Stay Longer in the Kickapoo

The Kickapoo Valley is a picturesque area of western Wisconsin that attracts many visitors during the summer. But to improve economic development throughout this rural region, many residents and business owners want to lengthen the tourism season—and CALS/UW–Extension researchers are helping them make plans to do so.

“We’re fairly busy in the peak season, but tourism drops off in the shoulder months,” says Sadie Urban, the events coordinator for the Kickapoo Valley Reserve, an 8,500-acre natural and recreational area. “There’s still a lot to do in the area during those times, but we don’t really see the tourists then.”

To form a plan of action to attract new visitors, the Kickapoo Valley Reserve applied for funding help from the Kickapoo Valley Reforestation Fund, also known as the Ralph Nuzum Fund. The fund supports projects that enhance the ecological, economic and social well-being of Kickapoo Valley residents.

As part of the grant, Urban and her colleagues needed a University of Wisconsin partner—and Bret Shaw, a CALS professor of life sciences communication, was the right fit for the project.

“I’m interested in the intersection of tourism, sustainability and economic development, so this project was right in my wheelhouse of market research and helping rural communities,” says Shaw, who also has an appointment with UW–Extension as an environmental communications specialist.

Shaw started work in the valley by talking with stakeholders and identifying the goal of attracting tourists during the shoulder months. He and graduate student Heather Akin then surveyed Kickapoo Valley visitors and wrote a report about tourist demographics, behaviors and feelings. The full report is available at

Community organizations in the Kickapoo Valley are using Shaw’s findings to influence their marketing materials and plan new events. Research indicated that excitement, adventure and food-related experiences would attract visitors. An immediate response was the Kickapoo Reserve Tromp and Chomp, a new trail run held in May featuring post-race meals by local chefs and growers. Urban says the event brought at least $6,400 tourist dollars into local economies—and that it will be held annually.

In addition to consulting on new events, Shaw is involved in the Ralph Nuzum Lecture Series, which introduces valley residents to experts on topics such as agriculture, wildlife and sustainability. Shaw also helped establish an Extension video channel to share those lectures with a broader audience and showcase the valley in general. Videos are available at

Shaw is optimistic that these ongoing collaborations between UW–Madison, UW–Extension and the Kickapoo Valley Reserve will produce the desired increase in tourism and economic development.

“Each time we attract a new visitor, that person spends around $140 if they stay overnight, so we’d like to see these events continue to help local businesses and residents,” Shaw says.

PHOTO—Natural beauty: A rock bluff along the Kickapoo River, one of the area’s many draws for tourists.

Even Cows are “Texting”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hannah Gerbitz BS’13

Hannah Gerbitz BS'13

Hannah Gerbitz BS’13

Hannah Gerbitz launched her working life with AgrAbility, a federal program that in Wisconsin partners with UW–Extension to help people keep working in production agriculture while living with a farm injury, disability or other limitation. Gerbitz completed an internship with AgrAbility as an undergraduate and, after earning a degree in dairy science and life sciences communication, soon began working for the organization as an outreach specialist, overseeing efforts to broaden and enhance public awareness of the program. “My favorite part of my job is seeing our services come full circle and benefiting the farmers that we work hard to serve,” says Gerbitz, who grew up on a small dairy farm.

Ken Schroeder BS’93 MS’96 PhD’00

Ken Schroeder BS'93 MS'96 PhD'00

Ken Schroeder BS’93 MS’96 PhD’00

Ken Schroeder serves as the agricultural agent for Portage County, specializing in commercial vegetable production. He pursues that work in a variety of ways, from one-on-one consulting to group education and field tours. He conducts on-farm applied research in cooperation with area vegetable growers, and his current projects focus on improving the sustainability of vegetable production on irrigated land in Central Wisconsin. His statewide work includes serving on the UW–Extension Fresh Market and Commercial Vegetable Team, on the education committee of the Wisconsin Potato and Vegetable Growers Association (WPVGA) and on the central Wisconsin Groundwater Task Force. “My favorite part of my job is helping people. I enjoy working with farmers, agribusinesses and home gardeners, providing educational programing and resources where they live and work,” says Schroeder, who holds degrees in horticulture and in plant breeding and plant genetics.

Move Over, Beer

Wisconsin is known for fermented products like cheese, pickles and beer. But now it’s adding even more to that blossoming list: wine and cider. And the Badger State’s 110 wineries and commercial cider makers now have a new resource to help them compete: Nick Smith.

