UW Madison Dairy Science Graduate Student Awarded Prestigious National Science Foundation Award

Story by: Kaine Korzekwa | By earning a National Science Foundation fellowship that was awarded to barely 10 percent of the 17,000 applicants, Department of Dairy Science and Endocrine and Reproductive Physiology Ph.D. student Samantha Weaver has definitely shown she’s not just another part of the herd.

Weaver received the graduate fellowship to pursue research on the mammary gland in dairy cows. Specifically, she looks at how cows pull calcium from their bones to put into the milk they produce. She’s investigating the complex chemical mechanisms that allow this process to happen inside a cow’s body.

“Lactation is an interesting time because everything related to how the body usually functions gets overhauled,” Weaver says. “The grant focuses on understanding this mechanism in the dairy cow because it’s never been described before. It’s understanding the mammary gland at the DNA level.”

She explains that for a long time it was thought that parathyroid hormone causes the extraction of calcium from a cow’s bones during lactation. However, she’s found evidence that this is regulated by the role of serotonin in stimulating production of parathyroid hormone-related protein, which is similar to parathyroid hormone but acts differently. This phenomenon may be what truly makes this process possible.

While the difference is subtle, Weaver says knowing the molecules that make up this pathway is the key to alleviating the many problems caused my hypocalcemia, which occurs when cows pull so much calcium out of their bones for their milk that there isn’t enough left for other important bodily functions, such as muscle contraction. The result can be loss of productivity and poor overall cow comfort.

“What I like about this work is that it can have very clinical endpoints,” Weaver adds. “The negative effects of hypocalcemia costs the dairy industry millions of dollars each year, so if by understanding this process we can come up with a type of treatment it would be very beneficial. Hypocalcemia is especially a problem because it’s often an issue in a large number of cows but goes undetected because they don’t show outward signs of illness, called the subclinical stage.”

Her research also has implications on another species that has mammary glands and utilizes many of the same pathways for lactation — humans. While there are some differences, dairy cows are much more similar to humans than mice, the animal most commonly studied in the lab, so Weaver hopes her research can lead to insights about women’s health as well.

“I like the translatability of this research and how I’m able to really make my research relevant to human health as well, illuminating how it works in both species,” she says. “It totally blows my mind that you can understand what’s going on at a molecular level and it has enormous ramifications on the overall health of the species.”

Weaver’s path to getting involved in research on dairy cows is anything but ordinary. A Spanish major in her undergrad at UW-Madison, Weaver was taking science classes with plans to possibly attend medical school. Her sophomore year she got involved in the lab of assistant professor Laura Hernandez in the Department of Dairy Science. From there she was hooked and started a Ph.D. in the lab right after graduation.

While her focus is on a molecular approach to dairy science, Weaver enjoys how diverse her department is, studying all aspects of dairy to further the industry. Since starting her Ph.D. she’s become involved in Badger Dairy Club and helped out at the World Dairy Expo. She was also awarded the Hoard’s Dairyman graduate student award last year.

“Dr. Hernandez took a chance on me and it really worked out well for the both of us,” says Weaver, who is bilingual in Spanish and volunteers regularly at medical clinics around Madison that focus on Spanish speaking populations. “This grant is huge for me because of what it demonstrates. I want to go into research and academia and to be successful you need to have funding. This establishes at a very early point in my career that I can do this.”

UW-Madison Dairy Science Students Win National Management Contest

Students from the University of Wisconsin-Madison Department of Dairy Science won top honors at the National North American Intercollegiate Dairy Challenge Contest, which was held April 7-9 in Syracuse, N.Y.

Four-person teams from 32 universities competed at the event. The team from UW-Madison included Elizabeth Endres, of Waunakee, Wis., Cody Getschel, of Osceola, Wis., Megan Opperman, of Rockford, Ill., and Olivia Peter, of Lake Mills, Wis. They were coached by Ted Halbach, faculty associate in dairy management, and David Combs, professor of dairy nutrition and management.

