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Research projects advance sustainable agriculture and food in Wisconsin

Three UW–Madison graduate students are getting a unique opportunity to carry out interdisciplinary, hands-on research that will advance sustainable agriculture and food in Wisconsin and the Upper Midwest.

A generous commitment from the UW–Madison College of Agricultural and Life Sciences (CALS) is supporting three research projects in cooperation with the Center for Integrated Agricultural Systems (CIAS). The two-year projects further CIAS’s mission of developing diverse and sustainable agricultural and food systems utilizing multidisciplinary approaches while sparking synergies between CALS departments, CIAS, and CIAS’s many off-campus partners.

Abby Augarten measuring nitrogen use efficiency on Wisconsin corn fields to evaluate risk to water quality. Photo courtesy of Discovery Farms.

Abby Augarten, graduate student in the agroecology program, will be investigating management practices that graziers can implement to improve soil health, productivity and ecosystem services. She will be working on this project with Matt Ruark (PI), soil science department; Jacob Grace, CIAS; Randy Jackson, agronomy department; and Michel Wattiaux, animal and dairy sciences department and CIAS.

“Studying the soil health of Wisconsin’s pastures with the team is an exciting opportunity,” says Augarten. “This research will better our understanding of how pasture management impacts soil health, productivity, and ecosystem services and will be invaluable to improving the sustainability of our agricultural systems.”

Pablo Sandro assesses oat plants at the Walnut Street Greenhouses. Photo courtesy of Pablo Sandro, UW-Madison agronomy department.

Pablo Sandro, graduate student in the agronomy department, is involved in a study exploring how to incorporate high-value, food-grade cereal grains (spring wheat, winter wheat and KernzaⓇ) into organic rotations. Sandro is working with faculty members Valentin Picasso (PI), agronomy department, Julie Dawson, horticulture department; and Lucia Gutierrez, agronomy department.

“This is an amazing opportunity to work in integrative plant breeding with three very different cereals, developing a quality product for consumers while being sustainable for farmers,” says Sandro. “It is challenging to work with the input from participants of the supply chain, but it is possible and it will develop more sustainable production systems.”

Kate Wells gathers samples for a study at Marshfield Agricultural Research Station. Photo courtesy of Marshfield Agricultural Research Station.

Kate Wells, graduate student in the animal and dairy sciences department, will work with a team of researchers to analyze grass species, fertilizer rates and economics of pastures set aside (stockpiled) as feed for late fall into winter. Wells will be working with Matt Akins (PI), animal and dairy sciences department; Jason Cavadini, Marshfield Agricultural Research Station; Tom Kriegl, emeritus, Center for Dairy Profitability; Valentin Picasso, agronomy department; Erin Silva, plant pathology department; and Michel Wattiaux, animal and dairy sciences department and CIAS.

A group of CALS faculty, CIAS Citizens Advisory Council members, and CIAS staff selected the research projects from a diverse array of applications. The top scoring projects rated highly in terms of scientific merit, project benefits, and the ability to create synergies and future collaborations between academic departments and CIAS.

“It is critical to provide graduate students with interdisciplinary research opportunities,” says CIAS Interim Director Michel Wattiaux, a professor in the animal and dairy sciences department. “These projects provide win-win situations because they advance student training of ‘real-world’ problems, expand our sustainable agriculture knowledge base, and exemplify the Wisconsin Idea in action.”

For more information contact Michel Wattiaux at