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Dairy Scientist Larry Satter Retires

Larry D. Satter of the U.S. Dairy Forage Research Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison will retire July 3, 2003, following a 39-year career in dairy cattle nutrition.

Satter grew up in southern Minnesota, and earned a B.S. degree in animal science in 1960 from South Dakota State University. He was an International Farm Youth Exchange delegate to Germany in 1958. He earned his M.S. degree in dairy science in 1962 and his Ph.D. degree jointly in biochemistry and dairy science in 1964 from the UW-Madison.

He was appointed assistant professor in the Department of Dairy Science at the UW-Madison in 1964. His first year on the faculty was spent teaching at the University of Ife, Ibadan, Nigeria on a cooperative U.S. Agency for International Development/UW-Madison project. Satter’s 17 years as a faculty member with a teaching/research appointment included a sabbatical at the USDA-ARS Beef Cattle Research Branch in Beltsville, Md., and two months in Indonesia as a consultant to the University of Indonesia on a program of higher education in agriculture.

In 1981, Satter moved to the newly constructed USDA-ARS Dairy Forage Research Center on the UW-Madison campus as a research dairy scientist, and served as director from 1987 to 1998.

Annual per-cow milk production more than doubled in Wisconsin during Satter’s career, from about 8,000 pounds per cow in 1960 to more than 17,000 pounds per cow today. He says that one of the biggest factors in that increase was the convergence of artificial insemination and computers.

When Satter started at UW-Madison in 1960, the dairy science department had access to one IBM mainframe computer – probably the only computer in the college – owned by the Dairy Herd Improvement Association. Thanks to artificial insemination, sires with superior genes for milk production have lots of daughters, and researchers and AI studs needed to keep track of sires and daughters – hence the computer.

“Genetic progress really kicked in in the 1970s,” Satter says. “Since then, we’ve seen a linear increase in milk production per cow of about 1.5 percent per year. Probably half or more of that increase is due to improved genetics, and there’s no end in sight. We now have ‘superstar’ cows that produce 70,000 pounds of milk a year, and this implies that there is still tremendous genetic potential. I think we’ll continue with 1.5 percent increases for the foreseeable future.”

Genetic progress before 1960 was slow; improved nutrition and the change to Holsteins from dual-purpose breeds accounted for most production increases, Satter says.

Dairy farmers feed more concentrates now, thanks to hybrid corn (and the nitrogen fertilizers hybrid varieties require). The push for concentrates began in the 1950s. The change from hay to silage began in the 1960s, allowing Wisconsin producers to store and feed good-quality silage instead of variable-quality (and sometimes bad) hay.

The 1960s through the ’80s were the heydays — or “haydays” — for ruminant nutrition research. During this time, the UW-Madison herd had half the intestinally cannulated cows in the world. Satter’s work focused on nitrogen and protein in cows – when and when not to use non-protein nitrogen, understanding protein’s fate in the cow, roasting soybeans to maximize protein availability for cows, and balancing diets to reduce nitrogen excretion.

His work defined limits to which non-protein nitrogen sources, such as urea, could replace protein in ruminant diets, and helped usher in new concepts of protein utilization by ruminants. Satter’s lab established the criteria for heat processing of soybeans to decrease protein degradation in the rumen. This knowledge resulted in rapid growth in use of heat-processed soybeans as a supplement for lactating dairy cows. Total mixed rations, fats and oils, and supplemental vitamins and minerals were also introduced during these years.

Improvements in housing, hormonal intervention such as bovine somatotropin and heat synchronization, and professional consultants who help to quickly move research from the lab to the farm have also added to production gains.

“We don’t usually see a quantum leap forward; it’s almost always incremental change – small steps, but they add up,” Satter says. “The advances often involved collateral developments – for example, hybrid corn and fertilizers, or artificial insemination and computerized record-keeping.”

Satter has been active in the American Dairy Science Association, serving as chair of the Production Division, and as vice-president and president. He was a member of the joint ADSA/ASAS/PSA Society Structure Committee that developed the plans and structure for the formation of the Federation of Animal Science Societies. He served as the first president of the FASS board of directors in 1998. He was chair of the ADSA foundation board, and in 2002 served as chair of the program committee that developed the Discover Conference topic on “Nitrogen Losses to the Atmosphere from Livestock and Poultry Operations.” He is also a member of the American Society of Animal Science, American Society for Nutritional Sciences, American Forage and Grassland Council, and CAST.

Satter was recently recognized as a Highly Cited Researcher by ISI, publisher of Current Contents. He has been a frequent speaker at conferences and symposia in 30 states, seven Canadian provinces, and 18 countries.

Satter has received numerous honors, including the American Feed Manufacturer’s Association Award for Outstanding Research in Dairy Cattle Nutrition, Distinguished Nutritionist Award by the Distillers Feed Research Council, Outstanding Teacher Award in the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences, Pioneer Hi-Bred Forage Award, ADSA Fellow, Nutrition Professionals Applied Nutrition Award from ADSA, and Award of Honor for contributions to ADSA.

Following retirement, Satter plans to spend more time growing hardwood trees on his farm near Madison.

A celebration in Satter’s honor will be held Monday, July 7, with a lunch and reception at the Allen Centennial Gardens, 620 Babcock Drive on the UW-Madison campus. Those wishing to attend or send congratulatory letters should contact Cindi Birch, U.S. Dairy Forage Research Center, 1925 Linden Drive West, Madison, WI 53706, clbirch@wisc.edu Telephone: (608) 264-5240.