Department Updates from Kent Weigel

Greetings from the chair’s desk (which is in my house ☺)!

I think we can all agree that 2020 was an interesting year, and most of us were happy to see it go. Hopefully 2021 will be a little more boring. But aside from the pandemic, election, and countless disruptions and difficulties, we actually accomplished a lot.

As everyone knows, our departmental merger became official on July 1, 2020, and the new Department of Animal and Dairy Sciences was formed. Mergers of academic departments can be challenging, and some of our peer institutions struggled for years after merging their animal, dairy, and/or poultry science departments. While I hesitate to spike the ball and do a victory dance just six months after the merger, I will say that ours has gone remarkably smoothly, and despite the external stressors of 2020, our faculty and staff are very positive and excited about the future.

A big reason for this excitement is the infusion of new talent. UW-Madison is a destination university, and faculty and staff rarely leave for reasons other than retirement. We are in the midst of a once-in-a-generation turnover, which provides an opportunity to fill our ranks with an exceptional group of new faculty and staff in parallel with the departmental merger.

We hired seven new tenure-track faculty members in 2020, which is probably a record. Three of the new faculty members work in our new Meat Science and Animal Biologics Discovery (MSABD) Building, which opened in late summer. This magnificent $57M facility will put us at the forefront of research on meat and muscle biology, food safety (including the ability to track pathogens from pre-harvest through processing in our BSL- 2 containment facility), and animal biologics – novel therapeutics of animal origin. Wei Guo came to us from the University of Wyoming, bringing a large research program focused on muscle biochemistry and cardiovascular health, as well as a new undergraduate course in growth physiology. Vanessa Leone joined us from the University of Chicago, where she began an impressive research career focused on characterizing dietary effects on the gut microbiome and the resulting implications on health and obesity. Both are familiar with UW-Madison, as Vanessa did her PhD studies under the late Mark Cook, and Wei did a post-doc with Marion Greaser. We were also very fortunate to recruit one of the nation’s foremost food safety experts, Steve Ricke, as the new Director of MSABD. Steve has had an unbelievably productive academic career at Texas A&M and the University of Arkansas, and he brings tremendous energy and vision to MSABD and UW-Madison.

It was a big year for our dairy industry stakeholders, as we launched the Dairy Innovation Hub (DIH), under the extremely capable leadership of Heather White and Maria Woldt. This initiative will fund faculty positions, graduate students, post-docs, equipment grants, research support staff, short-term/high-impact projects, and outreach teaching opportunities, many of which are already underway. Words cannot express our gratitude for the support we received from legislators, stakeholders, and our colleagues at UW-Platteville and UW-River Falls in making the DIH a reality. We also hired three new faculty members who work primarily in dairy cattle, all of whom completed their PhD studies at UW-Madison and started their academic careers at the University of Florida. Luiz Ferraretto is an extremely productive young scientist who focuses on research and extension in dairy cattle nutrition, especially forage quality and utilization and its impact on animal health, fertility, and performance. Jimena Laporta and her husband, Francisco Peñagaricano, joined our faculty in late summer. Jimena is an outstanding lactation physiologist who studies the role of environmental stressors and pre- and postnatal programming on calf health, mammary gland development, and lactation performance. Francisco has an internationally recognized research program in quantitative genomics and computational biology, with primary focus on genomic prediction and the discovery of genetic mechanisms underlying important traits in dairy cattle and other livestock species.

Last but not least, Sarah Adcock joined our faculty after completing her PhD studies in animal behavior at the University of California, Davis. Sarah works across multiple species, with primary interest in the behavioral and physiological responses to pain and injury. Sarah will offer a new undergraduate course in animal welfare and build our research capacity in this emerging and important area of study. In addition, we hired several new staff members in 2020, both on campus and at our research stations. While I won’t share all of their details here, I will say that the contributions of our university and academic staff to our research, teaching, and outreach missions are absolutely critical, and none of our faculty could do our work effectively without their dedicated and excellent work. Lastly, our faculty were successful in securing quite a few large research grants in 2020, and we’ll showcase many of these projects in future newsletters.

It’s not clear exactly what 2021 will bring, but we’re excited about seeing our students, stakeholders, and each other in person soon. UW-Madison is implementing an aggressive new Covid-19 testing scheme for the spring semester, and students, faculty, and staff will be required to get tested weekly and show their status prior to entering campus buildings. This system was used successfully by the University of Illinois during the fall 2019 semester. Many of our classes will again be taught virtually, although some labs will be in-person, and hopefully by fall 2021 we will be able to fully resume in- person teaching activities. We plan to ramp up our recruiting activities in 2021, with the goal of increasing enrollment in both the Animal Sciences and Dairy Science majors, offering new courses in emerging subject areas, and expanding opportunities for undergraduate research.

Thank you for all of your support, and Go Badgers! Kent