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Grant aims to help dairy industry adapt

May 9, 2013 | 0 comments



Dairy and soil scientists working at the University of Wisconsin-Madison received a nearly $10 million U.S. Department of Agriculture grant this week to look for ways to help dairy producers adapt to changing climate and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack came to Madison Tuesday (May 7) to announce the five-year grant that is intended to find ways to identify dairy practices that minimize the production of greenhouse gases and make dairy production more resilient in the face of "more intense weather patterns" that are coming about as a result of climate change.

The project will be led by UW-Madison scientists and includes researchers and extension staff at seven universities, five federal research labs, the U.S. Department of Energy, USDA and the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy – an offshoot of the national dairy checkoff program.

At the Madison headquarters of the U.S. Dairy Forage Research Center, Vilsack said the goal of the program is to find ways for dairy farmers to reduce their risks and find production solutions to "create an agriculture that continues to be the best in the world."

Dairy producers in Wisconsin are some of the most forward-looking producers in the nation and this grant program is aimed at helping them stay that way, he said.

The total grant under the program is $19.5 million, with about half of it going to beef cattle research in the Southern Plains, to look for ways to make that segment of agriculture more resilient.

"We have seen the impact that variable climate patterns have had on production agriculture for the past several years. These projects will deliver the best tools available to accurately measure and respond to the effects of climate on beef and dairy production," Vilsack said.

"Farmers and ranchers need sound, science-based information and solutions to help them make management decisions that will sustain their productivity and keep their operations economically viable."

The University of Wisconsin’s portion, to be managed by soil scientist Matt Ruark, is $9.9 million over five years to study the environmental impact of various dairy production systems and develop best management practices for producers to implement at the farm level.



The project’s ultimate goal is to increase the resiliency of dairy production systems while reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Multidisciplinary teams will look at all aspects of milk production including dairy rations, cow genetics, manure handling and storage, crops, tillage and crop rotations to identify systems that are most effective at retaining carbon, nitrogen and water while also maintaining a health bottom line on the farm.

The team will also develop an agricultural education curriculum with an urban foods focus at Vincent High School in Milwaukee in an effort to educate future leaders and consumers about the contributions of the dairy industry to economic and environmental sustainability.

"They are the problem-solvers of the future," Vilsack said.

"This is about adaptation – how to move agriculture forward to be as productive as possible as we move into a changing climate," said Ruark. "Anything we can do to reduced losses of carbon, nitrogen and water from the system can lead to greater efficiency and more profit for the producer, less impact on the environment and a sustainable milk supply for the consumer."

Vilsack said the project is supported by a coalition of dairy industry organizations, which in 2008 made a voluntary commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from milk production by 25 percent by 2020.

The grants were made under the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI), a flagship competitive grant program that was established under the 2008 Farm Bill.

It supports six priority areas: 1) plant health and production and plant products; 2) animal health and production and animal products; 3) food safety, nutrition and health; 4) renewable energy, natural resources and environment; 5) agriculture systems and technology; and 6) agriculture economics and rural communities.



The research programs underscore the importance of a five-year food and farm bill, Vilsack said. "We need the resources and authority and it’s essential that we have a five-year bill that recognizes the importance of research."

Over the last 80-90 years American farmers have seen extreme production gains that "not only feed America but export to the world," he said. The United States is on track for another year of record ag exports.

Vilsack said it’s important to continue an emphasis on research even in tight budgetary times. "We are making an effort to increase the research budget even now."

Research is one more way to provide opportunities in rural America by maintaining agricultural production, he said.

During a visit to the U.S. Dairy Forage Research Center in Madison, Vilsack talked with researchers about their projects including switchgrass research – both for biomass and for forage – and a prototype chopper that can separate alfalfa leaves from stems so the feed can be better managed.

Nick Baker, a field research technician, told Vilsack that he is working on crossing upland and lowland switchgrass varieties with the goal of producing one that could be grown as far north as Wisconsin and as far south as Alabama.

Wisconsin Agriculture Secretary Ben Brancel, who introduced Vilsack at his press conference, said the research project will be important for dairy producers. "The extremes of today will be norm of tomorrow," he said.

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