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PLATTEVILLE, Wis. – The use of biochar in manure systems and saturated fatty acids in early lactation rations are among several new dairy research projects being conducted at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville. The research projects are supported by the state-funded Dairy Innovation Hub. To learn more about the new research, the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection’s Secretary-Designee Randy Romanski and Deputy Secretary Angela James recently visited the UW-Platteville Pioneer Farm.

They were welcomed by UW-Platteville’s Tera Montgomery, a professor of dairy and animal science, and the campus liaison for the Dairy Innovation Hub. Joining her were Ryan Pralle, an assistant professor of animal and dairy science, and Joe Sanford, an assistant professor of soil and crop science. Both Pralle and Sanford were the first faculty members hired with funds from the Dairy Innovation Hub.

“We created new positions for them, and both are creating new laboratories from scratch,” Montgomery said.

Some of their research is being conducted at Pioneer Farm, home to 180 milking cows. That’s the average milking-herd size in the state of Wisconsin. The facility features two Lely Astronaut A5 milking robots, which are being used in various research projects.

One of the new projects funded by the Dairy Innovation Hub is led by Pralle and Peter Lammers, an associate professor of animal and dairy science. They’re using the robots to evaluate saturated fatty acid supplements in early-lactation cow rations. They’ll use data collected from the robots to evaluate the cows’ health performance and days in milk from previous as well as current lactations.

During the project they’ll use the robots to monitor the cows’ milk production, body weight and incidences of metabolic disorders such as ketosis. The study will help inform future recommendations to dairy farmers for feeding saturated fatty acids in early-lactation rations, Pralle said.

The robots provide data that can be used in other research projects as well. For example, the robots can provide data on milking time per cow and milk output by teat or udder quadrant. Their infrared technology can be used for predicting milk-component levels. And with predictive models, farmers also could obtain early information about cow-health condition, Pralle said.

Montgomery added that the robots can provide training opportunities for the university’s engineering and construction management students. 

“The future is biochar”

Sanford described his research project, which focuses on the potential benefits of incorporating biochar into manure-handling systems. Biochar can help reduce greenhouse-gas emissions and mitigate odors from manure-storage structures and anaerobic digesters. He will use greenhouse-gas analysis equipment, which also was funded by the Dairy Innovation Hub.

By heating corn stover and manure solids to high temperatures in a low- to no-oxygen environment, he will create biochar. The result is a material similar to charcoal; it acts like a sponge. It can be applied on top of a manure lagoon, for example, to trap greenhouse gases at the lagoon’s surface.

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“We’ll evaluate different biochar covers during the course of six months and record the differences in emissions of greenhouse gas and odor,” he said. “The hope is that biochar application could be used at both small and large-scale dairy operations.”

Biochar also can hold nitrogen, phosphorus and other nutrients that can later be used to fertilize crops. And because it’s lightweight, biochar can be transported to further distances relatively inexpensively.

Sanford also will evaluate biochar’s potential for improving the economics of manure digesters. Adoption of anaerobic digesters by farmers has been slow due to the initial capital investment required as well as annual operation and maintenance costs.

“We’re going to look at potentially reducing operational and maintenance costs by improving the quality of biogas produced during anaerobic digestion,” he said.

A lot of gases are produced during anaerobic digestion. One of those gases is hydrogen sulfide, which must be removed if the gas will be used for energy production. Hydrogen sulfide can corrode engines, turbines or fuel cells. Preliminary studies have shown that adding doses of biochar into an anaerobic digester could potentially reduce hydrogen sulfide.

“We could potentially reduce the cost associated with post clean-up of biogas,” he said.

In bench-scale studies, Sanford will evaluate different types of biochar – such as those produced by corn stover and manure solids as well as those produced from conventional woody biomass.

“We’re going to dose that biochar into small-batch systems and look at the reduction of hydrogen sulfide,” he said. “Then after identifying potential candidates and dosing rates, we’ll scale to a pilot program to see the (real-life) impact.”

Secretary-designee Romanski said the Dairy Innovation Hub-funded research projects at UW-Platteville – as well as those at UW-Madison and UW-River Falls – exemplify what can be done when bringing great minds together. Ideas and projects have a safe place to start at the universities. They enable researchers and industry to “kick the tires,” on new technologies. And project results can lead to exponential growth in the dairy industry, he said.

“This is America’s Dairyland,” he said. “This is where it happens.”

The Dairy Innovation Hub harnesses research and development at UW-Madison, UW-Platteville and UW-River Falls campuses to keep Wisconsin’s dairy community at the global forefront in producing nutritious dairy products in an economically, environmentally and socially sustainable manner. It is supported by a $7.8 million annual investment by the state of Wisconsin. Visit dairyinnovationhub.wisc.edu for more information.

Lynn Grooms writes about the diversity of agriculture, including the industry’s newest ideas, research and technologies as a staff reporter for Agri-View based in Wisconsin.

This article originally ran on agupdate.com.

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