36 years of teaching good taste

Be sure to view this episode of WPT’s Wisconsin Life about a class that’s been taught for 36 years by Emeritus Professor of Food Science Bob Bradley. The sensory evaluation class trains students to be taste testers of dairy products. Students who have what Professor Bradley regards as “good buds” get to join in the team that competes nationally.

Climate change alters the cast of winter birds

Over the past two decades, the resident communities of birds that attend eastern North America’s backyard bird feeders in winter have quietly been remade, most likely as a result of a warming climate.

Carolina wrens, which have greatly expanded their wintering range, sit atop a snowman’s head. Photo: Michele Black/Cornell Lab of Ornithology

Carolina wrens, which have greatly expanded their wintering range, sit atop a snowman’s head. Photo: Michele Black/Cornell Lab of Ornithology

Writing this week in the journal Global Change Biology, University of Wisconsin-Madison wildlife biologists Benjamin Zuckerberg and Karine Princé document that once rare wintering bird species are now commonplace in the American Northeast.

Using more than two decades of data on 38 species of birds gathered by thousands of “citizen scientists” through the Cornell University Laboratory of Ornithology’s Project FeederWatch, the Wisconsin researchers show that birds typically found in more southerly regions are gradually pushing north, restructuring the communities of birds that spend their winters in northern latitudes.To the causal observer of backyard birds, the list of species becoming more common includes the readily familiar: cardinals, chipping sparrows and Carolina wrens. These birds and other warm-adapted species, according to Princé and Zuckerberg, have greatly expanded their wintering range in a warmer world, a change that may have untold consequences for North American ecosystems.

“Fifty years ago, cardinals were rare in the northeastern United States. Carolina wrens even more so,” explains Zuckerberg, a UW-Madison assistant professor of forest and wildlife ecology.

A mix of birds gather around a snow-covered bird feeder during a winter day. According to UW researchers, birds typically found in more southerly regions are gradually pushing north — a likely result of climate change. Photo: Martha Allen/Cornell Lab of Ornithology

A mix of birds gather around a snow-covered bird feeder during a winter day. According to UW researchers, birds typically found in more southerly regions are gradually pushing north — a likely result of climate change. Photo: Martha Allen/Cornell Lab of Ornithology

An estimated 53 million Americans maintain feeding stations near their homes, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, suggesting that increases in some species may be attributable to more readily available sources of food. However, that figure has remained constant, reflecting only a slight decline since 1991, indicating that environmental factors beyond the availability of food sources are at play.

The Wisconsin researchers measured the changes over time in the abundance of 38 bird species at feeders in eastern North America, specifically looking at the influence of changes in winter minimum temperature over a 22-year period on the flocks of birds that gather at backyard feeding stations.

“We conclude that a shifting winter climate has provided an opportunity for smaller, southerly distributed species to colonize new regions and promote the formation of unique winter bird assemblages throughout eastern North America,” Princé and Zuckerberg write in their Global Change Biology report.

“People will likely start seeing new species in their backyards,” says Princé, a UW-Madison postdoctoral fellow. “There can also be subtle changes in species abundance.”

The changes in the mix of overwintering bird species is occurring against a backdrop of milder winters with less snow, more variable and intense precipitation events, and a shorter snow season, overall. Climate models predict even warmer temperatures occurring over the next 100 years, with seasonal climate effects being the most pronounced in northern regions of the world.

“We’ve been able to document in past studies that species are shifting in response to climate change,” Zuckerberg says. “This study documents changes in the (winter bird) community structure. If you have a species coming into a new area, it can modify the composition of the community.”


A northern cardinal glides above a snowy landscape. “Birds have always been very good indicators of environmental change,” says UW-Madison wildlife biologist Benjamin Zuckerberg.

Photo: John Capella/Cornell Lab of Ornithology

Photo: John Capella/Cornell Lab of Ornithology

In any ecosystem, Zuckerberg notes, removing or introducing even a single species can have a cascade of ecological consequences, many of them unknown.

“These backyard birds are the canaries in the coal mine,” Zuckerberg says. “Birds have always been very good indicators of environmental change. Whenever you have a reshuffling of a community of species, you have less of a sense of what change is going to be.”

Princé notes that other environmental changes, such as the pervasive human impact on landscape, for example, may also be exerting an influence on the observed changes in the composition of birds attending winter feeding stations in eastern North America.

“Climate change should not be viewed as the sole driver of changes in winter bird communities, but this signal is a pretty strong one for climate change,” she explains. “The changes we document are so broad in scope that anything that is occurring at a local level is swamped out by the scale of this analysis.”

Educating the state’s winemakers

Ryan Prellwitz has a piece of advice for amateur winemakers who decide to scale up and make it a business. “Forget everything you learned as a home winemaker.

