OPINION  It’s no secret that agriculture in general, and dairy in particular, has been going through challenging times. Wisconsin agriculture is an industry of about $100 billion, with about half that attributed to dairy. Southwest Wisconsin is home to much of that economic activity and family dairy farms of all sizes.

Wisconsin sadly lost about 800 dairy farms in 2019. If nothing changes the writing is on the wall – but 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 that project. But I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the strong support it received from Wis. Sen. Howard Marklein, R-17-Spring Green, and Wis. Rep. Todd Novak, R-51-Dodgeville.

The Dairy Innovation Hub is essentially a joint initiative between the University of Wisconsin-Platteville, UW-River Falls and UW-Madison. The creation of the Dairy Innovation Hub, and securing the associated funding was the easy part. UW-Platteville is budgeted to receive about $1.9 million annually. The goal as I see it is to find innovative ways to make dairy more relevant, profitable and sustainable as we move forward. That will be the difficult 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 moving forward in terms of both dairy research and dairy policy. 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 the industry being intimately involved in the process, a Dairy Innovation Hub Advisory Council has been formed. This council is comprised of university staff who 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 that can be overstated. There’s no 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’m 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 comprised 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? That could increase profitably and improve the environment simultaneously.

Value beyond milk – It’s virtually impossible for small and medium-sized 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 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 communities by keeping people in rural areas who attend our churches and send their children to our schools – even our 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 design a product that could be created with milk sourced exclusively from the Driftless Area region. Maybe the product catches a premium price, adding value to the milk produced in the region. That 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 evident at our first meeting that we all believe 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. 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. Maybe that person could convince one of the leading robotic companies such as GEA or Lely to partner with the Dairy Innovation Hub by providing robots. Their potential willingness to partner would clearly demonstrate the value of that 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. UW-Platteville Chancellor Dennis Shields was there to welcome the group. He said clearly he’s 100 percent committed to making the Dairy Innovation Hub a success for the university and Wisconsin’s dairy industry. The room was filled with fantastic people who had tremendous optimism and enthusiasm for the future of the industry.

We said clearly that we believe it’s vitally important that the Dairy Innovation Hub be forward-thinking, not simply replicating research already being done by other institutions. I am very excited about its potential. If done properly it could be a major benefit to the dairy industry, southwest Wisconsin and the University of Wisconsin. I look forward to the work ahead and being an active member of the Dairy Innovation Hub Advisory Council. I’m thankful to be a part of it.

Visit cals.wisc.edu/dairy-innovation-hub for more information.

Travis Tranel of Cuba City is a Wisconsin legislator representing the Republican Party in the 49th District.