When it comes to generating useful ideas and solutions for the dairy industry, graduate-student researchers are unsung heroes.

“Most of the research that gets done on campus is carried out by grad students,” said Kent Weigel, who chairs the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Department of Dairy Science. “They’re the boots on the ground.”

While faculty researchers provide guidance and advice, it’s the students who comb through literature, work out the experimental design, and collect and analyze the data, Weigel said. He’s also a professor and UW-Extension specialist in the department.

“This benefits the industry in two ways,” he said. “Students conduct research that leads to new products, and protocols and technologies. And they graduate as highly trained potential employees.”

UW-Madison dairy scientists would like to bring in more graduate students to conduct industry-related research. So this past year they introduced a new initiative called the Dairy Research Partnership. It’s intended to encourage dairy-related businesses to fund the approximate $50,000-per-year cost of educating a graduate student.

This year the initiative is supporting four students who are conducting research related to nutrition, animal behavior and reproduction. Individual firms are funding two of them, while the other two are being supported from a pool of contributions from several companies, organizations and individuals.

One of those students is Megan Lauber. She’s working in the lab of reproductive physiologist Paul Fricke, a professor and UW-Extension specialist. Lauber is looking at strategies to improve fertility when using sexed semen to impregnate cows and heifers.

“Current reproductive-fertility programs are optimized for the use of conventional semen,” she said. “But more farmers are using sexed-semen inseminations, while fewer are using conventional semen. My project aims to adapt protocols to improve fertility when using sexed semen.”

Part of Lauber’s work involves collecting and analyzing data on pregnancy from dairy farms across the country. She will also be doing in vitro work to assess and better characterize bull fertility between conventional and sexed semen.

Rekia Salter, another of the industry-funded students, is researching housing calves in pairs rather than individually. Paired housing has been shown to improve calf cognitive skills and social development, as well as their solid-feed intake and growth.

“Hutches are the most prevalent calf-management system,” Salter said. “My goal is to create a successful way to use pair housing in a hutch system. This would improve calf welfare while allowing producers to gain the benefits of social housing without having to change their management system.”

Salter is working with assistant professor and UW-Extension specialist Jennifer Van Os. Salter said her research is teaching her technical skills that will be invaluable when she goes to work as a consultant in the industry.

“I am learning skills that I will be able to apply to many different jobs such as animal handling, farm management, working with large data sets and statistical analysis,” she said.

Lauber said her research is not only building her technical expertise, but also sharpening her analytical skills.

“My research is teaching me how to think in a completely different way,” said Lauber, who wants to work as a reproductive specialist. “I have to go out and find the knowledge I need by searching through literature and other sources, and then think about how I’m going to apply what I’ve learned. I believe this will allow me to analyze data and farm management more effectively as a consultant.”

Fricke seconds that notion.

“Farmers are confronted with all sorts of ideas and products that are said to do certain types of things,” he said. “I tell my students they have to look at the data to see whether it supports those claims. It’s a critical skill that comes out of master’s-level programs.”

Fricke said industry funding is essential for the “translational” research — work that distills scientific knowledge to develop solutions that can be used directly by farmers and veterinarians.

“The type of project Megan is doing wouldn’t be funded by a granting agency geared toward basic science,” he said. “She’s looking at a way to better use an existing technology. The better we can get that technology to perform in the field for dairy farmers, the more likely they are to use it.”