“It’s a tough transition to make, and you need to find someone with the right expertise who can help you take that next step,” says Prellwitz, president of the Wisconsin Grape Growers Association, who dabbled in winemaking before founding Vines and Rushes Winery in Ripon in 2012.

While Prellwitz chose to hire a private winemaking consultant, many new winery owners make the decision to try to go it alone. Soon, however, they’ll have another option: They’ll be able to call on a University of Wisconsin-Madison outreach specialist whose job is to support the state’s wine and hard apple cider industry. The position was recently funded by a Specialty Crop Block Grant through the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection.

“This person will work closely with the wine and cider producers in the state to improve the quality of their products,” says UW-Madison food science professor Jim Steele, who leads the university’s new Farm to Glass project.

Wisconsin now has about 110 wineries—up from 13 in 2000—and has been adding around a dozen new ones each year in recent years. Many of these operations could use some help, says Prellwitz. So could the state’s amateur winemakers, adds George Scovronski, a member and recent past president of the Wisconsin Vintners Association, an organization for serious winemaking hobbyists.

Prellwitz and Scovronski together came up with the idea for a university-based expert.

“We were asking ourselves, ‘How do we take the next step?’ How do we help winemakers improve their protocols and processes, resulting in a better end product?” says Prellwitz. “We came to the conclusion that what we really need is somebody who reaches out to wineries, who can work with them on an individual, per-problem basis, as well as on a continuing education basis.”

The idea struck a chord at CALS. Faculty in the food science and horticulture departments helped write the grant proposal, which included the offer of matching funds from the Wisconsin Grape Growers Association, the Wisconsin Vintners Association and the Wisconsin Winery Association.

The specialist will help operators of wineries and cider companies with microbial issues, cleaning and sanitation issues, protocol and equipment issues, and will train winemakers how to detect off-flavors and to address the underlying causes. The project will also give the industry access to UW labs and experts.

Farm to Glass fits nicely with the college’s effort to develop a fermented foods and beverages program through the food science department, Steele says. The idea is to bring together the college’s research, teaching and outreach efforts related to fermentation.

“There hasn’t been a lot of wine science in the state of Wisconsin, but there are lots of commonalities between wine, beer, cheese, sauerkraut, soy sauce—all of the things that make up this huge, dynamic fermentation industry that we have in the state,” says Steele, who hopes to have the new outreach specialist in place by January.

It can’t come too soon for Scovronski, who makes close to the legal limit of 200 gallons of wine each year to share with family and friends.

“I have a couple of things that are baffling me. I need this new outreach specialist right now,” he says.

Proven again: Badgers know their dairy cows

Cow-judging champ Laura Finley with her coaches, Brian Kelroy (right) and Chad Wethal.

Cow-judging champ Laura Finley with her coaches Brian Kelroy (left) and Chad Wethal.

Students from America’s Dairyland are the best in the nation at judging dairy cows. That was proven last week when the UW-Madison team swept the National Intercollegiate Dairy Judging Contest at World Dairy Expo. The UW students took first place as a team—for the 11th time—both in the overall competition and in reasons, the crucial part of the competition in which contestants explain their rationale for ranking the cows as they did. UW students also had the highest individual scores in both categories: Laura Finley (highest score overall) and teammate Cassie Endres (highest score for reasons). The champion team also included Mackenzie Cash and Mariah Fjarlie. The team was coached by Brian Kelroy and Chad Wethal, both UW team alumni.

Each participant in the contest judges 12 classes of four cows. For each class, the contestant has to rank the four cows from best to worst. They have to remember details about all 48 cows until the end of the event, when they meet with panels of judges to give the reasons for their rankings.

2014 Collegiate High Team-Madison

Members of the High Team at the 94th National Intercollegiate Dairy Cattle Judging Contest included (left to right) Brian Kelroy (coach), Laura Finley, Cassie Endres, Mackenzie Cash, Mariah Fjarlie and Chad Wethal (coach). Photo courtesy of Agri-Graphics.


By the numbers: A look at Wisconsin’s Latino population

Wisconsin’s Latino population is 74 percent larger and significantly more homegrown today than it was at the beginning of the century, according to a report by University of Wisconsin-Madison demographers.


Latino population growth by county, 2000–2010

The number of Latinos residing in Wisconsin increased from 193,000 to 336,000 between 2000 and 2010, and the share of them who were born in Wisconsin rose from 40 percent to 45 percent, according to the report by the UW-Madison’s Applied Population Laboratory. The share born outside the U.S. dropped from 40 percent to 36 percent, while the portion born in other states remained around 20 percent.

“In many rural counties, in-migration by Latinos has stemmed population declines…” 

Ninety percent of Wisconsin’s Latinos live in urban counties—37 percent in Milwaukee County alone—compared to about 70 percent of all Wisconsin residents, the report notes. But while relatively few Latinos live in rural areas, some of the highest rates of growth are occurring far from urban centers. In Trempealeau County the Latino population rose from 240 to 1,667, a six-fold increase. In Lafayette County it went from 92 to 522, a five-fold increase.