“The members of this team put themselves in a position for success with their preparation and willingness to accept coaching leading up to the competition,” says Halbach. “As the students’ presentation went on, it was clear they had nailed it. I know I can speak for David as well, what a privilege it is to work closely with students that have passion and a desire to learn like these four. We couldn’t be prouder of their performance.”

Dairy Challenge is an applied dairy management competition that involves students analyzing a commercial farm and presenting their observations and management recommendations to a panel of industry professionals. Judges include dairy producers, veterinarians, farm finance specialists and agribusiness personnel.

The team made recommendations to a 770-cow dairy farm in New York to help lower their rate of pneumonia and scours, relieve overcrowding, and increase pregnancy rates. Seeing how different farms operate is the best part of the competition for some team members.

“I was able to find opportunities to help this farm improve, when on the surface it looked very good,” Peter says. “I also really enjoy solving the problems of the farm to help the farmer better take care of their cows while maximizing profit. The real world practice we got leading up to the competition was invaluable.”

For students like Getschel, the competition was an affirmation that he’s found a career he enjoys.

“This competition made clear to me that I would like to pursue a career in reproductive consulting,” he explains. “It has given me confidence in my skills to critically analyze records and relate them to what I see on the farm. In addition, it has afforded me numerous opportunities to interact with industry professionals, making connections that I can refer to in the future.”

Elizabeth Endres says that coursework in dairy science, such as dairy herd management and reproductive management, provided the team with knowledge about various industry benchmarks, management strategies, and potential solutions. Most of the team also competed in the Badger Dairy Challenge, as well as the Midwest Regional Dairy Challenge competition, where they also performed well.

“I feel that I am prepared with the proper knowledge and tools to walk onto any dairy and I would be able to evaluate it and provide recommendations in a thoughtful, professional manner,” Endres says. “We have one of the best dairy science departments in the country with some of the most cutting-edge research and world-renowned faculty, so there is no excuse for UW-Madison to not be a front-runner in the Dairy Challenge contest every year.”

In addition to UW-Madison, first place team awards went to California Polytechnic State University, Cornell University and the University of Wisconsin-River Falls. Each member of the winning teams received $200 scholarships.

“We are very proud of our Intercollegiate Dairy Challenge team for their fine performance in New York,” says Kent Weigel, chair of the Department of Dairy Science. “On behalf of the department, I would like to thank the event sponsors and planning committee for providing such an excellent, hands-on learning experience for our students.”

Two UW-Madison Professors Earn NIFA Grants to Focus on Transition Cow Health

Story by: Kaine Korzekwa | Two assistant professors in the Department of Dairy Science have secured a total of $1 million in grants from the USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture. Their research focuses on using cutting edge laboratory techniques to find molecular solutions to ailments that negatively impact dairy cattle productivity and efficiency.

Laura Hernandez is investigating ways to alleviate dangerously low levels of calcium in dairy cattle around the time they give birth. Also addressing the period around calving, Heather White explores the role of hepatic metabolism in the development of a fatty liver.

“Just like in humans, fatty liver has very negative effects in dairy cows,” White says. “What we have found is evidence of a gene that may predispose a cow to developing a fatty liver. Our goal with this grant is to investigate this gene and also how to best help cows recover.”

Approximately 60% of cows develop ketosis, which is commonly associated with a fatty liver, when they give birth and start making milk. Accumulation of fat in the liver decreases the efficiency of the liver to make glucose, which negatively impacts milk production.

White says that around the time of calving, cows may not be meeting the needs of lactation with their diet, so they begin to mobilize fat for energy. The issue arises when the liver can’t break down the incoming fat fast enough and begins to store excess fat in the liver.

Genetics enters the equation because the protein White is interested in may play a role in helping the liver break down fat. A change in the corresponding gene could lead to lower levels of fat breakdown and therefore fatty liver. As the individual liver cells begin to fill with fat, they are unable to carry out their important functions and decreased performance is the outward result.

“This $500,000 grant may help us discover many new ideas,” White says. “We are going to explore the causative role of this gene and its related proteins on fatty liver onset, experiments will allow us to find possible preventative measures that farmers can use when managing their cattle, and genetic testing may help us learn how to identify dairy cows with a predisposition for fatty liver so they can be managed accordingly.”

