A bobbing bounty: Giant Pumpkin Regatta set for Oct. 10 at Memorial Union

Chris D’Angelo and Lynn Maher with the Giant Atlantic pumpkins they helped grow for the Giant Pumpkin Regatta.

Chris D’Angelo and Lynn Maher with the Giant Atlantic pumpkins they helped grow for the Giant Pumpkin Regatta.

There’s a fun, alternative way to enjoy the fall harvest: attending the university’s Giant Pumpkin Regatta. The event, which features students paddling hollowed-out pumpkins grown by fellow students, is set to take place at 11 a.m. on Saturday, Oct. 10  at the Memorial Union Terrace.

The event, which will be held at the pier below the Memorial Union Theater, is organized by UW-Madison horticulture professors Irwin Goldman and Jim Nienhuis, with help from the UW’s Hoofer Sailing Club. Racers, called “pumpkin pilots,” are recruited from Goldman and Nienhuis’ class on world vegetable crops. They will paddle hollowed-out, three-foot-wide Atlantic Giant pumpkins – rendered buoyant by tractor-tire inner tubes – through a course set up by sailing club members.

The massive pumpkins were tended by a number of UW students over the growing season, including Chris D’Angelo and Lynn Maher, graduate students in Goldman’s lab who are in the university’s Plant Breeding and Plant Genetics program.

The inaugural Giant Pumpkin Regatta was held in 2005, with the idea to make it an annual event. Mother Nature, however, doesn’t always cooperate.

“We’ve done it a number of times since 2005, but we have had to skip some years due to poor pumpkins,” says Goldman.

Fortunately, 2015 yielded a good crop.

Taking flight: Ento 201 students help release monarch butterflies

If you noticed a monarch butterfly on campus in recent weeks, you may have entomology professor Dave Hogg to thank. As part of a research project, Hogg has been gathering and raising monarch butterflies and then releasing them on campus. This fall semester, he got his students involved.

12015217_515616745262994_2511464071144299190_oAs part of Entomology 201: Insects and Human Culture, Hogg’s students had the option to join him for a visit to campus’ Biocore Prairie, one of his field collection sites. They helped gather monarch butterfly larvae in the field and also visited Hogg’s laboratory to observe butterflies at various stages of development. Finally, the students helped release the adult insects.

“We probably released about 100 adults,” says Hogg. “The students really enjoyed the whole experience.”

Entomology 201 has a long history of providing engaging, hand-on insect experiences for students. It started around 20 years ago, when entomology professor Walt Goodman started teaching the course.

“Walt implemented this new project, where students need to raise a tobacco hornworm from egg to adult in their dorm room or apartment,” explains Hogg. “This project causes a lot of students freak out at first, but many end up overcoming their fear of insects by doing this.”

The revamped course grew in popularity, swelling over the years to fill Russell Lab’s largest lecture hall, which fits about 150 students, where its held today.

Six years ago, Hogg started teaching Ento 201 during the fall semester (Goodman still teaches it in spring), adding his own insect buzz: honeybees. In addition to raising hornworms, he started taking students to visit the honeybee hive on the 6th floor balcony of the Microbial Sciences Building. They also learn about Colony Collapse Disorder and write a term paper on the subject.

After teaching about bees and beekeeping for a couple of years, Hogg decided to walk the talk. He bought a few bee hives and has added an additional hive each year. It’s turned into a sweet side project for him.

“I’ve got 150 pounds of honey this year, the most I’ve ever had,” he says.

Hogg added the monarch butterfly project – as an alternative to the honeybee option – for the first time this year.

Cow feed efficiency project builds on a century of UW-Madison dairy R&D

It’s a cool and dusty morning on the Rosy-Lane farm, located just south of Watertown, Wisconsin. Lloyd Holterman creaks back in his kitchen chair with a cup of hot coffee in hand. A skid-loader hums outside.

“I’m telling you, there are a lot of people selling a lot of stuff,” says Holterman. “When a product shows up out here on the farm, we literally don’t buy it unless it has some kind of university research.”

Lloyd and Daphne Holterman won’t buy a new product for their dairy farm south of Watertown unless there’s university research backing it. Photo: Morgan Strauss

CALS alumni Lloyd Holterman (BS’80 Dairy Science) and Daphne Holterman (BS’81 Life Sciences Communication) won’t buy a new product for their dairy farm south of Watertown unless there’s university research backing it. Photo: Morgan Strauss

That sort of endorsement is what drives faculty at the UW-Madison Department of Dairy Science, which is among the university’s oldest — and most cutting-edge — research and development powerhouses.

