Five UW-Madison CALS graduate students funded by state-sponsored Dairy Innovation Hub – CALS News


The University of Wisconsin-Madison College of Agricultural and Life Sciences (CALS) recently awarded five two-year graduate student assistantships to help increase dairy-related research capacity through the Dairy Innovation Hub initiative. Selected graduate students tackle research projects in the Hub’s four priority areas: land and water stewardship; enrich human health and nutrition; ensuring animal health and welfare; and the growth of agricultural businesses and communities.

The Dairy Innovation Hub, which launched in 2019, is a $7.8 million per year investment from the State of Wisconsin to establish a world-class talent pool and support entrepreneurial discoveries. The goal is to ensure that Wisconsin’s dairy community remains part of the world’s forefront in producing nutritious dairy products in an economically, environmentally and socially sustainable way. To achieve these goals, the Hub prioritizes the recruitment, development and retention of top talent.

A graduate student assistantship is a salaried employment opportunity for students pursuing higher education beyond their bachelor’s degree. Students work alongside a faculty mentor and, in return, receive a tuition rebate, health benefits, and a monthly stipend. Students gain valuable skills through assistant roles that directly apply to their career goals and help develop broad, transferable skills in areas such as communication, teamwork, and leadership.

The following UW-Madison graduate students have been selected for funding:

Walker Crane, Soil Science Department
Project Title: Increasing Environmental Stewardship of Dairy Forage Production Systems with Cover Crops

Crane received a BS in Plant and Environmental Soil Science from Texas A&M University, where he developed a passion for soil health and sustainable cropping systems. As an undergraduate, he conducted research on the effect of cover crops and tillage on greenhouse gas emissions. He has also participated in research projects using low-field magnetic resonance imaging to phenotype sorghum roots and drones to implement precision irrigation scheduling. Crane is pursuing a master’s degree in soil science under Francisco Arriaga of the Department of Soil Science.

Crane joins the Arriaga team to better understand the environmental impacts of corn silage production systems. Arriaga hypothesizes that canopy structure and the amount of biomass produced by a cover crop influence environmental impacts. Additionally, the biomass produced by a cover crop will be affected by its relative planting date and seeding rate. Understanding these relationships will help in developing recommendations for the establishment dates of fall seeded cover crops. The overarching goal of this project is to help farmers make decisions that will benefit forage production and the environment.

Grace Enzien, Department of Bacteriology
Project title: Bioconversion of dairy residues into synthetic (d)-lactic acid

Enzien received a bachelor’s degree in biochemistry from the University of Illinois at Chicago. Previous undergraduate research, internships, and professional experience, including as a Formulation Technician for Blistex, Inc., led Enzien to develop a wide range of laboratory skills, ranging from basic protocols, such as laboratory maintenance, extraction of DNA and genotype samples. She is pursuing a Masters in Bacteriology and is mentored by Timothy Donohue of the Department of Bacteriology.

Enzien joins the Donohue research team to explore how residues from dairy production can be used to create new materials. The team hypothesizes that the residues left behind after producing milk into food-grade products can be bio-converted into valuable materials, which would also improve the sustainability of Wisconsin’s dairy community. This project aims to produce a design form of lactic acid from residues. By 2025, the global market for D-lactic acid is estimated at $8.7 billion and industrial interest in this designer organic acid is expected to increase significantly. The knowledge gained from this study should reduce the negative environmental impacts of residues, increase their value for consumers, farmers and industry, and be applicable to the bio-conversion of non-dairy products into other synthetic chemicals. in the future.

Jiahao Fan, Department of Biological Systems Engineering
Project Title: Assessing Corn Silage Yield and Quality Using Drone-Based Hyperspectral Imaging and Machine Learning

Fan earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in Geographic Information Systems from Wuhan University in China. He was a doctoral candidate in the Department of Computer Science at the New Jersey Institute of Technology for two years. Fan is currently pursuing a PhD in Biological Systems Engineering, supervised by Zhou Zhang from the Department of Biological Systems Engineering.

Fan works alongside Zhang to explore genetic and management technologies and innovations that improve dairy fodder production and nutritional value. The overarching goal is to help maintain and stabilize profitability while reducing the carbon footprint of high quality dairy forages. Using corn silage as a model crop, the research team conducts field assessments of forage yield and quality using a combination of state-of-the-art hyperspectral imaging and artificial intelligence technologies. This technique is non-destructive and non-invasive. The phenotyping methods developed can be adapted to access the quality traits of other forage crops beyond maize and could lead to a change in the way yield and forage composition are accessed. This change could help speed up crop breeding. In addition, it is also possible to improve the timing of forage harvesting to optimize quality and production.

Benjamin Iesalnieks, Department of Food Science
Project title: Manufacture of natural cheeses containing bioactive peptides with improved antihypertensive properties

Iesalnieks earned a bachelor’s degree in biochemistry and chemistry from the University of Minnesota-Duluth. His undergraduate research experience and coursework developed valuable, transferable, laboratory and analytical skills that he now applies to the areas of food development, formulation and production. Iesalnieks is pursuing a master’s degree in food science under Rodrigo Ibanez Alfaro of the Center for Dairy Research.

The Ibanez Alfaro research team is investigating the antihypertensive peptide properties of cheese that could be used to lower high blood pressure in humans. The goal is to create a natural cheese with enhanced antihypertensive properties through traditional and alternative approaches. The cheese with the highest antihypertensive properties will be further evaluated to determine if the bioactive compounds are enhanced, maintained or degraded after digestion as well as the potential to be absorbed and utilized by the human body. Once optimal conditions are established, Wisconsin cheesemakers will be able to produce differentiated and enriched value-added products. These new cheeses will improve human health and nutrition and have the potential to reach new domestic and export markets.

Kaylee Riesgraf, Department of Animal and Dairy Science
Project Title: Improving the Performance of Dairy Heifer Operations by Understanding Maternal and Management Stressors Impacting Heifer Growth and Feed Efficiency

Riesgraf grew up on the family farm, A&L Lisowe Acres, near Fond du Lac, Wis. and earned a bachelor’s degree in dairy science from UW-River Falls. Previous experience on his home farm and an internship at Holsum Dairies in Hilbert, Wisconsin sparked a passion for diagnosing sick dairy cows and developing subsequent treatment plans. Riesgraf has also developed strong analytical skills working with statistical data and using herd management software to make decisions. Riesgraf is pursuing a master’s degree in dairy science and is mentored by Kent Weigel of the Department of Animal and Dairy Science.

Riesgraf joins Weigel’s team to explore the effects of stressful life experiences on heifers, including maternal stress late in gestation and neonatal stress before weaning. This study closely examines the dry matter intake, average daily gain and feed efficiency of heifers subjected to common stressors in early life. These heifers, 17 to 20 months old, are located at the Marshfield Agricultural Research Station. Additionally, samples will be taken at puberty and mid-gestation to assess DNA- and metabolism-related differences between stressors. Riesgraf’s graduate assistantship is mentored and co-funded by UW-River Falls.

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