It is no secret that agriculture in general, and dairy in particular, has been going through some very challenging times. In Wisconsin, agriculture is about a 100 billion dollar industry, with roughly half of that attributed to dairy alone. Southwest Wisconsin is home to much of this economic activity and family dairy farms of all sizes. Sadly, Wisconsin lost about 800 dairy farms in 2019. If nothing changes, the writing is on the wall, and I don’t want to read it. I want the rural parts of our state to thrive and that means we need to have a healthy agricultural economy.
One of our biggest accomplishments this legislative session has been the creation of the Dairy Innovation Hub. I was happy to champion this project, but would be remised if I didn’t mention the strong support it also received from Senator Howard Marklein and Representative Todd Novak. The Dairy Innovation Hub is essentially a joint initiative between UW-Platteville, UW-River Falls, and UW-Madison. The creation of the Dairy Innovation Hub, and securing the associated funding (UW-Platteville is budgeted to receive about $1.9 million annually), was the easy part. The goal, as I see it, is to find innovative ways to make dairy more relevant, profitable, and sustainable as we move forward. This will be the hard part!
As with all things in life, where there are big challenges, there are also tremendous opportunities. If handled well, the Dairy Innovation Hub represents an amazing opportunity for UW-Platteville to become a leading university in terms of both dairy research and dairy policy moving forward. Generally speaking, UW-Platteville is not known as a research institution; we haven’t asked them to be.
I am happy to report, UW-Platteville is off to a great start. Recognizing the importance of making sure that the industry is intimately involved in this process, they recently formed the Dairy Innovation Hub Advisory Council. This council is made up of university staff that will be leading the Dairy Innovation Hub, along with a handful of actual dairy farmers and industry experts, including me. I don’t think the value of this can be overstated. What better way to help the industry then by asking dairy farmers what they think and really need?
Anyone who is remotely familiar with the dairy industry knows that the challenges can seem insurmountable at times, especially lately. I am happy to report that after our first meeting, many possible areas of focus were identified.
Water Quality and the Environment - Handling manure is a major cost on any dairy farm. A good percentage of manure is made up of water. Is there a cost-effective way to reduce the amount of water in manure? Cover crops are huge in terms of helping prevent erosion and scavenging nutrients. But rye, which is the most commonly used, doesn’t provide much of a nitrogen credit to the following crop. Is there an opportunity to breed better cover crops? This could increase profitably and improve the environment simultaneously.
Value beyond milk - It is virtually impossible for small and medium size dairies to compete on cost versus some of their larger counterparts. They simply don’t have the economies of scale. Their milk might have the exact same nutritional value, but maybe the smaller farms bring value in other ways? They might provide more economic activity for local businesses. They may add value to our local communities by keeping people in rural areas who attend our churches and send their children to our schools; even our local universities. Currently, none of that is taken into account in terms of our pricing structure. Maybe it should be? Perhaps a rural sociologist should be part of the Dairy Innovation Hub?
Regional products - Parmesan cheese comes from Parma, Italy. Cheddar comes from Cheddar, England. Perhaps researchers could come up with a new product that could be created with milk sourced exclusively from the Driftless Region? Maybe this product catches a premium price, adding value to the milk produced in the region. This would allow processors to pay more than market price. The benefits of such a product could extend to tourism as well. It’s outside the box thinking, but that’s what we need and why the Dairy Innovation Hub was created.
Robotic Expert - It was pretty evident at our first meeting that we all felt UW-Platteville is uniquely positioned to focus on small to medium sized farms. We are fortunate to still have a significant number of those farms in our region, and frankly, a lot of other universities are doing research on larger operations. Perhaps moving forward, robots will have an even more significant role to play on smaller farms. UW-Platteville already has a facility to operate a robotic milking system. Perhaps the university could hire someone with innovative research ideas who will be able to leverage all UW-Platteville has to offer, and convince one of the leading robotic companies (GEA or Lely), to partner with the Dairy Innovation Hub by providing the robots. Their potential willingness to partner would clearly demonstrate the value of this research.
This was just the tip of the iceberg. The group talked about completely different dairying models then we currently use, among many other ideas. Chancellor Shields was there to welcome the group and made it clear he was 100 percent committed to making the Dairy Innovation Hub at UW-Platteville a success for the university and the state’s dairy industry. The room was filled with fantastic people who had tremendous optimism and enthusiasm for the future of the industry.
We made it clear that we felt it was vitally important that the Dairy Innovation Hub be forward thinking, and not simply replicating research already being done by other institutions. I am very excited about it’s potential. If done properly, this could be a major benefit to the dairy industry, southwest Wisconsin, and UW-Platteville itself. I look forward to the work ahead and being an active member of the Dairy Innovation Hub Advisory Council, and I am thankful to be a part of it.