Faculty testify in support of Dairy Innovation Hub legislation

On May 1, Sen. Howard Marklein, R-Spring Green, and Reps. Gary Tauchen, R-Bonduel; Rob Summerfield, R-Bloomer; Travis Tranel, R-Cuba City; and Shannon Zimmerman, R-River Falls introduced legislation providing additional funding for dairy research at UW System colleges of agriculture.

The legislation would provide $7.9M in funding for UW–Madison, UW–Platteville and UW–River Falls to increase research efforts into land and water use, human health and nutrition, animal health and welfare and farm business and rural communities. Wisconsin farm groups are supporting the measure.

Four faculty in the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences testified at a hearing of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Revenue and Financial Institutions. Their testimony is posted below.

  • Kent Weigel, Chair of Dairy Science
  • Scott Rankin, Chair of Food Science
  • Troy Runge, Chair of Biological Systems Engineering
  • Heather White, Associate Professor in Dairy Science

A statement about the bill by CALS Dean Kate VandenBosch is posted online here.

Testimony of Heather White, Associate Professor in Dairy Science: 

Good morning Committee Members,

Thank you for this opportunity, I am honored to testify today in support of Senate Bill 186. My name is Heather White and I am an associate professor in the Department of Dairy Science in the area of nutritional physiology. Through my research and teaching, I train, mentor, and interact with graduate and undergraduate students, as well working with producers and professionals across the dairy industry.

I, like many others in the dairy industry, was first attracted to the state of Wisconsin for the rich agricultural heritage and excellence in dairy cattle production. The concept of the Wisconsin Idea is epitomized by the strong connection between University of Wisconsin faculty and staff and producers within the state. Upon starting at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, several of my research projects took me to privately-owned dairy farms as a part of my sample collection. Through this, I saw how the farms use my research to improve their operations. My teaching on campus also brought realizations that my students were from the farms I had visited and would return to those farms, to a sector of the Wisconsin dairy industry, or continue on for further education. The realization that I was becoming even a small part of the intricate balance of this state-wide legacy was both empowering and humbling.

At the University of Wisconsin-Madison, our impact on the state’s dairy industry is two-fold. First, we are performing research to provide new solutions to dairy producers, nutritionists, and veterinarians. The research in my laboratory focuses on improving animal health and feed efficiency. For example, roughly half of dairy cows develop sub-clinical ketosis after calving which costs the producer around $290 per case. While we know that early detection and treatment can reduce the negative impacts, the detection methods are expensive and laborious. In addition to studying ways to prevent onset of sub-clinical ketosis and other disorders, my lab developed less-intensive and more cost-effective diagnostic tools and worked with producers and industry groups to improve implementation of these tools. Together, these are reducing costs and improving animal health. We also research ways to improve nutrient utilization and feed efficiency. Feed costs represent half of the cost of milk production and overfeeding some nutrients, while limitations in others exist, represents inefficiencies and unnecessary waste. Working to understand and improve nutrient utilization allows us to aid in efficient milk production while minimizing feed input and waste excretion. By tackling these “big issues” we can get useable answers for producers.

Our second primary output is achieved through our teaching efforts. We train individuals that will return to farms or enter the industry with some form of higher degree. I interact with undergraduate and graduate students daily, either in the classroom or in a research setting and because those of us teaching are also leading research projects, our students are constantly exposed to the latest and greatest in our respective fields. What does this mean for the industry? It means that students going to a farm or to industry are equipped with the most current scientific knowledge and know where to access future findings. We also train producers and industry professionals through Extension programs and through industry-organized professional education efforts. Through these programs, world-renowned researchers communicate their research findings directly to producers, nutritionists, veterinarians, and professionals across the state, who can implement the research findings.

Investment in the Dairy Innovation Hub bill will support increased research and teaching in dairy science. There is a demand for more teaching, of students, producers, and professionals, and there are countless intriguing and impactful research questions which cannot be answered due to limited resources. This investment will allow us to better serve the state’s dairy industry, increasing the impact we can have and provide critically needed support in terms of research and education in a time when we could potentially have a greater impact than ever before.

Thank you for your time and your support of the bill. I would be happy to answer any questions.