Hernandez’s work also focuses on alleviating dips in cow health around the calving period but she studies calcium, a mineral essential for cows, humans, and all other mammals.

“Calcium is pretty vital to almost everything in the body,” Hernandez explains. “Muscle contraction throughout the body relies strictly on calcium to occur, and individual cells rely on calcium as a signaling molecule. Calcium is also critical for bone growth and development in growing animals, and is the major component of milk as a result of this.”

Calcium is the largest mineral component of milk so after a cow gives birth she must begin to use the calcium in her body to make milk. Luckily for mammals like cows, they are able to pull calcium from stored bone reserves to put into their milk so there is enough left in their body for cellular activity and muscle contraction. However, the volume of milk that dairy cows must produce is so high that cows are unable to adapt their metabolism as quickly as other species and they can have a hard time getting their calcium levels back up right after having a calf. This can cause multiple other issues for the cows, says Hernandez. Among other conditions, they may tremble because their muscles can’t contract properly or get a uterine infection that makes it harder for them to get pregnant again due to the reduction in immune function that occurs during instances of low calcium availability.

To combat this, Hernandez has traced the pathway of how serotonin mediates the cow’s ability to begin drawing upon the bone calcium stores earlier to prevent the sudden and large drop of calcium seen at calving. If she can get a cow to tap into that calcium pool sooner, problems can be avoided. She wants to see if giving the cows one of the first molecules in the process, maybe through a natural feed additive, will help their calcium levels.

“There are some different solutions like diet changes currently used but none of them are as effective as they could be,” she says. “It is also a very hard problem to identify because there aren’t many outward signs that producers can see on the farm until it is too late and the cow is extremely ill.”

She adds that while 2-5% of cows will reach the severe clinical stage, the troubling number is that 40-50% will be categorized as subclinical, meaning they still lose productivity without progressing to outward symptoms. Across the country, that means almost $1 billion lost dollars per year. The state of Wisconsin loses approximately $125 million per year, and a further calculation shows a 112-cow dairy farm suffers roughly $12,000 per year to hypocalcemia alone.

Department of Dairy Science chair Kent Weigel says only 10% of these grants receive funding, and that grants related to improving nutritional performance, growth, and lactation of animals are among the most competitive.

“Dr. Hernandez and Dr. White are exceptionally talented young scientists with unlimited potential, and we are extremely lucky to have them at UW-Madison,” he says. “Furthermore, although both projects feature cutting-edge science, they also have practical implications for dairy farmers in Wisconsin and around the world. Doing great science is nice, but doing great science that has an impact is what really matters at the end of the day.”

Student Profile: Collin Wimmler

Name: Collin Wimmler
Hometown: Waldo, WI
High School: Sheboygan Falls High
Class Size: About 125
Farm: Got my start in the dairy industry milking cows at Gary Lee Farms LLC
Major: Dairy Science



Why did you decide to attend UW-Madison?

I chose UW-Madison because I felt that it would be give me the opportunities I needed to prepare for vet school.

What has been your most memorable college experience?

My most memorable experience would be working as a student coordinator at the Dairy Cattle Center. From managing student employees and dealing with break downs, to calving cows in the middle of the night, I learned what all goes into keeping the cows on campus.

What has been your favorite course?

Reproductive Physiology. I enjoyed learning in depth about reproduction as well as working hands on with cows and sows to learn A.I. and ultrasound techniques. I was also very interested in this course because I hope to do embryo work in the future.

What are your future career goals?

I will be joining the class of 2020 at The UW-Madison School of Veterinary Medicine and my career goal is to become a food animal veterinarian with the hopes of one day buying into a practice. 

Where are you studying abroad and what will you mainly be focusing on during your time away?

I am currently studying at Wageningen University in the Netherlands where I am following courses on animal nutrition, the sustainability of animal production and genomics.

How are you utilizing your skills from Dairy Science during your time abroad?

In nutrition and genomics, I use a lot of the biological science, physiology and understanding of scientific writing that I have learned. In the class on sustainability of animal systems, I use more of my knowledge on dairy management and understanding the data and statistics in research papers.

