In 2020, The Dairy Innovation Hub committed nearly $1 million for equipment to build research capacity at the three participating campuses. Cutting-edge research requires big ideas from the best and brightest minds, but those difference-making research questions can’t come to fruition without equipment and data collection tools to increase research capacity.
The Dairy Innovation Hub, which launched in 2019, harnesses research and development at UW–Madison, UW–Platteville and UW–River Falls campuses to keep Wisconsin’s dairy community at the global forefront in producing nutritious dairy products in an economically, environmentally and socially sustainable manner. It is supported by a $7.8 million annual investment by the state of Wisconsin.
To date, nearly 20 funding awards have been made to researchers on the three campuses for research equipment including the following:
Equipment for measuring the rheological properties of ice-cream to predict mouth-feel sensations– Bidhan C. Roy and Tom Zolper, Mechanical and Industrial Engineering at UW-Platteville
Zolper and Roy are looking at the science behind ice cream as part of their research funded by the Hub. For the first steps of the project, environmental engineering student Victoria Chanez will conduct sensory surveys to determine common features of customer satisfaction when it comes to ice cream. It is a challenging area of research that few have attempted, because perceptions vary from person to person, and often prove difficult to measure.
“We know something like creaminess is a key feature of customer satisfaction, but creaminess is kind of defined by individuals in their own way and there is no way to measure that scientifically,” says Zolper. “However, we can take other things that we can measure scientifically like the thickness of the ice cream, the smoothness of the ice cream, and the viscosity of the ice cream, and then do surveys of people tasting ice cream to figure out what is the optimum combination to maximize creaminess.” As part of their Hub grant, the team purchased an Anton-Parr MCR 302 rheometer, a device that can measure viscosity and many other properties of semi-solids like ice cream. One of the key elements it measures is viscoelasticity, an important variable in customer satisfaction.
Barn video-recording system to observe animal behavior – Jennifer Van Os, Department of Animal and Dairy Sciences at UW-Madison
When working to improve animal welfare, observing animal behavior and quantifying behavioral outcomes is critical. Compared to live observation, video recording has several advantages and has become the gold standard in the field of animal behavior. Van Os and her graduate students use video technology to better observe cattle at the Emmons Blaine Arlington Dairy Research Center.
When humans are present, cattle often alter their normal behavior; using video overcomes these issues. Video also allows for continuous observation of animals instead of specific moments in time. Recording the behavior of multiple animals at the same time is also more efficient for staff. Repeated review of video footage leads to better and more thorough data analysis. Finally, video footage has multiple uses on-farm, such as staff training and management.
“In addition to adding capacity for my work in animal behavior, the camera system is used by numerous other faculty and students working to improve feed efficiency, identifying calving times, metabolic disorders, image analysis, machine learning and much more,” says Van Os. “Like many Wisconsin dairy farms who also embrace video technology, the system allows us to identify when key management events take place, or when something happens that impacts research outcomes.” With a grant from the Hub, Van Os purchased 40 high-resolution security cameras that record and store video or time-lapse footage on a secure network.
Automated feeding equipment for individual cow rations – Matt Akins, Department of Animal and Dairy Sciences, UW-Madison and UW Marshfield Agricultural Research Station
Feed represents the single largest expense on most dairy farms, and small gains in feed efficiency can have large effects on farm profitability, land and water utilization and greenhouse gas emissions.
As part of ongoing feed efficiency research, the UW Marshfield Agricultural Research Station (UW-MARS) uses individual feeding gates to measure individual feed intakes for lactating cows or heifers. Individual animal measurements are critical data to estimate an animal’s efficiency and to make genomic predictions of efficiency. However, at UW-MARS, there wasn’t a good way to feed animals using individual gates – station staff were weighing, mixing and feeding diets by hand. This process was labor and time consuming and limited the use of the gate system.
“Improving the turnaround time of feeding trials for researchers needing feed intake measurements allows studies to move faster and ultimately, gets research results to the public more quickly,” says Akins, who evaluates heifer feeding strategies at UW-MARS. As part of a Hub grant, Akins purchased an IH Rissler M740 mixer cart, which is a small and efficient system to feed total mixed ration (TMR) diets to cattle whose individual feed intake is measured during research studies. Specifically, this mixer cart works well when paired with the Calan gate system that allows for individual cow feeding.
Equipment for measuring gene expression and quantifying nucleic acids to improve dairy forages – Sonja Maki and David Zlesak, Department of Plant and Earth Science at UW-River Falls
Plant breeders work to improve the genetic potential of plants. For dairy farmers, this translates into high-quality feeds like corn, soybeans and alfalfa, grown with less resources and under time-sensitive and stressful conditions.
Many of these genetic gains start in the lab using techniques like quantitative real-time polymerase chain reaction or “qPCR” to study the expression of genes. In common dairy forages like alfalfa, qPCR can be used to study nodulation, disease susceptibility and resistance, and flowering. Maki is working with undergraduate student Emily Larsen to measure the expression of flowering genes by qPCR in legumes, while Zlesak uses qPCR in plant disease resistance and virus detection projects.
“For the Plant Tissue Culture class this spring, we are excited to use the qPCR machine to test regenerated plantlets for viruses. We will be able to learn our rate of success at virus elimination and hopefully have a clean version of the mother plant variety for future research applications,” says Maki.
With specialized qPCR equipment, Maki and Zlesak will have new capacity for plant breeding and plant physiology projects. They’ll have the ability to more precisely measure nucleic acids like DNA and RNA and compare gene expression levels between different plant tissues or across plant developmental stages. The instrument and associated supplies also expand faculty, staff and student capability and collaboration opportunities to engage in innovative research.
Using funding from the Hub, Maki and Zlesak recently purchased a QuantStudio 3 (ThermoFisher) qPCR machine to quantify nucleic acids in a variety of crops.