Most recently, the department has served as a major player on a $5 million U.S. Department of Agriculture National Institute of Food and Agriculture project that will deliver genomic predictions for residual feed intake (RFI) to the dairy industry — information that will help farmers select animals that can digest feed and convert it to milk and body tissue more efficiently than their herdmates. Along with collaborators at Michigan State University, Iowa State University, Virginia Tech, Florida State University, USDA Agricultural Research Service (USDA-ARS), Wageningen University (Netherlands) and the Scottish Agricultural College, UW-Madison researchers have assessed roughly 6,000 Holstein cows to date.

Global projects like the RFI study build on a long tradition of applied research in the department, which has used laboratory science to solve local farm challenges since 1898.

Kent Weigel

Kent Weigel

“We aren’t just doing research to increase our own understanding of science, like many academic researchers, but ultimately to solve practical problems,” says Kent Weigel, chair of the Dairy Science Department and UW-Extension dairy research specialist. “That’s always in the front of our minds. This means talking with dairy farmers, industry stakeholders, extension agents and others to keep abreast of the challenges Wisconsin’s dairy farmers are facing at any given time, and then making the link with our own scientific tools and expertise to come up with effective solutions.”

Examples of department projects that have directly benefited Wisconsin farmers include work by Larry Satter, the late UW-Madison nutrition expert and former director of the USDA-ARS Dairy Forage Research Center. In 2000, Satter demonstrated that dairy cows need far less phosphorus in their diets than previously thought. Holterman, the Rosy-Lane farmer, says the finding personally saves him an estimated $50,000 per year in feed costs.

In 1995, Professor Milo Wiltbank created a timed artificial insemination protocol, known as Ovsynch, that has radically changed the way Wisconsin farmers manage cows. “It’s dramatically improved the 21-day pregnancy rates in the industry, by a good five percent, and each percentage point leads to a significant improvement in profitability,” says Paul Fricke, UW-Madison dairy science professor and UW-Extension dairy cattle reproduction specialist. “The numbers have just improved tremendously over time.”

Additionally, emeritus professor George Shook developed a new method to count somatic cells as an indicator of mastitis infection — information that has been incorporated into standard herd genetic improvement programs.

From his kitchen chair, Holterman reflects on a recent trip to a dairy conference in Ukraine, which he says has the richest farmland he’s ever seen but with nowhere near the education, research and development available to farmers in Wisconsin.

“We are still, by far, the most technologically advanced agricultural country in the world. We’re way ahead of everybody else,” he says. “And it’s because of the research that goes on at the university and the extension that gets it out so that people don’t just actually use it, they understand it better.”

Read more about UW-Madison dairy science projects.

Spruce up your space: UW Horticulture Society plant sale runs Sept. 18-20

Want to spice up a corner of your office or home? The Horticulture Society of UW-Madison will have what you need at their annual Fall Plant Sale fundraiser. This three-day event, which runs Sept. 18-20 this year, will have over 50 different varieties of plants for sale, with options to fit any space, budget or growing ability.

The inventory will include: indoor tropical plants, cacti, hanging baskets, orchids, succulents, bromeliads, (touch) sensitive plants, lucky bamboo, crotons, ferns, monkey tree, air plants, venus fly trap and living stones.

Student members of the Horticulture Society will be on hand to offer advice and answer questions about plant care.

Proceeds from the fundraiser are used to help defray costs of attending horticultural conferences and expos, obtaining speakers and supplies for meetings, scholarships for members studying horticulture abroad and field trips.

Sale hours are as follows:

  • Friday, Sept 18: 9 a.m. – 6 p.m.
  • Saturday, Sept 19: 10 a.m. – 6 p.m
  • Sunday, Sept. 20: 10 a.m. – 4 p.m. (or while supplies last)

Download the 2015_Plant_Sale_flyer.

The Fox, the Coyote­—and We Badgers

Once upon a time during the last few years, a red-haired girl new to the University of Wisconsin–Madison crested Bascom Hill and cast her eyes upon the cozy arrangement of buildings and lawns, the tree-lined city by the fair lake. Her nature and upbringing led her to think: Yes, this is good. I should meet the right boy here. I hope the food is good.