What is your best memory so far of your time abroad?

My best memory is from my trip to Riga because it was a fun filled weekend in a beautiful city. The highlight of the trip was going bobsledding. We had a Latvian Olympic bobsledder as the driver and experienced 4G’s hitting speeds over 100km/hr!

Next generation of dairy nutritionists gets real-life experience

(Left to right): Brad Griswold, Ted Halbach, instructor, Jordan Ebert, Megan Lauber, William Walleser, Henry Holdorf, Courtney McCourt, Connor Willems, Lexi Piepenburg, Cody Getschel, Bieke de Bruijn, Jessica Dercks, Alyssa Nuttleman and Micheala Slind at Purina Farms, Gray Summit, Mo.

Story by: Kaine Korzekwa 

Cows in a transition barn need adequate space to lie around and relax as they prepare to have a calf and start producing milk. When in the milking pens, it’s stall comfort, quality feed and lots of day lighting that make all the difference. For the calves, they require a well-ventilated, warm, dry area to spend their formative weeks.

Small changes to these areas on a dairy farm can have huge impacts on milk production and cow health. They are issues 13 students in the Department of Dairy Science’s recent Purina Dairy Nutrition Experience course, held Jan. 4-9, learned to consider when analyzing a dairy farm. They also learned important networking skills and the ins and outs of a dairy nutrition career as the course took them from their farm audit to the Leading Dairy Producer Conference in the Wisconsin Dells and on trip to St. Louis, Mo. to tour the Purina Animal Nutrition Center.

“The idea for this course came about as we brainstormed ways to stimulate student interest in dairy nutrition careers where there is a real demand for graduates. What better way to accomplish this than putting them elbow-to-elbow with people who are professionals in the field,” says Ted Halbach, who coordinated the course in the Department of Dairy Science. “While internships are great, a company only sees one or two students at a time that way. We wanted to devise a way for a larger pool of students to experience what a career in dairy nutrition could be like.”

Feedback from the students showed that the course was a huge success, inspiring students to consider pursuing careers in dairy nutrition, which they hadn’t thought much about before. Sophomore Micheala Slind says the course awakened a passion for calf and heifer nutrition on a dairy farm.

“I didn’t really know what to expect going in, but after the course was over I was so glad I experienced what I did,” she says. “It was really a one-on-one experience with the Purina staff that was so valuable. They also taught us the value of networking and troubleshooting on a farm. It really made me realize that I want to work with farmers on how important calves and their nutrition are for their farms.”

Dairy science chair Kent Weigel says courses like this are essential for students and are part of the department’s goal to prepare students for success in animal nutrition.

“This experience will help them be successful regardless of their specific interests or future employers,” he says. “And by successful, I don’t just mean financially. As graduates of the world’s top dairy science program, we expect them to become leaders in the dairy industry.”

The six-day course started with a farm audit at United Dreams Dairy near Baraboo, Wis. There, students surveyed different aspects of the farm, such as the transition and lactation barns, the calf feed center, the milk center, and the feed center.

During the audit the students were looking for ways the owners could increase their efficiency and production, raising profits. Among other solutions, they found ways to improve pen ventilation, stall comfort, and older cows’ pregnancy rates, allowing for small, quick changes to result in fast payoffs.

The group then presented their recommendations to the farm owners, Tim Evert and Rick Lehman. Both say it was helpful for the farm to have a fresh pairs of eyes look at their protocols and also helpful for the students to be guided in the project by staff from Purina, an operating division of Land O’Lakes.

“We found the presentations really valuable,” Evert says. “The students had some really thoughtful ideas when it came to our reproductive protocol and cow comfort. Having our farm be part of the class was our little way of giving back to the industry and university and being proactive on our part to help train possible future dairy nutritionists.”

After the farm audit, the students traveled to the Leading Dairy Producer Conference. There they went to sessions that delved even deeper into dairy nutrition, covering everything from forage quality to breeding techniques and how they fit into the overall health and management of a dairy farm.

The students also learned the importance of networking from the Purina staff, who mentored them at the conference and throughout the course. The students say the staff were a great asset and were always available for questions and career advice, even after the course was over.

