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GOP Legislators Propose UW Dairy Innovation Hub

Proposal Includes Spending Nearly $8M Annually To Create Dairy Research Programs At 3 Campuses

milking cows
Toby Talbot/AP Photo

Two Republican legislators want to spend nearly $8 million annually to create dairy research programs at three University of Wisconsin System schools.

State Sen. Howard Marklein, R-Spring Green, and state Rep. Travis Tranel, R-Cuba City, are sponsoring a bill that would give the UW System $7.9 million annually to create and fund the UW Dairy Innovation Hub.

About half of the funding would go to UW-Madison to create a dairy management academy and provide support for research-related farms and labs. The remaining funds would be split between UW-Platteville and UW-River Falls for research facilities and infrastructure. The bill would authorize each campus to hire staff. Regents would have to submit an annual report on the hub’s accomplishments to the Legislature.

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During a public hearing streamed by WisconsinEye, Marklein said the programs will focus on land and water stewardship, animal and human health, and nutrition and growing farm businesses.

“The kind of research that may occur at UW-Platteville may be different than the research at UW-River Falls and UW-Madison,” Marklein said. “So I don’t think we wanted to be prescriptive in terms of telling them what kind of research they had to do on those campuses.”

Sen. Janis Ringhand, D-Evansville, said the Dairy Innovation Hub was one of the top ideas generated by the Dairy Task Force 2.0, a group created by former Republican Gov. Scott Walker to help the dairy industry. But she questioned whether the bill was premature because the task force has yet to make a final recommendation.

Tranel said legislative action to help the state’s dairy farmers is long overdue.

“If this was Kimberly-Clark or if this Harley-Davidson and they were struggling for five years and there were 7,000 little shops all around the state like we have 7,000 dairy farms sprinkled throughout the state, we would recognize that it was a crisis,” Tranel said. “Ag is currently in a crisis. The reality is these farmers cannot pay their bills and haven’t been able to for a long time.”

Marklein said he wanted to introduce the bill as soon as possible to ensure that it is included in the next biennial budget.

Many Wisconsin dairy producers and professors testified in favor of the bill during the hearing Wednesday.

Shelly Mayer, executive director of Professional Dairy Producers, said the investment is needed to improve the viability of the dairy industry.

“It’s like your own personal health,” Mayer said. When you’re healthy and things are moving along well, you can focus on other things. And then something creeps in, and you start to feel pains, and you realize that your health is slipping away.”

Mayer said helping the dairy industry is also a positive for producers of other commodities and for the manufacturing industry.

Rami Reddy, a UW-Platteville agribusiness professor, said foreign countries are investing in expanding their dairy industry and Wisconsin needs to do the same to stay competitive.

“Do we have control over those fluctuating prices like milk products? We don’t. But these constant innovations, whether in good times or bad times, will make the state much more stronger,” Reddy said.

Tera Montgomery, coordinator of the Animal Science program at UW-Platteville, said her school would use the new funding to expand research on dairy production with small ruminant animals like goats and invest in new robotic milk technology.

And Montgomery said the new initiative would boost the state’s rural economy.

“The School of Agriculture is specifically suited to utilize the opportunities that the Dairy Innovation Hub would give us to enrich, enliven and enhance the rural communities that many of our students come from and will likely go back to,” Montgomery said.

Representatives from UW-Madison, the Wisconsin Farmers Union, the Wisconsin Farm Bureau and the Dairy Business Association also spoke in support of the bill.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated with original reporting from WPR.

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