The UW–Madison campus is a well-worn locale for such scouting. Last year 31,676 prospective students scoped out dorms and classrooms. Hundreds of elite athletes measured the environment against their precise needs. Thousands more informal visits were made, all driven by the same question: Can I thrive here?

But our young visitor is in a new class altogether—wild members of the canid clan. As it happens, their food is quite good, and she—technically a vixen, or female fox—did find the right dog. After spending a winter holed up under Van Hise Hall, she gave birth to a litter of eight, and in early March of 2014 began to let the young kits gambol about.

They were a campus sensation—stopping lectures, cars and buses, inspiring a popular Tumblr blog, drawing hundreds of rapt spectators. Their appearance provided a fortuitous teachable moment for David Drake, a professor of forest and wildlife ecology and a UW–Extension wildlife specialist, who was just beginning to delve deeper into studying the foxes and coyotes of Madison.

Coyotes have been intermittent, if secretive, Madisonians for more than a decade. In the last few years reports of coyotes by visitors to Picnic Point have been rising, and people from the Lakeshore Nature Preserve asked Drake if he could investigate. But the rise of the urban fox population is a relatively new canine twist.

“It’s very timely,” says Dan Hirchert, urban wildlife specialist with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. While no comprehensive data have been collected, from where he sits foxes and coyotes are gaining throughout the state. And while the coyotes have been present for a couple of decades, the fortunes of the fox seem to be following the rise in urban chicken rearing.

Because most wildlife research happens in rural areas, we may not know as much as we think about our new neighbors. “Does what we’ve learned about these animals in the wild apply in urbanized settings?” asks Drake. Most major cities employ a forester, but very few cities have a wildlife biologist on staff. Much more common is the pest management paradigm: animal control.

“It doesn’t make any sense to me,” Drake says. “If 85 percent of Americans live in cities, why aren’t we doing more? That’s where people are interacting with wildlife.”


Drake’s team, including graduate student Marcus Mueller (pictured here), is trapping, tagging, releasing and tracking foxes and coyotes on campus and across the broader Madison area. In this photo, Mueller gently relocates a recently tagged (and still-sedated) fox to a more sheltered area near the Lakeshore Nature Preserve on campus. Photo by Jeff Miller/UW-Madison Communications. Top photo by E. Arti Wulandari.

These questions prompted Drake to found the UW Urban Canid Project, a hyperlocal study with far-reaching implications.

“The number of urban canid sightings on campus, primarily red fox and coyote, have been on the rise and have been met with mixed emotions from all different members of society,” notes Drake. “This research aims to understand more about the complex interactions between coyotes, foxes and humans in this urban area—as well as provide information and resources for residents to reduce the potential for conflict with these amazing creatures.”

Please continue reading this story on the Grow magazine website

Course inspires student to interview professor, dig deeper

And so it begins. The new academic year is upon us, with faculty and staff preparing to give their first lectures of the fall 2015 semester.

It’s a busy time, and also a wonderful time, a chance to connect with new—and returning—students. It is also a time to recognize how teaching inspires and how our students value what they learn.

As students prepare to return to the classrooms, we honor the tradition of teaching and learning by sharing the story – and the outcome – of a special interaction between one CALS student and her teacher.

Last fall, Claudio Roen, a student assistant in the CALS Office of External Relations, sat through her first lecture of Plants and Human Wellbeing, a course led by horticulture professor Irwin Goldman. She found it so enlightening that she asked her supervisor if she could interview Goldman about the course itself—and what excites Goldman about teaching it.


Roen, who graduated this past May with a bachelor’s degree in biology, put together this nice piece (copied below), which was published in the Summer 2015 issue of Grow magazine. This is just one of many examples across the CALS campus that highlights how professors inspire their students.

Here’s the article, in full:

Irwin Goldman, professor and chair of the Department of Horticulture, is an eminent researcher in vegetable breeding and genetics, with a particular interest in carrot, onion and table beet. His lab has bred numerous cultivars that have been used to make commercial hybrids grown by farmers all around the world. He and his laboratory currently hold more than 75 active germplasm licenses, some of which are handled through the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation.