Testimony of Scott Rankin, Chair of Food Science:

Senator Marklein and members of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Revenue and Financial Institutions,

I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in favor of Senate Bill 186 designed to enable the formation of the Dairy Innovation Hub. My name is Scott Rankin. I am a faculty member at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and chair of the Department of Food Science. Comprised of engineers, microbiologists and chemists, our department has a century-plus old heritage of creating impactful outcomes for the dairy industry including the discovery of the Babcock milkfat test; the founding of the Wisconsin Center for Dairy Research; stewardship of Babcock Dairy plant; the mentorship of thousands of our youth, many of whom go on to occupy key leadership positions; and a host of other advancements that help make Wisconsin dairy products such as cheese, ice cream and butter as wholesome and valuable as they possibly can be.

I invite you to reflect upon the challenges that our dairy industry and dairy farm families are facing and to consider what investments can be made to realize a bright future through the opportunities that the Dairy Innovation Hub is designed to achieve. I invite you to envision a multi-campus community of dedicated, world-class individuals whose task it is to develop highly skilled dairy leadership from the coming generations and to create and implement the future scientific discoveries that will enable dairy foods to remain a vibrant and relevant component of a healthy, growing world market and economy. One current example of such a design is our partnership with chemical engineers and economists on campus working to convert relatively low value components of milk, such as lactose, into globally important compounds. Such novel compounds are used in a host of manufacturing applications and are orders of magnitude more valuable than native lactose. I am convinced that such a design, amplified and formalized through the Dairy Innovation Hub, holds tremendous promise.

My hope is that some years from now, we will reflect upon the creation of the Dairy Innovation Hub and be proud of what was achieved: the groundbreaking discoveries made, the pioneering leaders developed, the partnership of leading scientists with our greater dairy community and this very public model of Wisconsin-authored and achieved innovation and success. A colleague of mine has a statement on her business card, reflective of her motivation as an instructor of our youth, that states, “I touch the future.” In that spirit, I invite you to similarly touch the future by enabling the creation of the Dairy Innovation Hub. I thank the committee for taking the time to consider this important bill and am happy to take any questions.

Testimony of Troy Runge, Chair of Biological Systems Engineering:

Members of the Senate and Assembly,

Thank you for the opportunity to testify in support of the Dairy Innovation Hub. My name is Troy Runge, and I am the chair of the Biological Systems Engineering Department at UW-Madison. In this role, I oversee the research, teaching, and outreach activities of approximately 15 faculty members, 10 academic staff, 30 graduate students, and 220 undergraduate students.

My department’s mission is to help create the systems that supply the world’s food and energy needs for a sustainable tomorrow. More specifically we are engineers that innovate on agricultural equipment and natural systems. Being in Wisconsin and holding to the Wisconsin Idea nearly all of our faculty and staff have some aspect of their research, teaching, extension and outreach work related to the dairy industry.

Before coming to UW Madison I worked in the private sector as a researcher and engineer. Before that I was a dairy farmer, having been raised on a family farm in Northcentral Wisconsin. Through these experiences I have learned of the importance of the dairy industry to our state, and the importance of innovation to any industry. These two truths are why I am excited about this legislation, which will bring world-class researchers to Wisconsin and charge them with innovating in 4 key areas for the dairy industry including reducing environmental impacts, enhancing dairy products, improving our state herds, and fostering the growth of related businesses, all of which should help our rural communities thrive.

My department works in all 4 of these areas, ranging from research on dairy forage to animal waste. Or in other words from the cow’s “front end” to her “back end”. This work affects more than dairy producers or even the dairy industry, but every citizen of our state and, one could argue, the globe. You see the dairy industry can have a profound impact on the environment, both good or bad, depending on how the flow of water, carbon and nutrients are managed. As an example and an area of innovation need for the dairy industry, phosphorous in animal waste has gone from a vital fertilizer, to a major pollutant in Wisconsin waters. My department and others are working in this area, but more work and resources are needed to create better systems to enhance farm profitability while protecting our state’s groundwater, rivers, and lakes.

I have witnessed incredible progress from those already involved with the dairy industry in both production methods and products, but I believe we will need significantly more innovation if we are going to keep Wisconsin’s dairy industry healthy. The investment into the UW system and its colleges of agriculture is not what it was in the past and correspondingly it has become more difficult to innovate in this space. An infusion of resources by this legislation can provide a much needed investment into the faculty, scientists and students at UW–Madison, UW–River Falls, and UW–Platteville.

