible—and what environmental factors are important for disease progression and transmission to take place,” says Jeffrey Lorch, who was part of the research team as a forest and wildlife ecology graduate student in the UW–Madison Molecular and Environmental Toxicology Center.

Bat populations in the eastern U.S. have been declining at an alarming rate since 2006, when white-nose syndrome first appeared in New York state—a development of particular concern to the U.S. agricultural industry, which saves billions of dollars in pest control costs each year courtesy of insect-eating bats. Bat declines in the Northeast already have exceeded 80 percent.

As Lorch points out, understanding what causes the disease is a crucial first step in controlling it.

Tech Transfer Showcase

When CALS biochemistry professor Harry Steenbock experimented with vitamin D in the early 1920s, his work proved groundbreaking in more ways than one.

Steenbock’s discovery that he could increase the vitamin D content of foods through irradiation with ultraviolet light eventually eliminated rickets, a then-common and often deadly disease characterized by softening of the bone due to vitamin D deficiency.

With his own $300, Steenbock patented his discovery and offered it to the University of Wisconsin. When the university declined, Steenbock conceived of the idea to form a foundation to collect, invest and distribute money earned through research-based discovery—
a pivotal step in establishing the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation (WARF), the nation’s first university technology transfer office. WARF’s first licensing agreement with Quaker Oats in 1927 led to the fortification of breakfast cereals with vitamin D.

Since then WARF has patented nearly 2,000 university inventions. And—in the grand tradition of Steenbock—many of them stem from the labs of CALS scientists and alumni. Here we present some highlights from recent years.


Though the term biotechnology was little known in his time, Steenbock was one of the world’s first biotechnologists—and he passed on that torch to his gifted graduate student, Hector DeLuca.

The path was not always smooth, and DeLuca hit some obstacles when his own seminal work on vitamin D in the 1960s led him to WARF. When he discovered the active form of vitamin D and chemically identified its structure, he was unable to file a patent due to unwieldy government restrictions. DeLuca eventually obtained a patent with the help of WARF patent attorney Howard Bremer and some influential people in Washington. That same group worked with federal legislators on the 1980 Bayh-Dole Act, which allowed nonprofit organizations to obtain patents spurred by federally funded research. As a result, WARF now holds more than 200 active patents from the DeLuca lab.

DeLuca is the founder of three spin-off companies, each stemming from his vitamin D work. Bone Care International, a maker of drugs to treat dialysis patients, was sold in 2005 to the biotech firm Genzyme for nearly $600 million. A second company, Tetrionics (now SAFC Pharma), was acquired by Sigma Aldrich Fine Chemicals in 2004 for close to $60 million.

Now DeLuca’s main focus is Deltanoid Pharmaceuticals, which he founded nearly 10 years ago with his fellow biochemistry professor (and wife) Margaret Clagett-Dame. The company is testing various vitamin D derivatives against osteoporosis, psoriasis, and kidney and autoimmune diseases, as well as other types of compounds to treat kidney failure. In clinical trials one vitamin D derivative seems to be highly effective in stimulating bone growth, and a number of other Deltanoid products are nearing the human testing phase.

With a business office located on Madison’s Monroe Street and about 10 employees, DeLuca describes Deltanoid as small but tenacious. “Our plan is to keep the company lean and mean until it has an income of its own,” he says.

TRAC Microbiology

Food contamination outbreaks generate headlines, especially when they result in illness or death. Virginia Deibel, while still a graduate student in food science and bacteriology at CALS, combined her interest in both subjects by forming TRAC Microbiology, a company that helps keep our food supply safe.

Deibel describes how it felt when TRAC played a pivotal role in identifying the type and location of bacteria that forced a shutdown in a large meat processing plant. The culprit turned out to be Listeria monocytogenes, the same bacteria that recently killed several dozen people who ate contaminated cantaloupes.

“We went in and found where the bacteria were harboring, removed it and tested that it was effectively gone. We then rewrote the client’s food safety programs, retrained all their employees and presented our corrective actions to the USDA,” Deibel recounts. “During the retraining phase I had employees coming up to me and thanking me for reopening the plant, which impacted entire families. That made me realize what we could do for a community.”

Deibel founded TRAC (for Testing, Research, Auditing and Consulting) 12 years ago. She was less than 18 months away from completing her Ph.D. when she began redirecting her energy toward writing a business plan and securing a start-up loan of $400,000.

“I knew from my work as a food scientist that there were many smaller companies that needed help with food safety,” says Deibel. “They simply did not have the necessary infrastructure to implement food safety systems.”

Initially TRAC services included helping food plants develop and update their food safety systems, train their quality assurance personnel and provide scientific justification for such practices as freezing, packaging and adding preservatives.

“Our original goals were to conduct research projects and provide food safety consultations,” says Deibel. But she soon discovered that many small food companies needed testing to meet customer requirements. That need inspired Deibel to expand its testing services, and TRAC, which eventually grew to 30 employees, soon succeeded in attracting larger clients from around the region.

Last fall Covance, one of the nation’s leading bioscience companies, announced the acquisition of TRAC Microbiology. Covance had paid close attention to TRAC and tapped Deibel to head development of its own food safety consulting division.

“Covance has excelled in so many different arenas—drug development, nutritional chemistry. I’m enjoying the challenge of helping such a respected company develop and grow a food microbiology arm,” says Deibel.