White a leader in lab, on research farm

By Jim Massey, Freelance writer

From the time that the discussions began about creating a collaborative dairy research program between UW–Madison, UW–Platteville and UW–River Falls, Heather White could see the benefits of the three schools working together to focus on Wisconsin’s most important agricultural industry.

White met with stakeholders to talk about the bottlenecks facing the dairy industry and testified at legislative hearings on the Dairy Innovation Hub. Shortly after the Legislature gave the program the green light, former College of Agricultural and Life Sciences Dean Kate VandenBosch asked White if she would consider serving as the program’s first director. 

Heather White saw a challenge when asked to oversee the newly created Dairy Innovation Hub in 2019.

“I was honored to accept,” White says. “To date we’ve funded more than 200 projects across the three campuses, and a lot of the projects have been really impactful already, which is remarkable considering the time it usually takes a project to yield practical impacts. We’ve only been doing this now into our fourth year.”

For her efforts in leading the Hub and her other research and outreach programs, White was recently honored with the Vilas Faculty Mid-Career Investigator Award. The award recognizes research and teaching excellence in faculty who are mid-career. The award is for UW–Madison faculty members approximately 10 to 20 years into their career.

White is a professor in area of dairy cattle nutritional physiology. Her research program focuses on the health and nutrition of dairy cows during the transition period and is centered on hepatic and whole-animal nutrient partitioning and metabolism. White is also a hands-on researcher and mentor at both the undergraduate and graduate levels. 

But perhaps her greatest impact is now as the faculty director of the Hub, which focuses on dairy-related research that can improve animal health and welfare, enhance human nutrition, steward land and water resources, and grow farm businesses and communities.

The Hub has hired 17 faculty across the three campuses so far, and organizers are in the last round of faculty hires. 

While faculty salaries will use a portion of the $7.8 million annual budget, the goal is to use a good percentage of the money to fund short- and long-term research projects that can make a difference for Wisconsin dairy farmers.

Sometimes it can be difficult to see the economic benefits of research, White says, but at the end of the day, she knows the research has to make a difference if the program is going to continue to be of value to the state.

“Our farmers in Wisconsin, just because we have the Hub, are not going to be immune to the challenges that are out there,” she says. “They are not going to be immune to decreasing farm numbers and low milk prices. We’re not going to be able to insulate our farms from that with our research. But if we’re doing our jobs right, all of those farms will have access to the tools and resources they need to be successful.

“What we hear from farmers is this research is what helps them stay competitive. It helps them know how to endure things like the impact of drought on crops, how to handle manure management so they are both in compliance and have a good sustainable business model. That’s our goal, to do the research that can help inform practices on farms and help come up with solutions to the challenges that farmers and cheesemakers and rural communities are facing.”

White grew up in southern Indiana and did her undergraduate studies at St. Mary’s College in Notre Dame, Ind. She enrolled in college with the goal of going to medical school, but discovered early on that she wanted to do research instead. 

“I had really great faculty mentors and we had three wet labs our first semester,” she says. “I got a taste of being in a lab right away and loved it.”

As she was exploring options for graduate school or careers in research, she came to the realization that she could combine agriculture and science. From there, it was a “no-brainer,” she says.

Her master’s degree at Purdue University was geared toward swine, but she was co-advised by a professor who had worked with dairy cows. 

“I was fascinated by the longevity of the dairy cow and the metabolic fete that we ask her to do over and over and over again for many years,” she says. “At the time I was working on metabolism in pigs, but with the dairy cow, we have a lot more to gain from supporting metabolic health.”

Her Ph.D. was in dairy at Purdue and she’s been focused on the topic ever since. 

White worked at the University of Connecticut for about a year and a half before she found her position in the then Dairy Science Department at UW–Madison in 2013. 

In his nomination letter for the award, Animal and Dairy Sciences Department Chairman Kent Weigel said White has had an impact on the department through her “research, teaching and leadership.” 

“Dr. White has established herself as a leader in the laboratory and on the research farm, where she has made many important contributions in the areas of transition cow health and feed utilization efficiency,” Weigel wrote. “At the same time, her success as the inaugural director of the Dairy Innovation Hub has been nothing short of remarkable.”

White says the $100,000 Vilas award (over three years) will be used to hire a postdoctoral researcher and pursue some additional research project. She says she was aware of the award but had never thought much about being nominated to receive it.

“To me I think it means your colleagues recognize your contributions not just through your own research but also through your collaborative research and what you’re giving to your colleagues, your department and the university,” she says. “To me, that means the most. To be recognized by your colleagues means you’re doing something for the greater good.”

Over the next decade, White says she sees herself continuing to focus on the collaborative feed efficiency and reducing methane emissions effort and continuing to focus on transition cow health and nutrition. 

White spends most of her time in Madison, although she has ongoing research projects in Arlington and Marshfield. She has a 50 percent administrative appointment to oversee the Dairy Hub but also spends time teaching ruminant nutritional physiology to graduate students. 

White lives in Albany with her husband and two sons. The sons – ages 10 and 7 – are big into hockey, so the family finds itself traveling to games through much of the winter.

“It’s a lot of time on the road, but we spend a lot of high-quality family time, and I wouldn’t trade that for anything,” she says. 

When they aren’t at a hockey or football game, they enjoy participating in outdoor activities together.