But in spite of Goldman’s prowess in both research and administration—he has served CALS as an associate dean and a vice dean, and as interim dean some five years ago—teaching remains one of his greatest passions. “Our most important job in serving the public is to make sure our students can obtain what they came to the university to get: a top-notch education,” says Goldman. “I see this as one of the primary reasons for being placed here by the people of Wisconsin.” He brings that devotion to the many kinds of students he teaches: from the graduate students under his research wing and the horticulture majors he advises to undergraduates and other learners who may not be science majors at all.

And students clearly benefit from his dedication. Claudia Roen BS’15, until recently a student assistant in the CALS communication office, was a senior biology major last fall when she took Goldman’s class, “Plants and Human Wellbeing.” She found it so enlightening that she was moved to conduct the following interview to learn more about both a fascinating subject—and what excites Goldman about teaching it.

What inspired you to teach Plants and Human Wellbeing?

I have been desperate to teach this class for probably 10 years, and I love this material, but it hadn’t previously fit into any of the courses I was teaching. I remember very clearly one January day over winter break sitting at my dining room table reading about the spice trade—and thinking, if I don’t just say I’m going to do this and put this class together, it won’t happen.

At that moment I began to write a syllabus and presented it to the department with the hope of teaching it the following fall. That was a few Januarys ago.

What do you hope students will take away from this course?

The whole point is connecting to plants and plant-derived materials and asking, where does this come from? How does it serve us? It’s a way of thinking about the world. If you approach the world that way, it’s part of being an educated person.

For example, one topic covered in the course is aspirin. There are natural compounds in plants that serendipitously have these health-improving effects on humans. What did we do with that information? There’s an industry created around it, and what does that look like? We can apply these questions to a number of plants used in pharmaceuticals.

Or in another lecture we discussed the tale of Johnny Appleseed and the history of the apple in America. Afterward we sampled more than a dozen apple varieties. Partly it’s a gimmick, but for people who have only ever eaten a Red Delicious, it may be surprising to try something very different.

When I was 18 or 19 I lacked exposure to a lot of things. One of my professors brought in mate. In Argentina it’s like drinking coffee, but to me at the time, it was so exotic. I feel that if I can supplement the lessons with things to eat, things to try and taste, I can provide some exposure to the diversity of what’s out there.

Have you found that there is one topic in particular that seems to excite or engage the students?

The treatment of human beings in the production of food that we consider to be delicacies is probably the most important to them, and it’s the single most recurring topic that students write about in their reflection papers. And that’s a good sign—the fact that they have begun to think critically about food production in ways that may change their behavior or make them think differently about the world.

A good example is the lecture on chocolate, which I think for many students is the first time they had heard about chocolate production and the negative working conditions, essentially slavery, associated with it. It is remarkable to listen to a worker from the cacao plantations who toils all day to produce chocolate for the Western world but who has never tasted chocolate. We discussed chocolate cultivation and its importance in our society, sampled several varieties of chocolate, and watched a video that featured cocoa farmers in the Ivory Coast—which produces more cocoa than any country in the world—tasting chocolate for the first time after a lifetime of harvesting the crop.

Has teaching the class provided any surprising or unexpected lessons?

Regarding students, probably the most surprising thing for me is the tenderness—and I have to use that word—that people feel for plant materials. When you get them alone or uninhibited, it brings them to tears. At the end of the semester students are asked to present to the class something they’ve made from plant materials. Students have presented food, musical instruments, body lotions and more. They are deeply connected to certain things, and that comes across when they’re talking about something that is important to them, some dish that their mother makes. There’s something there that is very profound.

What kinds of students take the course?

I’ve had students from a wide range of backgrounds. People from Letters and Science, people from all over campus and beyond. I’ve had a handful of returning adult students, and I also had some senior auditors who were taking it because they thought it was an interesting subject that they could sit in on. It was a much wider array of students than I would typically have in a normal horticulture class.

People connect to this subject in different ways. Some people are interested in aromatherapy, or they’re interested in gardens—it’s a catch-all for all things that connect to plant materials.

How do you see this course as a reflection of the goals and the values of CALS?

A big part of our college’s mission has always been to make science and scientific knowledge accessible to a broad audience, and this course certainly accomplishes that. No prerequisites are required; it’s open to anyone who wants to explore the topic. Obviously a deeper understanding of how food is made and where it comes from is an integral part of CALS. CALS contains the whole spectrum, from the soil that we grow things in all the way to policy and legislation around food and everything in between—the genetics and the biochemistry involved in breeding and growing. I love that about CALS.

And the connection between plants and human wellbeing is a recurring theme across that spectrum.