Since he started at CALS earlier this year as the university’s first wine and cider outreach specialist, Smith has been traveling the state, knocking on doors and meeting Wisconsin’s wine and cider makers.

Wine grapes can be difficult to grow in Wisconsin since most varieties prefer warmer climates, but after years researching wine and working with growers in Minnesota, Smith is confident there’s a market for it here, too, given the state’s legacy of fermented products, bustling tourism industry and agricultural diversity.

Smith’s also interested in helping producers realize profits in cider, where it can be hard to compete with large cider makers who sell product for the price of craft beer.

“It’s a relatively rapidly growing industry, especially for cider, which is one of the fastest-growing market segments in terms of percentage growth year after year,” he says.

Smith has blazed a meandering trail to his current position. He was a 19-year-old business management major at the University of Minnesota the day he caught the wine and beer bug. He was making a delivery for one of his campus jobs when he noticed a certain shop across the street.

“There was a homebrew shop right there on campus—I think it was owned by a retired microbiology professor,” he says. “I thought: ‘What is that?’ and instantly, I was hit. It never occurred to me that you could homebrew.”

Smith ended up taking numerous food and fermentation science classes. He then spent a year studying beer and winemaking at Oregon State University before taking a job as a chemist for a commercial winemaker in California.

But the draw back to the Midwest was strong, and he took a position as a research winemaker at the University of Minnesota, where he spent eight years preparing small batches of wine for tasting analysis based on the selections of grape breeders. He also earned a master’s degree in food science.

Just prior to joining CALS, Smith was working as a winemaker in Rochester, Minnesota, but the opportunity to build something from the vineyard (and orchard) up in Wisconsin was too good to turn down.

Since his arrival, Smith has participated in workshops hosted by the wine industry and is gathering input and information about the needs of wine and cider makers in Wisconsin. Many, he says, are new to commercial production and are looking for advice and help in scaling up from homebrew or commercial small-batch operations. Smith, who is funded by state and industry grants, is working with the Wisconsin Winery Association to develop educational outreach tracks for conferences, find speakers and develop short courses for industry, much like the CALS-based Center for Dairy Research, which he says serves as a good model for developing outreach and viticulture partnerships.

As examples, over the summer he hosted an industry workshop on sparkling wine production, which he expects to be a profitable segment of the market in Wisconsin, as well as a preharvest workshop on aspects of fermentation chemistry in winemaking. This fall he’s hosting regional winemaker roundtables at three wineries around the state, offering winemakers an opportunity to meet and discuss wines they are producing.

Smith’s also working to get a fermentation lab bubbling in Babcock Hall, where he currently shares space with ice cream and other frozen-dessert researchers. He may also take students interested in making wine and cider for an independent study course, similar to a beer-brewing course recently led by Jim Steele, head of the fermented foods and beverages program in the Department of Food Science. The department plans to soon offer an undergraduate certificate in fermented foods and beverages.

Smith hopes the revenue generated from workshops will fund additional research on how grape growing affects flavor and aroma development. Wisconsin is, after all, fertile terroir: roughly 10 new wineries, 10 new breweries and 10 new distilleries pop up in the state each year.

“It’s a growing industry, and it’s going to grow without us,” he says. “But the UW can help it grow better.”

Aerica Bjurstrom BS’00

Aerica Bjurstrom BS'00

Aerica Bjurstrom BS’00

In her work as an agricultural agent focusing on dairy and livestock production and management in Kewaunee County, Aerica Bjurstrom both meets and anticipates her customers’ needs. “My programming changes depending on what farmers are asking for—or if I see a need for something new before they ask,” she says. Bjurstrom, whose CALS degree is in animal sciences, works with dairy producers in such areas as production practices, farm safety and dairy forages. She also facilitates her county’s Master Gardener Volunteer and horticulture programs, which include working with three community gardens. She’s especially happy to be serving as the executive secretary for Farm Technology Days, which will be held in Kewaunee County—for the first time ever—in 2017. “Now I’m working with even more amazing people with a passion for agriculture,” she says.

Amber Canto BS’07

Amber Canto BS'07

Amber Canto BS’07

As a poverty and food security specialist, Amber Canto supports county educators and state-level partners dedicated to improving access to healthy food for Wisconsinites with limited incomes. Her CALS degree is in dietetics. She also holds a master’s in public health from the University of North Carolina and is finishing her Ph.D. in the UW–Madison Department of Population Health. Before joining UW–Extension, Canto worked as a nutrition consultant with UNICEF in the Dominican Republic, where she coordinated infant and young child feeding interventions on the Dominican–Haitian border. She was introduced to the Dominican Republic as CALS student. “One of my most memorable experiences was a summer study abroad there,” she says. “I met my future husband and solidified my desire to address nutritional disparities and apply a local-global framework to my career.”

