Tom Still: Dairy innovation alive and well in Wisconsin as industry adapts to change

This is an excerpt from a column posted at BizOpinion.

If you don’t think technology has been a part of Wisconsin’s dairy industry since its humble beginnings, consider the story of Professor Stephen M. Babcock and his butterfat test.

You may know Babcock’s name if for no other reason than the iconic dairy store on the UW-Madison campus that is named in his honor.

It’s where visitors can buy ice cream, cheese and more in seemingly endless flavors and forms, all within a setting that speaks to the university’s historic role in defining Wisconsin as “America’s Dairyland.”

Babcock’s contributions to that image and reality began in 1890, his first year on campus, with the publication of a straight-forward chemistry experiment. He discovered that all of the compounds of milk – except for the fat – dissolve in sulfuric acid.

He devised a test that involved adding sulfuric acid to a known quantity of milk, centrifuging the sample to condense the fat, and calculating the milk fat or “butterfat” content based on the amount of fat recovered per volume of milk tested.

It was an easily conducted field test that revolutionized dairy farming because it set a reliable standard for production, since milk without sufficient butterfat could not be made into many of the dairy products we still enjoy today.

Babcock’s test laid the foundation for an agricultural industry built on quality, science and innovation, from the laboratories and “Dairy Short Courses” of a still-young university, to the barns of Wisconsin and to the tables of a growing nation.

Roll forward nearly 125 years and Wisconsin’s dairy industry faces new challenges to its continued prosperity, from environmental pressures on the land and water that sustains it, to consumer trends that compel product innovation.

Fostering that kind of innovation is the goal of a new project within the Wisconsin Center for Dairy Research, one of the world’s leading centers for discovery within an industry that has become international in every way.

Read the full column