What we study and teach in CALS often connects to outcomes that impact humans, and one of the most fundamental impacts we should consider is their wellbeing. In fact, I find that it may often guide some of our most important projects.

What are your hopes for the course, and where do you see it headed?

Up to now the course has been listed as a 375, meaning it’s an experimental course. When I presented the idea to the Department of Horticulture, I pledged to teach it for two years as an experimental course and if it worked out, I’d ask to make it a permanent number. Now I’m pleased to say that this course has been given the permanent number Horticulture 350, and it will be taught every fall semester.

Ultimately, I would like to make it available online or through some other medium—as a MOOC, perhaps—because I do think students and a wide range of other learners could get something out of this even if they weren’t in the room. I want to make it available to as many people as possible.

CALS researchers deploy insect ‘birth control’ to protect cranberries

It’s no fun being a male moth in one of Shawn Steffan’s cranberry research plots in central Wisconsin. When the time comes to mate, it’s tough to find a partner.

Here’s why: Using an approach known as pheromone-based mating disruption, Steffan and his team dot their test fields with hundreds of dollops of pheromone-infused wax — known as SPLAT for short — that give off the scent of female moths ready to mate.

The males can’t tell the difference between the pheromone plume emanating from the SPLAT versus the real thing — and many die before they are able to home in on a real partner.

“We throw a wrench into their communication system with lots of false plumes. In essence, it’s moth birth control,” explains Steffan, a UW-Madison College of Agricultural and Life Sciences professor of entomology and a USDA entomologist.

Joan's Fave IMG_3702

Shawn Steffan holding a jar of pheromone-infused wax known as SPLAT, and an unmanned aerial vehicle. Steffan is working to develop a much larger UAV system to deliver SPLAT to cranberry fields. Photo: Joan Fischer.

Wisconsin is the nation’s leading producer of cranberries, growing more fruit than all other states combined. Insect pests are a perennial problem, and while growers have insecticide sprays that largely do the job, Steffan notes, there’s room for improvement — especially in the interest of saving pollinators, including honeybees.

“One of the typical spray-timings for the cranberry fruitworm is when the adult moths are flying, which is right during bloom when the honey bees are out,” explains Steffan. “That’s one of the huge drivers behind pheromone-based mating disruption — to avoid spraying when pollinators are active.”

In addition to such environmental benefits, this approach could also have a major impact on growers’ bottom lines. By doing fewer pesticide applications, the state’s cranberries should have an easier time entering European and Asian markets, which have stricter rules about pesticide residue levels.

“Wisconsin fruit has sometimes failed to meet those standards,” says Steffan, “but mating disruption is poised to change that.”

Growers of all stripes are eager to get their hands on this new option, including organic growers, who need more pest control options. “This will give them a powerful new tool,” Steffan says.

To speed things along, Steffan and his team are hard at work trying to mechanize the application of SPLAT. They are particularly excited about the potential of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs, better known as drones) and are working with Brian Luck, a CALS/UW-Extension professor of biological systems engineering, to build the perfect UAV for the job.

Steffan’s team is also exploring reformulating the SPLAT recipe. It currently works against two of the state’s top three cranberry pests: the cranberry fruitworm and the blackheaded fireworm. But they want to go for the trifecta by adding the pheromone for the sparganathis fruitworm.

“I think this would be the first-ever three-species mating disruption blend,” says Steffan. “That’s what I dream about.”

CALS undergrads embrace summer internship experiences

Undergraduate students in the UW-Madison College of Agricultural and Life Sciences (CALS) participate in all kinds of “beyond the classroom” experiences during their time in college. In fact, it’s a hallmark of a CALS education. According to a recent National Survey of Student Engagement, 79 percent of CALS students complete an internship or field experience and 64 percent complete a mentored research project.

Summer is a particularly busy time for such experiences, with students taking on a variety of internships, jobs and volunteer experiences related to their areas of study. Below are highlighted two CALS students who are spending the summer interning at the university’s Arlington Agricultural Research Station.

“These internships provide valuable learning experiences and skills for CALS students. It’s when their classroom lessons are applied to real world situations,” says Arlington’s assistant superintendent Jeff Breuer, who helps oversee the station’s interns.

Theresa Shurn: From Milwaukee to the pasture

Theresa Shurn with her "boys."

Theresa Shurn with her “boys.” All photos by Sevie Kenyon, UW-Madison CALS.