Eric Cooley BS’98 MS’05

Eric Cooley BS'98 MS'05

Eric Cooley BS’98 MS’05

Eric Cooley serves as co-director of Discovery Farms®, a UW–Extension-based program with the mission of determining, through on-farm and other research, the economic and environmental effects of various agricultural practices on a range of Wisconsin farms representing the state’s diverse soil types, physical and water characteristics, and livestock and cropping systems. His own work focuses on natural resource issues in eastern Wisconsin, with an emphasis on surface water runoff and tile drainage. On a daily basis he coordinates and implements water quality research, collects and disseminates data and develops educational materials based on Discovery Farms’ research. “I enjoy utilizing science and research to address modern-day challenges and increase the efficiency of agricultural systems,” says Cooley, whose CALS degrees are in soil science. “The best part of my job is working with farmers, who are natural problem solvers.”

Dan Hill MA’88

Dan Hill MA'88

Dan Hill MA’88

Dan Hill serves as a local government specialist at UW–Extension’s Local Government Center (LGC), whose mission is to provide leadership and coordination to UW–Extension educational programs that support local government—serving more than 5,000 locally elected and appointed county, city, village and municipal officials around the state—as well as expand the knowledge base for local government education. Hill’s areas of expertise include open meetings, open records, elections, parliamentary procedure and public policy education. He educates LGC constituents about these matters in a number of ways. “For example, I am frequently invited to speak with groups of local officials about the Wisconsin open meetings law and their responsibility to comply with it,” Hill says. He also serves half-time as Secretary of the Faculty and Staff at UW–Extension. Hill’s CALS degree is in agricultural economics.

Brian Hudelson MS’89 PhD’90

Brian Hudelson MS'89 PhD'90

Brian Hudelson MS’89 PhD’90

As director of the Plant Disease Diagnostic Clinic, Hudelson serves the state from his base on the UW–Madison campus. “My primary job is to identify plant diseases and provide my clients with diagnoses and information on disease control,” he says. His clients include agribusinesses, home gardeners and plant health consultants (for example, crop scouts and arborists). Hudelson does his share of teaching—he’s a co-instructor in several plant pathology courses and teaches plant disease diagnostics to graduate students each summer—and “tons of outreach,” he says, encompassing 60–80 talks each year as well as producing fact sheets and appearing frequently on Larry Meiller’s “Garden Talk” on Wisconsin Public Radio. “I love the variety of what I get to do and that I’m always learning new things, even after 17 years,” Hudelson says.

Charles S. Law BS’79

Charles S. Law BS'79

Charles S. Law BS’79

Chuck Law serves as director of UW–Extension’s Local Government Center (LGC), whose mission is to provide leadership and coordination to UW System educational programs that support local government—serving more than 5,000 locally elected and appointed county, city, village and municipal officials around the state—as well as expand the knowledge base for local government education. Law also serves as a community planning and design specialist, supporting county-based UW–Extension colleagues who work with local officials on a range of community planning challenges, including downtown redevelopment and rural building preservation. Law, who holds a CALS degree in landscape architecture and a Ph.D. in renewable natural resource studies from the University of Arizona, is considered the state’s leading expert on Business Improvement District (BID) creation and administration. He also serves as one of the founders and coordinators of the nationally recognized Wisconsin Barn Preservation Program.

Patricia Malone BS’87

Pat Malone BS'87

Pat Malone BS’87

As a community development educator in Trempealeau County, Pat Malone focuses primarily on building the organizational capacity of individuals, businesses, community organizations and local governments to address a range of issues, from water quality and strategic planning to industrial sand mining. She pursues that work by providing education about the issues, facilitation and applied research. Malone, whose degree is in agricultural economics, still loves her job after 27 years. “It’s never the same day, and I get to learn constantly and reinvent myself on a regular basis,” she says. “When I started, I was the ‘bag lady’ of the county, working on solid waste and recycling. Since then I’ve had the opportunity to focus on criminal justice issues, groundwater quality, long-term care reform, and, most recently, industrial sand mining. It’s a grand opportunity to be a lifelong learner.”