Agriculture: Home-grown research…

In Wisconsin, agriculture is a $59.16 billion industry and provides more than 353,000 jobs.

This is according to a 2011 study produced by UW-Madison and the UW Extension, The Economic Impacts of Agriculture in Wisconsin Counties. It indicated agriculture remains a vital part of the economy in nearly every Wisconsin county.

Agricultural research in the state dates back to 1862, when President Abraham Lincoln signed the Land Grant College act, which sought to promote the study of agriculture at colleges and universities throughout the country. The act named UW-Madison a land grant university, and the school later established several research centers throughout Wisconsin.

“Today we have 11 research stations,” said Dwight Mueller, director of the UW-Madison Agricultural Research Centers. “Our research spans the industry, including everything from farming techniques to organic farming, and from dairy research to how it all affects the environment.”

“Overall, the goal of these centers is to make Wisconsin farmers more efficient, and leaders in the agriculture industry,” Mueller said. “Our centers have conducted research about pesticide usage and how it relates to environmental concerns and water supplies; organic farming; feed consumption for farm animals; farming techniques including tillage and how crop rotations affect the soil and crop output.”

The centers were instrumental in helping Wisconsin become a dairy state, Mueller said. Previously, Wisconsin was primarily a wheat state.

Gyaneshwar Prasad, assistant professor of Microbiology at UW-Milwaukee, specializes in continued research involving the genomic study of nitrogen-fixation in non-legume agriculture yields.

“We know that Rhizobia play an important role in sustainable agriculture by forming nitrogen-fixing symbiosis with legumes,” Prasad said. “We’re working to understand the fixation process and transfer it to other crop yields where it doesn’t happen as easily.”

According to Prasad, the nitrogen-fixation process, which happens naturally in legumes, provides an efficient and more sustainable alternative to nitrogen fertilizers, which when used in excess can be harmful to the environment, and accounts for significant cost expenditures on agricultural crop farms in Wisconsin and around the world.
“It’s a long-term project,” Prasad said. “It’s not going to happen overnight, but there are so many farms that utilize nitrogen fertilizer on their crops. Even if you only reduce the use and the cost to Wisconsin farmers, it could be a very big transformational change for the industry.”

Not all agricultural research in the state involves farm output. The Marshfield Clinic National Farm Medicine Center was founded in 1981 to address health problems seen in farm patients.

“Decades of research has shown us that tractor rollovers are a main cause of injury and death on the farm,” said Barbara Marlenga, a research scientist at Marshfield Clinic National Farm Medicine Center.

Despite the formation of a manufacturers’ agreement that all tractors made after 1985 include rollover protection bars or driver cabs, there are still approximately 110,000 tractors in use in Wisconsin, made prior to 1985, that do not have Roll Over Protection Systems (ROPS), Marlenga said.

Marshfield Clinic has embarked on a ROPS initiative to promote the installation of Roll Over Protection Systems on old, still-in-use tractors.

“Ultimately our goal is to keep farmers and their families safe so they can continue the business of farming,” Marlenga said.

Marlenga has also started to conduct ground-breaking research using a simulator at the University of Iowa that will help determine what age farm-raised children are cognitively ready to handle driving a tractor, she said.

“All of our research is done with the same goal of preventing costly farm injuries and death,” Marlenga said. “We have all heard stories about how farm-raised children begin driving the farm equipment at younger and younger ages. This research will help us determine what age is actually appropriate for them to cognitively understand the challenges and risks associated with driving this equipment.”

The study was recently completed with farm children ages 10 to 17 living near the University of Iowa, using a driving simulator designed to replicate the experience of driving an actual tractor, Marlenga said.

She expects to have some results soon.

“Right now we’re looking at simply being able to provide quantitative data to parents and employers who are looking for answers,” Marlenga said. 

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