Theresa Shurn calls the cattle “my boys,” and when she walks into the pasture, they curiously approach. Observing this casual interaction, you wouldn’t guess that Shurn, a senior majoring in animal sciences, is from the city of Milwaukee.

With a dream of becoming a veterinarian, specifically a big cat specialist at a zoo, Shurn knew her path at an early age. After an older brother attended UW-Madison, she decided to follow in his footsteps.

Now approaching her fifth year at the UW-Madison, Theresa is embracing the chance to learn outside of the classroom with an internship at the university’s Arlington Agricultural Research Station.

With guidance from postdoctoral researcher Christine Nieman and animal sciences professor Dan Schaefer, Shurn helps manage the cattle involved in a multi-year beef cattle grazing study conducted at the station.

The cattle are on a four-day rotation through a grid of eight pastures planted with a variety of tasty crops—Sudan grass, alfalfa, corn—for her 200 “boys.” Shurn helps manage the rotation by taking down and putting up fences, checking the water supply, testing the nutritional value of the crops during grazing, and working to maintain the overall care of the animals.

Troy Valle: Opportunities outside of the classroom spark new interests

Troy Valle with an insect trap.

Troy Valle with an insect trap.

Troy Valle works with equipment that varies from a standard one-gallon milk jug filled with antifreeze to a large, sophisticated instrument mounted on a metal pillar. Yet Valle, a junior majoring in microbiology and entomology, maneuvers around the objects and collects data like a pro.

Valle, who grew up in Germantown, is interning at the Arlington Agricultural Research Station, working on an insect monitoring project that sends him into the fields to gather data from three types of insect traps—a black light trap to monitor moths (done in conjunction with other research stations), a pheromone trap for western bean cutworm and an aphid trap.

Valle’s path from Germantown to the fields at Arlington began in microbiology. As a young student at UW-Madison, he participated in Undergraduate Research Scholars (URS), a program designed to enhance the academic experience of first- and second-year undergraduate students by enabling them to earn credit for participating in research with faculty and staff. Through the URS program, Valle ended up working on insect genetics and insect population genomics, which sparked an interest in entomology. He began taking entomology classes, and then opted to double major.

This summer’s internship represents yet another valuable experience, one that will help Valle decide the next steps along his promising academic and career path.

The new crop: Student organic seed enthusiasts gather in Madison this week

Future plant breeders from around the country are in town this week to talk about developing seeds for organic farming systems. About 32 graduate students have gathered to attend the fourth annual Student Organic Seed Symposium (SOSS), which runs Aug 9-12 in Madison.

While organic foods are popular among consumers, the organics segment remains a lonely field for future plant breeders. At many of the universities that offer graduate programs in plant breeding, there are only a handful of students focused on developing better varieties for organic farming systems. SOSS offers an opportunity for this widely dispersed group to gather.

“The conventional seed industry is very well stocked, and there’s a pipeline of students that go into the industry. But the organic seed industry is small and it’s just developing,” explains Irwin Goldman, professor and chair of the horticulture department.

Learning sessions at SOSS

The start of a learning session at this year’s SOSS. Banner photo: Participants visiting research fields at the West Madison Agricultural Research Station.

The theme of this year’s SOSS is “Growing the Organic Seed Spectrum: A Community Approach.” Attendees will participate in a variety of talks and tours, including visits to organic food and seed companies of various sizes and the West Madison Agricultural Research Station where they will observe—and taste—each other’s work in the field. They will also take part in an interactive chef-breeder workshop where local chefs prepare vegetable varieties bred by SOSS attendees and the group discusses how the upcoming generation of plant breeders can best serve regional culinary communities.

One of the major benefits of the symposium for graduate students is the opportunity to connect with other students, professional breeders and company representatives in the down time between scheduled activities. “We have a lot of one-on-one interaction during the symposium that you don’t necessarily get at other, larger conferences,” says UW-Madison horticulture graduate student Lynn Maher, one of the symposium organizers. “Those interactions lead to professional relationships and collaborations with other students.”

In addition to developing collaborations and a pipeline of talent, Goldman wants the symposium to serve the entire organic seed community. The students involved have been invaluable in that effort, he says.

“We’re serving a constituency that’s important in agriculture, and that’s part of our job,” explains Goldman. “We also have smart students who see the future in sustainability, and they push us, the faculty, to do more. This symposium represents a cohort of students from around the country who are pushing organic seeds forward.”

