By Bob Mitchell
UW–Madison Professor of Dairy Science Dave Wieckert had great classroom teaching skills, but a lot of his former students remember him best for how he was able to take dairy science education beyond the classroom.
Wieckert, who died last May at the age of 88, led hundreds of field trips to farms around Wisconsin as well as in California and Canada, advised the Saddle and Sirloin Club, coached the dairy judging team, helped students take advantage of study-abroad programs and was a tireless advocate for Peace Corps service.
So to honor Wieckert’s legacy, his UW colleagues are creating additional opportunities for hands-on learning with a memorial scholarship for undergrads who want to conduct their own independent research projects.
“Dave spent 33 years trying to maximize the impact for students, not just through his teaching, but also by encouraging them to get involved in additional educational experiences,” says Kent Weigel, chair of the UW–Madison Department of Animal and Dairy Sciences. “So we think it’s fitting to memorialize Dave by giving students an opportunity to do independent research under the supervision of a faculty mentor.
Former student Mike Hutjens thinks that’s a great way to remember Wieckert. Wieckert had a life-changing influence on Hutjens’ career, partly by steering him to a job in a dairy research lab.
“He hooked me into the dairy sector,” says Hutjens, a University of Illinois emeritus professor, prominent dairy nutritionist, past president of the American Dairy Science Association and longtime columnist and webinar co-host for Hoard’s Dairyman magazine.
Hutjens was a student in an introductory animal sciences class that Wieckert co-taught as a new professor. Hutjens had planned on a career as a county extension agent or vocational ag teacher, but he began to reconsider.
“He was a tremendous teacher. I really enjoyed it,” Hutjens says. But even more important, Wieckert connected Hutjens with a job in the department’s mastitis lab.
“It was a great experience. I worked for a grad student in the lab, collecting milk samples in the barn, doing some metering and counting leucocytes, and got to know people who went on to faculty jobs all over the country. I thought it was really cool.”
In his junior year, Hutjens switched his major to dairy science. “You could say that Dave Wieckert got me my first job in dairy science,” he says.
Wieckert himself was a hands-on learner, says Charlie Crave, whose family milks 2,100 cows and produces award-winning farmstead cheese near Waterloo, Wis. That’s one reason he joined with Charlie and George Crave to start up a commercial dairy farm.
The brothers got to know Wieckert when they attended the UW Farm and Industry Short Course. They wanted to start a dairy operation; Wieckert, who grew up on a dairy farm, proposed that they throw in as partners. They wrote up a business plan, rented a farm and filled the barn with 72 cows. “Dave was there every weekend and pitched in with any job there was to do,” Crave says.
“Having a vested interest in the farm was a great way for Dave to get practical experience in dairy management. He was able to bring the reality of commercial agriculture to the classroom. And of course, he brought students to the farm many, many times.”
Wieckert remained a partner in the operation until he retired from the university and was a regular visitor to the Crave farm for the rest of his life. “His career was based upon his being a professor, but his heart was with the farm,” says Crave.
Establishing a scholarship for undergraduate researchers honors Wieckert’s legacy of hands-on education and takes advantage of one of the department’s strengths, says Kent Weigel.
“We have one of the top research programs in our field,” he says. “We have dozens of researchers overseeing hundreds of research projects. We’re well set up to provide students with this kind of learning experience.”
Students interested in doing independent research start by identifying a scientist they’d like to work with and writing a brief proposal outlining what they’d like to investigate. Typically, they’ll take on a small part of a larger study already underway in the lab. Students receive a modest stipend and are expected to publish their results.
Conducting animal-based research is a good way for students who come from nonfarm backgrounds — which is the case for about two thirds of the undergrads in the newly merged Department of Animal and Dairy Sciences — to get experience working with animals and learn about career opportunities.
And you don’t have to be an aspiring scientist to benefit from what you learn by conducting research, Weigel says.
“If you get any kind of job in the livestock industry you’ll hear experts telling farmers to manage their animals in a certain way,” Weigel says. “Getting involved in research shows you where that kind of advice comes from. It teaches you how to evaluate the information and its source. It helps you integrate what you learn into what you’re already doing, rather than just bouncing from new idea to new idea.”
Recent dairy science grad Michael Moede is a good example. Moede is studying data analytics in the UW School of Business. He’s learning how he can harness big data—using machine learning, artificial intelligence, statistics and programming—in a career that combines agriculture and business.
All that may seem like a far cry from Moede’s undergrad research in the lab of associate professor Heather White, where he looked at metabolic changes during a cow’s transition from late gestation to early lactation. But his time in the lab is paying off.
“It gave me a really good basic understanding of the science behind best management practices,” he says. “I may not get into that stuff when I talk to dairy farm managers, but when I talk to scientists, I need to understand what they’re telling me. What I learned in the lab helps me connect the science to practical applications.”
The experience also broadened his horizons — he worked with grad students from across the nation and several other countries — and honed his problem-solving skills. “If something goes wrong with your research, you have to figure out why it happened and how to avoid it in the future. You can apply those skills in any job.”
If you would like to add your support for the David Wieckert Undergraduate Research Scholarship, you can make your gift online at http://supportuw.org/giveto/wieckertfund or by contacting the University of Wisconsin Foundation’s Henry Lagrimini at 608-308-5375.