Under the Microscope – Wisconsin Is a Research Lead

In agricultural research, manure matters.

Amber Radatz, program co-director of Discovery Farms, a joint research effort by UW-Extension and UW-Madison, says small changes in applying manure can help farmers improve water quality without substantial financial investment.

“When snowmelts are happening or soils are saturated, small changes can lead to big water quality improvements,” she says.

The Discovery Farms program uses research done on working farms to find economical solutions. During a study at a Lafayette County beef and grain farm, owner Mark Riechers applied manure as usual, shortly before snowmelt in two of the years. In the other years, he changed his management to spread manure earlier in the winter so the manure could bind to the soil, and nutrient losses were much less.

“By tweaking applications based on a new understanding of critical conditions and time periods for runoff, Mark decreased his nitrogen and phosphorus loss by more than half in the rest of the study years,” Radatz says.

Riechers says Wisconsin farmers are great at finding creative solutions to problems. “For me, my farm is my playground,” he says.

National Leader

The Discovery Farms program and facilities like the Wisconsin Center for Dairy Research (CDR), the UW-Madison Agricultural Research Centers and Pioneer Farm at UW-Platteville are reasons why Wisconsin is considered a national leader in agricultural research.

In 1862, President Abraham Lincoln signed the Land Grant College Act, naming UW-Madison a land grant university. Dwight Mueller, director of the UW-Madison Agricultural Research Centers, says there are now 11 research stations throughout the state.

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“The key is that it starts with a faculty member on campus,” Mueller says. “They are the ones overseeing the research, oftentimes conducting it on research stations. The university maintains dairy herds, for example, at Arlington, Marshfield, and on campus, as well as at a joint federal and state facility at Prairie du Sac.”

These days, a large federal grant is allowing researchers to focus on developing alternate sources for bioenergy, grooming new varieties of switchgrass as biomass for conversion to ethanol, Mueller says.

Dairy-Focused Research

In 1986, Dr. Norm Olson helped create the Wisconsin Center for Dairy Research by encouraging the U.S. government to create dairy research centers and by working with the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board (WMMB) to secure funding. Director John Lucey says it is now the largest dairy research center in the U.S.

“The objective is to not only conduct research, but to also teach it and apply it,” Lucey says. “Industry counts on CDR to provide the bridge between the latest research and applicable knowledge in the field.” With 35 staff members on the UW-Madison campus, Lucey says the center focuses on cheese, dairy ingredients, cultured products, dairy processing, and safety and quality.

In 2012 alone, CDRworked with over 200 companies and organizations within the dairy and food industry to provide problem-solving research and technical support.

Field Studies

At Pioneer Farm at the UW-Platteville, research is conducted at the field level year-round, says research manager Dennis Busch. “Results from our year-round, field-scale research can better reflect conditions actually encountered on commercial farms.” The primary research focus is measuring the effects management practices have on soil and nutrient losses that occur in runoff from agricultural fields. “Year-round monitoring allows us to measure total losses per year and evaluate how seasonal changes like snowmelt and rainfall impact water, nutrient and soil losses,” he says.

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Busch echoes a common theme.

“Wisconsin is fortunate in that there is a strong partnership between farmers, scientists, government agencies and non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and all partners are interested in working to solve environmental challenges faced by food, fiber and livestock production in the state, while maintaining farm profitability,” he says. “In an effort to address these challenges, significant investments have been made in agricultural research.”

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