(Left to right): Brad Griswold and Jordan Ebert listen to Gary Geisler, Purina Animal Nutrition regional calf and heifer specialist lecture on calf rumen development.

“I gained great networking skills by working with Purina’s staff, as well as meeting other producers and industry members at the conference,” says sophomore Megan Lauber, who added the course also inspired her to ponder a career in the field. “This experience has given me a different perspective on cattle nutrition and showed me that there are many different aspects of nutrition.”

Next, the students were off to St. Louis for a tour of the Purina Animal Nutrition Center and even more mentoring from Purina’s staff. Countless Purina leaders took time to give presentations to the students or show them around the facilities, such as the Large Animal Metabolism Unit, Heifer Innovation Center, and Feed Milling Research Center. They covered topics surrounding all areas of nutrition, investigating the nutrition research process, collecting data on dairy farms, sustainability in agriculture, and how the study of engineering, chemistry, and physics all impact dairy nutrition.

Kent Phalen, area sales manager, and Brian Gutenberger, a dairy sales specialist, played a large role in the development and execution of the course. They explain that Purina’s investment in the dairy science students is an investment in the future of the field of dairy nutrition.

“The experience was very rewarding for us,” Gutenberger says. “We were very impressed with what they produced for the United Dreams audit presentation and also all they learned throughout the course. We could tell UW had prepared them well for this course. They were very skilled in problem solving, looking at data, and asking good questions.”

Planning for next year’s course has already begun. The organizers will incorporate course feedback and their own observations to make it even more beneficial for the students involved.

Phalen remembers how the partnership between Purina and the Department of Dairy Science began. He, Brian Gutenberger, & Bob Prange met with department leaders to discuss how Purina can add value to the university and how the university can add value to Purina. The team created innovations such as the experience course and a Purina Ph.D. Fellowship Program.

“Both Purina and the university are focused on the success of the dairy industry,” Phalen believes. “We really both share a common vision and the students represent the conduit between our work, the university, and the future of the dairy industry. We share that responsibility in helping them succeed.”


Dairy Science to hold Spring Visit Day

The University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Department of Dairy Science invites prospective students and their parents to visit campus on Wednesday, April 20, 9:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., to explore what the program has to offer.

Those attending will get a firsthand look at one of the world’s leading dairy science departments as they tour the UW-Madison campus and Dairy Cattle Center, meet faculty, participate in hands-on workshops and learn about the wide variety of learning opportunities available to dairy science majors. Current students and alumni will be on hand to answer questions and share their experiences.

The UW-Madison undergrad dairy science program emphasizes a combination of cutting-edge, science-based knowledge and hands-on experience. Award-winning research and extension faculty teach more than 20 undergraduate courses covering nutrition, reproduction, mammary physiology, genetics and other aspects of dairy management. On-campus, state-of-the art dairy facilities enhance the learning experience.

“For high school students, spring of their junior year is really when I would recommend they start taking campus visits,” says Kent Weigel, professor and chair of the dairy science department. “Making a college visit and touring the campus can be pivotal in a student’s decision to attend college and what schools they end up applying to.”

“Students are often amazed by the small-school feel of our ag campus and the extra benefits they get studying at a Big Ten university,” states Weigel. “That, and our proximity to the heart of the dairy industry, is what makes UW-Madison such a special place for our students to attend college.”

For UW-Madison admission eligibility, it is recommended that seniors rank in the top 25 percent of their high school class. Transfer students must have completed at least 24 semester hours of college–level work. Most transfer students have a GPA of at least a 3.0 on a 4.0 scale.

To attend the Dairy Science Spring Visit Day, please register on-line by April 15 at dysci.wisc.edu/visitday/. For more information, contact Cathy Rook at (608) 263-3308 or rook@wisc.edu


Alumni Corner: Corey Geiger

Name: Corey Geiger

UW Degree(s) and Year(s): Dairy Science and Agricultural Economics, December 1995

Current City: Mukwonago, Wis.

Hometown: Reedsville, Wis.