Is this a good investment? I sincerely believe so. In my department, student numbers have tripled in the last decade demonstrating a strong interest in this area. Most of these students are from Wisconsin, with many from a farming or rural background that want to stay and work in our state after graduation. The students are attracted to technology of the agricultural industry and connect with its core mission of feeding the world in a sustainable manner. From on-farm robotic machines, artificial intelligence for nutrient management decisions, and advanced waste processing operations, the dairy industry is going “high-tech” and we want Wisconsin to continue to be a leader. New faculty and scientists in Wisconsin will help innovate in these areas, training students, bringing in external grants, and supporting new businesses.

In closing, I believe this legislation is critical to support the agricultural programs at UW–Madison, UW–River Falls, and UW–Platteville. In supporting these programs, we will in turn support the dairy industry which is critical to the State of Wisconsin.

Finally let me express my gratitude to Senator Marklein and Representatives Tranel, Summerfield, Tauchen, and Zimmerman for introducing this legislation and to the members of the assembly and senate for their consideration. Thank you for your time and please let me know if you have any questions or comments.

Testimony of Kent Weigel, Chair of Dairy Science and Animal Sciences:

Members of the Committee,

Thank you for the opportunity to testify in support of the Dairy Innovation Hub.  My name is Kent Weigel, and I am chair of the Departments of Dairy Science and Animal Sciences at UW-Madison.  In this role, I oversee the research, teaching, and outreach activities of approximately twenty-five faculty members, fifty academic staff, sixty graduate students, and two hundred and fifty undergraduate students who seek to improve the health, welfare, and production efficiency of dairy cattle and other agricultural animals, as well as the sustainability and profitability of Wisconsin’s farms and agribusinesses.

As you know very well, dairy farming is vital to Wisconsin’s economy, and particularly to the families and communities of rural Wisconsin.  For more than a century, Wisconsin has been synonymous with dairy farming and dairy products.  Discoveries at UW-Madison have transformed the ways farmers feed, breed, and care for their animals, as well as the ways they plant and harvest their crops and tend to their land.  Faculty and staff of UW-Madison, UW-River Falls, and UW-Platteville have educated thousands of young men and women who have achieved great success and provided key leadership in their roles as dairy farmers, veterinarians, nutritionists, technical consultants, engineers, food scientists, and countless other types of industry professionals.

In spite of these historical achievements, we find ourselves at a crossroads.  Dairy farmers are fighting to save businesses that have been in their families for generations, while the expectations of neighbors, consumers, and the general public regarding the ways they manage their animals and steward the environment are higher than ever.

This legislation will position Wisconsin’s colleges of agriculture, and the students and stakeholders they serve, for a bright and productive future.  It will allow us to recruit, train, and hire exceptionally talented young men and women, from wherever they may come, to lead our state’s flagship industry in 2030 and beyond.  It will build capacity in research, teaching, and extension and strengthen the linkages between our campuses. Unlike competitive grant funding, for which my colleagues have been very successful in attracting funds for projects that have a defined and limited scope, these funds can be used flexibly to address our most critical, emerging challenges and opportunities, giving us the ability to respond with the necessary research more quickly and creatively.  It will foster entrepreneurship, and it will provide holistic solutions to our toughest challenges.  And most importantly, it will keep Wisconsin’s farms, cheese plants, and other dairy-related agribusinesses one step ahead of their domestic and international competitors, through innovative discoveries and novel strategies, practices, and protocols.

This legislation will bring world-class researchers, including graduate students, postdoctoral research associates, visiting scientists, and university professors, to Wisconsin and equip them with the resources they need to tackle the most complex challenges and opportunities we face today, as well as those that will arise tomorrow, next year, and twenty years from now.  The funding you provide will be targeted specifically to achieve four key objectives:  1) reducing the impact of dairy farming on our land, air, and water resources; 2) enhancing the nutritional value, convenience, and appeal of milk, cheese, yogurt, ice cream, and other dairy products; 3) improving the health, welfare, and production efficiency of dairy cattle and other agricultural species, and 4) fostering the growth of dairy-related agribusinesses to help our rural communities thrive.

My sincere thanks to Senator Marklein and Representative Tranel for introducing this bill, as well as all of their co-sponsors in the Senate and Assembly.  This legislation will have a transformational impact on our dairy farming, dairy foods, and broader agricultural programs at UW-Madison, UW-River Falls, and UW-Platteville, while serving our students and stakeholders throughout the State of Wisconsin.  Thank you for taking the time to consider this legislation. I would be happy to answer questions.