University of Vermont

Farmed Out

UVM adopts new on-farm model for faculty research

Benoit St. Pierre drops one end of a garden hose into a large holding tank filled with liquefied cow manure. Pulling back on a syringe-like stopper attached to his end of the hose, he draws out a cup of clear liquid -- miraculously, given the brown sludge at the surface. The tank and its unappealing contents are more valuable than they may appear -- they're part of a contraption called a methane digester that could help dairy farmers increase their income via an inevitable barnyard byproduct.

The digester, located at an award-winning dairy farm in Sheldon, Vt. called Green Mountain Dairy, is the subject of an experiment St. Pierre, a postdoctoral scientist in UVM’s Department of Animal Science, is conducting with his mentor, department chair Andre-Denis Wright. Using DNA sequencing and other sophisticated techniques, the scientists are exploring the microbial ecology of the digester’s contents to see if its population of methanogens -- methane-producing microorganisms that live in the gut of most herbivores -- can be coaxed into higher productivity. More productive methanogens mean more methane, which the farm siphons off the digester and burns in a generator to produce electricity it sells back to the power grid, and more income for the farm.

Wright’s and St. Pierre’s work is also part of another experiment, one that colleges of agriculture across the country are watching carefully. This year, UVM abandoned the traditional model of conducting dairy research via a centralized, on-campus herd, moving instead to one where UVM faculty like Wright work directly on dairy farms.

Loss to leader

The Dairy Center of Excellence, as the new on-farm program is called, was conceived in a climate of mounting financial pressure. With cutbacks in federal funding, fluctuating milk prices, and astronomically rising prices for feed and bedding, the university’s herd of 300 cows was losing UVM up to $90,000 annually and cost several hundred thousand dollars a year to maintain. 

“There had to be a better way to utilize these funds,” says Tom Vogelmann, dean of UVM’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.   

Two summers ago, the college sold its research herd, maintaining a small number of cows for teaching purposes. It now uses the portion of its annual federal appropriation that had gone to herd maintenance to directly support research that will take place at a growing number of best-practices partner farms located within an hour of UVM’s campus -- six currently, including Green Mountain Dairy. Vogelmann works closely with Wright, who is also director of the Dairy Center of Excellence, to allocate the funds to faculty through a competitive grant process. 

The new arrangement isn’t only a good business decision, it also makes for better, more relevant science, Vogelmann says.

“Centralized research facilities are fine for certain kinds of research,” which require rigorous controls, he says.  “But really to solve a lot of the issues that are ongoing out in the state, you have to be out in the state.” 

The university will also maintain elements of the traditional research model.  Plans for the upgraded Miller Research Complex, UVM's on-campus farm, call for a 50-stall research barn. But animals will be brought in only for the duration of a research project, not maintained permanently at the facilty.

The new program targets eight focus areas -- chosen by the industry representatives, farmers, public officials and UVM faculty on its advisory council -- vital to Vermont agriculture, ranging from forage research to disease prevention and treatment to innovative technologies, Wright’s area. Three new projects, in addition to Wright’s, were funded this year.

Public attention

If all goes as planned, Vogelmann hopes to supplement his budget with industry funding, faculty-won research grants from external sources, and foundation support, eventually bankrolling up to six new multi-year projects annually with a million dollars in play in any given year. 

That’s a model that has caught the attention of other public universities, all of whose agricultural colleges are being squeezed financially. 

“It’s a fact that all land grants are going through hard times … and we are all looking at innovative ways of doing programming,” says Bob Harmon, chair of the Department of Animal and Food Sciences at the University of Kentucky.  “Dairy Center of Excellence may be one type of approach that land grants take to continue to do valid animal research. “

The model is working just fine at Green Mountain Dairy.  Central Vermont Public Service, the utility that buys back the electricity the dairy produces, is keenly interested in Wright’s work. In just the way Vogelmann hopes, it recently awarded him a grant through its Cow Power program. 

“When we look at a digester now, we know we pump manure in, and something slightly different comes out, but it’s really a black box,” says David Dunn, manager of renewable energy projects at the utility. “If there’s a way to get a better understanding of how the system works and improve its economics, that’s a great benefit to Vermont and to Vermont agriculture.”