Your Town Stratford: UW research station leads dairy, soil studies

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STRATFORD, Wis. (WSAW) -- Your Town Stratford is home to a dairy research center doing work that many don't know about, but affects the entire state. The UW Marshfield Agriculture Research Station (MARS) is one of 12 UW research units in Wisconsin, and functions as a research arm of the UW Madison College of Agricultural and Life Sciences.

"We are Bucky Badger. We are the University of Wisconsin, here in the center of the state," Superintendent Nancy Esser remarked, the herd manager for MARS.

MARS was founded in Marshfield in 1912, and bought land in Stratford 20 years ago. It's home to about 530 state-owned heifers that UW-Madison scientists use to conduct dairy industry research. Annually, Esser says they do six to seven livestock studies, which utilize anywhere from 12 to a couple hundred cows.

Those studies focus on nutrition-based issues, Esser says, including a long study they did on using different types of bedding for dairy cattle. But the station is used by more than fully-fledged scientists; students, like first-year UW-Madison veterinary student Kaylee Coel, do their own research there too.

"I've learned so much about handling animals and feeding them," Coel said.

There's a second primary research focus at the station, assistant superintendent and agronomist Jason Cavadini explains. They also study how to manage the land and dairy systems for the best long term health of soil and water. In fact, poorly-drained soil was what brought the station to north central Wisconsin in the first place, Cavadini said.

Best soil practices are best described as manipulating the soil and keeping it covered as much as possible, Cavadini explained. But he says that runs counter to some of the most ingrained historical farming practices that Wisconsin farmers use, which usually involves intense tilling. Part of that is due to the poor soil and short growing season, and Cavadini is quick to emphasize that even while farmers struggle to adapt to the new practices they research, it isn't the farmers' faults.

"There's good reason why farmers did what they did. It's not that they were not educated or that they were ignorant. They did the best with what they had, with the knowledge they had at that time," he explained. "It's so much different from what they've always known, and what they've been taught by their father and previous generations."

With technology moving forward however, Cavadini says it's time to move best soil practices forward with it. A three-pronged best-practices approach includes no-till planting, cover crops, and maximizing the life on the land throughout the year--more specifically, rotational grazing, which puts a big focus on the health of the land as well as the health of the animal.

"If it's done properly, it involves no soil disturbance, or very little," Cavadini explained.

Overall, it's better for farmers long term--not just for their land, but their wallet.

"The information that comes out of a public research institution ultimately becomes part of what they do everyday on their farms," Esser said.