What does the future hold for Wisconsin Dairy Producers’ de facto R&D department?

Pictured left to right: Lloyd and Daphne Holterman

Pictured left to right: Lloyd and Daphne Holterman

It’s a cool and dusty morning on the Rosylane farm just south of Watertown, the American flag blown stiff on the pole against a crisp blue sky. Lloyd Holterman creaks back in his kitchen chair, cup of hot coffee in hand, a skid-loader humming just outside.

“Larry Satter’s work on phosphorous was probably the biggest economic breakthrough, as far as cost savings, that’s maybe ever been done,” he says. “In the 15 years since, we personally must save—I’m probably underestimating—$50,000 a year.”

Satter, the late UW-Madison nutrition expert and former director of the USDA-ARS Dairy Forage Research Center, turned the status quo on its head in 2000 when his research demonstrated that dairy cows need far less phosphorus in their diets than previously thought.

“For a long time farmers were told they needed to make sure cows were not deficient in phosphorus because science said too little was the cause of low fertility. Meanwhile, people were concerned about phosphorus runoff,” says UW-Madison Dairy Systems Management professor Michel Wattiaux. “What Larry did was go back and say, well, what is the amount of phosphorus that dairy cows actually need? He took it upon himself to design an experiment here on campus and basically re-calibrated this whole industry. Farmers then lowered the cost of their rations and saved millions of dollars countrywide. Milk production was not impacted, reproduction was not impacted, and it was all much more environmentally friendly.”

Satter’s work is just one of hundreds of examples of research and development discoveries credited to the UW-Madison Dairy Science program, where laboratory science has been used to solve real, on-farm problems since 1898. In fact, most Wisconsinites have no idea that UW-Madison is one of the top research universities in the world, and the only U.S. University to rank among the top five in research expenditures for 25 straight years. Just as Wisconsin farmers have evolved over the years into savvy businessmen operating sophisticated, technologically advanced dairy operations, UW-Madison Dairy Science has served as their personal research and development department, right in their own backyards. For Holterman, who often participates in UW-Madison Dairy Science research projects, these discoveries and advancements have been and continue to be a critical component of his overall operation.

“I’m telling you, there are a lot of people selling a lot of stuff,” says Holterman. “When a product shows up out here on the farm, we literally don’t buy it unless it has some kind of university research.”

It’s that real-life application and genuine hope of increasing profitability for farmers that often drives the work conducted at UW-Madison Dairy Science.

“We aren’t just doing research to increase our own understanding of science, like many academic researchers, but ultimately to solve practical problems,” says UW-Madison Dairy Science department chair and geneticist Kent Weigel. “That’s always in the front of our minds. This means talking with dairy farmers, industry stakeholders, extension agents and others to keep abreast of the challenges Wisconsin’s dairy farmers are facing at any given time, and then making the link with our own scientific tools and expertise to come up with effective solutions.”

Take the work of George Shook, for example, developing somatic cell count as an indicator of mastitis infection, and the incorporation of this information into genetic improvement programs that has proved invaluable. Or Milo Wiltbank’s OvSynch program, a game-changing culmination of several decades’ worth of research that finally allowed timed artificial insemination without the need for detecting estrus.

“I think sometimes people don’t realize the advancement that OvSynch represented when it came out in 1995,” says Paul Fricke, UW-Madison Dairy Science extension reproductive physiologist. “Timed insemination protocols represent a management tool that has radically changed the way people manage cows. It’s dramatically improved the 21 day pregnancy rates in the industry, by a good five percent, and each percentage point leads to a significant improvement in profitability. The numbers have just improved tremendously over time.”

And that potential for cutting-edge, pioneering change continues to thrive at UW-Madison Dairy Science. New faculty member Heather White is working on tools for early diagnosis and management of sub-clinical ketosis, a costly health problem that affects many cows in the first three weeks after calving. Meanwhile, Laura Hernandez is researching the link between serotonin, mobilization of calcium from the bone during early lactation, and milk fever, another health disorder affecting many cows in the first few days after calving. But continuing world class quality research and development work like this is far from a simple or easy task, and its future is not guaranteed.

“Our productivity and expectations are at an all-time high, in terms of research, so we are definitely doing more with less,” says Weigel, noting persistent and sustained state budget cuts, as well as federal research funding cutbacks that have led to greater (and more time-consuming) competition for dwindling funds. Add the challenge of a shrinking staff; UW-Madison Dairy Science has 12 faculty members today, down from 18 in 1995.

“This trajectory,” says Weigel, “can’t continue forever.”

Back on the Rosylane farm, Holterman has just returned from a trip to a dairy conference in the Ukraine, a country he says has the richest farmland he’s ever seen, but nowhere near the education or research and development at his disposal here in Wisconsin.

“We are still, by far, the most technologically advanced agricultural country in the world. We’re way ahead of everybody else,” says Holterman. “And it’s because of the research that goes on at the universities and the extension that gets it out so that people don’t just actually use it, they understand it better.”

That’s part of what makes UW-Madison fundamentally different from other UW System schools like UW-River Falls or UW-Platteville, where the only mission is undergraduate teaching. UW-Madison has three missions: research, undergraduate teaching, and extension. Holterman and his wife, Daphne, are both UW-Madison Dairy Science graduates, and their daughters, one of whom now works for the Wisconsin Dairy Business Association, attended UW-Madison as well. In fact, Dairy Science alumni—including Farm and Industry Short Course grads, like one of Holterman’s business partners, often go into dairy industry positions in Wisconsin companies such as Vita-Plus, BouMatic, or Alta Genetics. That’s one of the multiplier effects of this University program, along with the way that virtually all of its scientific discoveries are ultimately picked up and commercialized by companies throughout Wisconsin and beyond.

“I look at UW-Madison as an investment,” says Holterman. (While tax money still makes up about one sixth of the UW-Madison budget—down from nearly half a few decades ago—it doesn’t pay for carrying out research projects like those described in this article). “The buildings and the heat and the electricity are costs, but the research and development is an investment. And that can’t get lost in this discussion.”