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Plan would create Dairy Innovation Hub on UW campuses

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PLATTEVILLE (WKOW) — A group of state lawmakers is working to help Wisconsin’s struggling dairy industry, by focusing on our research universities.

Agriculture is an $88 billion industry. Half of that comes from dairy farms. But in the past 15 years, Wisconsin has lost half its dairy herds. The state has 750 fewer this year than at the same time last year.

“The problem is, for the last five years, our farmers haven’t been able to pay their bills,” said state Rep. Travis Tranel.

Tranel, who is a dairy farmer himself, has been working to find solutions, helping form the Dairy Task Force. One of the ideas that came out of that panel is a budget proposal aiming to help farmers turn things around.

The plan would spend nearly $8 million to create a Dairy Innovation Hub at three UW campuses.

“We need to make sure that the state of Wisconsin continues to be America’s Dairyland. And we’re not going to be able to do that unless we invest and invest significantly,” Tranel told 27 News.

UW-Platteville would get about $2 million to add four new faculty positions in the School of Agriculture, specifically focused on dairy industry areas. That would essentially quadruple the staffing.

“It would be really transformative,” said Tera Montgomery, UW-Platteville’s associate professor of animal and dairy science. “The best part about it, I think, is the fact that it would bring some more infrastructure to the farm. And it would allow us to do more research specifically involving undergraduates.”

Montgomery says there are 800 students studying to get jobs in agriculture and part of the university’s role in the community is to develop that new generation of farmers, while also advancing research.

“Helping current farm families understand that there’s more that they can be doing in terms of technology in order to be able to keep moving forward,” she said.

Montgomery hopes the additional staff would recruit new students from southwestern Wisconsin and bring new ideas to the table. The team wants to study alternative uses for milk, new milk products, wastewater management, animal health and advancements in technology. They’re also looking at building a cheese plant or adding goats and sheep.

It would mean new opportunities for students like Kristen Felton, a freshman who’s studying to become a dairy nutritionist. She’s one of many coming to campus without a background in farming, trying to get into the industry.

“I hope I can bring a lot of new ideas and try to innovate things to further the success of the dairy industry,” Felton said.

New interest in dairy farming is a positive step for a struggling industry. Tranel says right now, he hopes farmers can stay optimistic about their current situation and know there are people working to help.

“This is more of a long term solution, an investment that needs to be made. But it’s not going to be a fix all or end all or cure all overnight,” he said.

Tranel and other local lawmakers will officially announce the plans for the Dairy Innovation Hub on Wednesday morning. UW-Madison and UW-River Falls would also be involved.

There is a public hearing scheduled on the proposal at 10:30 a.m. at the state Capitol.

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