MADISON, Wis. – Proposed Wisconsin legislation would provide $7.9 million for dairy research at a Dairy Innovation Hub. Three university campuses would be part of the program – the University of Wisconsin-Madison, UW-Platteville and UW-River Falls.

Senate Bill 186 was introduced in late April by Wisconsin Sen. Howard Marklein, R-17-Spring Green, and Rep. Travis Tranel, R-49-Cuba City, along with 26 other Republicans.

The funding would support four areas related to dairy.

  • Steward land and water resources.
  • Enrich human health and nutrition.
  • Ensure animal health and welfare.
  • Grow farm businesses and communities.
  • Plans also include an academy to provide dairy professionals throughout the state with ongoing training to update them on new technology and other industry information.

Proponents say the bill is aimed specifically at improving every aspect of the struggling dairy industry. While the investment won’t yield immediate returns, it will provide long-term dividends, Marklein said. The dairy industry has long invested significant amounts of resources to improve production, but hasn’t done as well at corresponding investments on the demand side.

“We need to start investing in the marketing of products,” he said.

He said the research hubs would strengthen Wisconsin’s leadership position within the global dairy market.

“I think it’s going to be a way to reinvigorate our dairy industry and, if nothing else, to let our industry know that we haven’t forgotten them,” he said.

What’s not always apparent is the moneymaking magnitude of Wisconsin’s dairy-business sector. It contributes almost $44 billion annually to the state’s economy. Industry experts say with that powerful economic punch comes the need for continued research to fuel the dairy industry.

“It’s really scary how few people in Wisconsin really know the impact that the dairy industry has on the entire state,” said Chad Vincent, CEO of the Dairy Farmers of Wisconsin, the marketing and promotion arm of Wisconsin’s dairy farmers.

Kent Weigel said the legislation will allow the universities to recruit, train and hire young talent. He’s chairman of the UW-Madison Dairy Science Department. Funding would build capacity in research, teaching and UW-Extension. It would strengthen linkages between the UW campuses.

“Unlike competitive grant funding … these funds can be used flexibly to address our most critical emerging challenges and opportunities,” he said. “It’s about how do we produce whatever amount of milk we need more efficiently – with less manure, less land resources needed, less methane – without damaging the water supply. It’s about doing it in a way that the consumer finds acceptable.”

Proposal ‘beacon of hope’

Shelly Mayer, a Washington County, Wisconsin, dairy farmer and the executive director of the Professional Dairy Producers of Wisconsin, called the bill a “beacon of hope” at a time when the industry – and the world – most needs it.

“When we start talking about water and soil health and food safety and animal health and all of that, we’re not just talking about how it affects dairy; that’s all of us,” she said.

A reduced number of faculty researchers has made it difficult for dairy research at UW-Madison to keep pace with the growth of the industry. Budget cuts within the university’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and within UW-Extension are the culprit, according to the college’s senior associate dean Richard Straub.

But College of Agriculture and Life Sciences funding for the Center for Dairy Research also has been declining since 1999-2000, even though state money the college received for all of its research increased during that period, UW budget data show.

Vincent said he has grown frustrated with UW-Madison’s refusal to spend more money on dairy research. That includes not filling positions or buying equipment needed for the Center for Dairy Research’s $47 million addition that the state is helping finance.

“I look at the UW and I hope they want to be known as a dairy university,” Vincent said. “But there’s this huge business school and all this other stuff there. And sometimes I wonder if dairy isn’t quite as sexy for them as they would hope it to be. I mean, there’s a lot of competing forces in terms of resources in the state.”

Mayer said UW-System President Ray Cross has sent mixed signals about using state funding for the Dairy Innovation Hub since 2017, when he was first made aware of the idea. He has told dairy leaders and others that he understands the importance of the dairy industry to the state and the need to make a reinvestment. But Cross has not put any of the UW-System’s available state funds toward it, Mayer said.

In a statement, UW-System spokesman Mark Pitsch said, “President Cross worked closely with dairy leaders and lawmakers to help craft this legislation. He recognizes the importance of the dairy industry to the state of Wisconsin.

“In recent years the UW-System has faced challenges seeking funding for a wide array of worthy projects and programs. President Cross will happily work with the Legislature and the governor to secure additional funding to support the dairy hub.”

Filling positions important

Marklein said he wants the UW-System to do more than just talk. The bill he authored orders the Board of Regents and the UW-System to use the $7.9 million annually specifically to fill more than 60 positions, as well as handle infrastructure needs for the hub at all three campus sites.

“The institutions, the campuses need to recognize the importance of dairy and that dairy needs to be a priority for their ag departments,” he said.

Mayer cautioned that while people from around the world continue to look to Wisconsin for its food industry and leadership related to dairy, other countries are poised to pass it by.

“As a dairy farmer, I rely on new discoveries and new research so I can continue to do things better,” she said. “It’s as simple as that.”

After the UW-System declined in 2017 to fund the Dairy Innovation Hub, it was introduced as the signature recommendation for long-range improvements by Dairy Task Force 2.0. Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers and Brad Pfaff – the new secretary of the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection – have supported the recommendation made by the group.

Marklein’s bill closely follows the group’s recommendation.

  • Create positions for 25 faculty members in the four spokes of the research hub.
  • Create positions for 20 graduate students, 16 post-doctoral fellows and five staffers.

Marklein said he was impressed by a comment made during a May 1 hearing about the dairy-innovation hub.

“Crude oil has gone from once being burned in lamps to being refined to produce gas and the manufacture of plastics,” Marklein said. “Similarly the chemical composition of milk could be used to produce all kinds of products we’re not aware of today.”

The bill proposes allocating 52 percent of funding to UW-Madison. For UW-Platteville and UW-River Falls, each would receive 24 percent of the funding. Each campus would be given flexibility to use the funding in its own way to achieve the goals of the Dairy Innovation Hub. The funding could empower students to conduct research as well as provide support for research facilities and infrastructure.

“I invite you to reflect upon the challenges our dairy industry and dairy-farm families are facing,” said Scott Rankin earlier this month; he’s chair of the food-science department at UW-Madison. “(I invite you) to consider what investments can be made to realize a bright future through the opportunities the Dairy Innovation Hub is designed to achieve. I invite you to envision a multi-campus community of dedicated world-class individuals whose task it is to develop highly skilled dairy leadership from the coming generations – and to create and implement future scientific discoveries that will enable dairy foods to remain a vibrant and relevant component of a healthy (and) growing world market and economy.”

Rankin cited as an example UW-Madison’s partnership with chemical engineers and economists to convert lesser-value components of milk such as lactose into globally important compounds. Such novel compounds are used in a host of manufacturing applications. They’re significantly more valuable than native lactose, he said.

“I’m convinced such a design, amplified and formalized through the Dairy Innovation Hub, holds tremendous promise,” he said.

Visit datcp.wi.gov and search for “dairy innovation hub” for more information.

Rob Schultz with the Wisconsin State Journal contributed to this story.

Lynn Grooms writes about the diversity of agriculture, including the industry’s newest ideas, research and technologies as a staff reporter for Agri-View based in Wisconsin. Email lgrooms@madison.com to contact her.