Current Position & Company: Managing Editor, Hoard’s Dairyman

Past Work Experience: Associate: 20 years with Hoard’s Dairyman, serving as associate editor, senior associate editor, assistant managing editor 


What is your agriculture background? Grew up on a 376-acre farm with 130 Registered Holsteins. Even though I am fully employed with Hoard’s Dairyman, I am part owner in that operation and work there periodically. My wife’s family, Krista Knigge, also was the first dairy in the U.S. to install robots. We are close to that dairy herd too as well as the Hoard’s Dairyman Farm.

What made you want to be a dairy science major at UW? To be honest, my parents. Mom and Dad both said I could not return to the farm without attending college. After meeting Dr. Dave Dickson at our county fair when I was 16 years old, the decision was made and UW-Madison was the only school to which I applied. With a 26 ACT and fourth-class ranking, I gained admittance.

How has a degree in dairy science at UW been a benefit to you in the workplace? My dual major opened so many doors. Not only did I learn the inner workings of cow care, I learned a great deal about finances. This, in combination with an internship where I wrote extensively, allowed me too weave a career that involves cows, economics and communications.

What clubs/activities were you involved in on campus? The combination of academics and activities provide an excellent foundation for launching a career. I joined Alpha Gamma Rho and later served as president; in Badger Dairy Club I was a two-time cheese stand chair and a vice president; served as the UW Senior Class Secretary; a senator in the Associated Students of Madison (student government); and was a member of the second place dairy cattle judging team at the 1994 World Dairy Expo. I also was a member of Alpha Zeta and the CALS Student Council.

What within these clubs/activities have made a big difference in your life after college? These activities took classroom work and allowed me to gain leadership skills and hone financial and personnel management (cheese stand and AGR). Also, each activity provided outstanding networking opportunities and exposed me to industry leaders.

What was one of your favorite dairy science courses, and do you have any specific memories from it that you would like to share? I’ve never shied away from work. So when Dr. John Parrishh dropped two large binders on the desk during the first day of Animal/Dairy Science 375 and said, “We are going to learn all of this in the next three months. If this scares you, I’d suggest leaving through that door.” That may not have been the exact quote. However, it set the tone and I learned more about reproduction than I ever expected.

Also, I took a capstone dairy foods processing course with Dr. Robert Bradley that involved manufacturing dairy foods and designing a processing plant. While that didn’t become my chosen career, it gave this farm boy a firmer appreciation on what’s involved with taking milk and manufacturing it into consumer products. That’s our ultimate goal.

If you could give advice to your college-aged-self, what would it be? Quite simple . . . Get involved. Try more new things. Stretch yourself outside of your comfort zone. College provides a safe opportunity to practice new skills.

What do you like most about your job? Variety. Covering the full spectrum of the American and global dairy industry for an English, Spanish, and Japanese publication that goes to 95 percent of the U.S. dairy industry with subscribers in 60-plus countries. During the past 20 years, I have traveled to 46 states, seven countries and been a part of two U.S. Dairy Export Council trade missions.

What are your goals for the future? Grow the U.S. dairy industry through though-provoking editorial comments and industry leadership. Unique among dairy media coverage, Hoard’s Dairyman publishes 59 editorial comments each year. These pieces help shape the future and I enjoy authoring them along with my industry involvement.

 It is very clear that staying actively involved with UW is a priority of yours. What advice could you give alumna to step forward and maintain a relationship with their alma mater? Cultivate the next generation to grow both on-farm and off-farm talent. I often hear we don’t have enough young people to join the agricultural work force. To that I ask, “When was the last time you encouraged a young person to take a campus tour?” Not everyone I reach out to attends the school, but it opens the doors to the grand variety of careers in our dairy industry and all of agriculture.

You’ve also made a strong effort to continue to give back to UW. Whether it’s through volunteering at Badger Dairy Camp, holding a position on the CALS Board of Visitors, or participating in other college functions. Why is this one of your top priorities? Both Krista and I were blessed by alumni and facility who provided learning opportunities and scholarships. In the same vein, we believe providing leadership, a helping hand and money are all important. It’s one of the reasons Krista and I recently started the “Grateful Badgers” scholarship at the UW Foundation, which will support CALS students.