Eyes on the green: CALS scientists help Whistling Straits golf course get ready for the PGA Championship

Traveling around the windswept golf course called The Straits, with its massive greens of bentgrass and rumpled, horizon-bound fairways of fescue, it’s easy to see why course manager Michael Lee BS’87 would arrange to keep his own yardwork to a minimum.

“My lawn takes me 20 minutes,” says Lee. It’s a cool spring morning, and we’re bouncing his pickup around the stunning environs of The Straits, one of two Kohler Company 18-hole courses that comprise Whistling Straits on the shores of a steely-surfaced Lake Michigan in Haven, Wisconsin.

“I have mostly mulch and woody ornamentals,” Lee says of his home lawn. “Everything I have to do for weed control I can do while I mow my lawn.”

golf course

A scene from The Straits’ PGA Championship in 2010. Photo courtesy of Kohler Co. Banner photo: Whistling Straits course manager Michael Lee (blue jacket) talks turf pests with CALS/UW-Extension entomologist Chris Williamson on the fairway and on a putting green, with Lake Michigan at their backs. Photo by Wolfgang Hoffmann

This is in great contrast to the daunting challenge Lee faces in maintaining what has been deemed one of the country’s great championship golf courses.

And now the task has become almost herculean. The Straits, built and owned as part of The American Club by the Kohler Company, is hosting the prestigious PGA Championship this summer. From August 10 to 16, the eyes of the world will be on that course.

Though Lee will be toiling anonymously that week, guiding a staff of hundreds, his hard-earned skills as a golf course manager will be very much on display. Few, however, will truly understand what Lee and his staff do behind the scenes to maintain fairway and tee and rough and allow the television cameras to create what, in effect, is golf course art on our screens—sweeping vistas of perfectly tended dune and grass and emerald greens, with the big lake shining in the background.

But more than artful views are at stake. Lee, personable and easygoing and quick to smile, stands up well to pressure, those who know him say. And pressure there will be.

The PGA Championship, which dates back to 1916, is one of the most heralded events in golf. Each of the last two PGA Championships played at Whistling Straits, in 2004 and in 2010, drew upward of 300,000 people, and millions of households around the world tuned in to television broadcasts. The Wisconsin economy benefited to the tune of more than $76 million for each of the tournaments.

Lee is the first to say he could not shoulder the responsibilities of preparing The Straits for such worldwide scrutiny without plenty of help. And one of the places he counts on most for guidance in dealing with the course’s fussy turf is his alma mater, the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences at the University of Wisconsin–Madison—and, more specifically, the CALS-affiliated O.J. Noer Turfgrass Research and Education Facility, named for Oyvind Juul Noer, a CALS alumnus and one of the earliest internationally known turfgrass agronomists.

researchers on turf

A grid marks different treatments of turfgrass at the O.J. Noer Turfgrass Research and Education Facility. Whistling Straits’ Michael Lee (center) and other golf course clients meet regularly with UW-Madison CALS’ Bruce Schweiger (left) and Tom Schwab (right), O.J. Noer’s facility manager, to discuss options. Photo by Wolfgang Hoffmann

The facility, where scientists use tools ranging from high-powered microscopes to lawn mowers, opened in Verona, Wisconsin, in 1992 as a partnership between the Wisconsin Turfgrass Association, the University of Wisconsin Foundation, and the CALS-based Agricultural Research Stations.

Toiling in its maze of test plots, often on their hands and knees, are researchers who study everything from insects and soil to plant disease. For Lee, they are like a staff of doctors who can, at a moment’s notice, diagnose what is ailing a green or a fairway and prescribe a treatment. The Kohler Company (like many other golf course operators) contracts with the facility annually for these services.

Before and during the PGA championships, that role becomes even more crucial. The university specialists help Lee keep disease and insect problems at bay throughout the year. But in the weeks leading up to the championship they become his urgent care clinic, providing immediate help if something suspicious shows up. During the week of the championship they staff on-site, portable laboratories.

“We’re kind of at Mike’s beck and call,” says Bruce Schweiger BS’84, a CALS plant pathology researcher who serves as manager of the Turfgrass Diagnostics Lab housed at O.J. Noer. “If he calls, we’ll be there. We’re CSI Turf! That’s who we are.”

Continue reading this story in the Summer 2015 issue of Grow magazine.