“In many rural counties, in-migration by Latinos has stemmed population declines and filled gaps in the labor market caused by young non-Hispanic whites moving out,” says David Long, one of the report’s authors.

The 58-page report, Latinos in Wisconsin, uses graphics and text to provide a statistical portrait of Latinos across the state, with details on factors such as income, employment, education, language proficiency, housing and health insurance. There’s also a companion set of Latino Population Briefs, one for every county.

“Most of the people who are doing community programming with Latinos, such as service providers and educators, are interested in local characteristics and trends,” Long says. “The county profiles offer a way to drill down a little deeper to a more local level.”

Population shares by age and sex, Wisconsin 2010

Population shares by age and sex, Wisconsin 2010


Among other findings in the report:

  • The age distribution of Latinos differs markedly from that of the state as a whole. While the biggest age groups in the general population consist of baby boomers—ages 46–64—the largest among Latinos are children under age 10.
  • Trends in education are in the right direction, but Latinos still lag behind the general population. “The estimated share of Latinos with less than a high school diploma declined from 45 percent to 40 percent, but that’s still four times greater than the share of the total population without a diploma,” Long notes.
  • Latinos make up 18 percent of the student population in the state’s urban school districts and 6 percent in both suburban and rural districts. The Delavan/Darien school district has the highest proportion of Latino students (44 percent), followed by Abbotsford (35 percent).
  • The poverty rate among Latinos is more than twice that of the overall population, and the median income for Latino households in 2010 was only 72 percent of that of all Wisconsin households. That’s a bigger gap than a decade ago, when Latino households’ income was 80 percent of that of all Wisconsin households.
  • Latinos comprise a growing share of the Wisconsin labor force and are particularly concentrated in service occupations, but unemployment rates among Latino men and women remain about 50 percent higher than for the population as a whole.
  • The share of Wisconsin Latinos who speak only Spanish or speak English “not well” declined from 21 percent to 17 percent, although absolute numbers in this category increased. About half of the state’s Latinos speak Spanish at home but speak English “well” or “very well,” while about a third speak only English at home.

Data in the report came for the 2010 census and the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey and various state agencies. Both reports are available online at www.apl.wisc.edu.

An amazing summer on “The Amazing Race”

Amy DeJong and Maya Warren had a truly epic summer, but they can’t tell you about it.

The UW-Madison food science grad students spent the month of June zipping around the globe as part of the cast of the 25th edition of The Amazing Race, the multi-Emmy Award winning CBS television reality show. Along the way, they competed against 10 other two-person teams in various mental and physical challenges, with the goal of beating their rivals to the final destination—and claiming the $1 million prize.

“A big part of being a scientist is being comfortable in situations with a lot of details and a lot of unknowns…Those things directly apply to the race.”

Suspense is a critical element of the show, so DeJong and Warren—like all of their fellow cast members—have to be very tight-lipped, at least for now. But one thing they can say: Their scientific training proved to be an asset.

“A big part of being a scientist is being comfortable in situations with a lot of details and a lot of unknowns, where you have to persevere. If an experiment fails, you have to keep trying,” says DeJong, who studies candy crystallization in the lab of food science professor Rich Hartel. “Those things directly apply to the race. You have to keep going. You can’t give up.”

It was Warren’s idea to try out for the race. She’s an avid fan of the show, and when she learned there would be auditions in Chicago last October, she brought it up in conversation in Hartel’s lab, where she studies the physical properties of ice cream. DeJong, who grew up in the suburbs of Chicago, was game.

The Amazing Race

Amy DeJong and Maya Warren. Photo courtesy of CBS.

“It sounded like such a unique, fun-sounding opportunity, so I said ‘why not’?” says DeJong.

Right from the start, Warren felt they had a good shot of making it onto the show.

“We weren’t the typical cookie-cutter couple,” says Warren, a native of St. Louis, Missouri. “We would bring something very different to the table.”

Her hunch was right. They were selected, but had to keep the fact largely a secret, only sharing information on a need-to-know basis. When they both took off in late May, most people thought they were heading off for normal, separate summer vacations.

Word got out on May 31, when the 2014 race launched and CBS revealed the identities of the cast members.

Fast-forward four weeks. When DeJong and Warren returned to campus, reentry was a little tough, particularly for Warren.

“I missed the thrill. I didn’t necessarily want to get back into the hustle and bustle of research,” she says. “But now it’s cool, and it was fun to see everybody’s excitement and to feel all of the support. People would stop us in the hallway to say ‘congratulations,’ and ask a bunch of questions that we couldn’t answer.”

Fortunately, it’s almost time to watch their adventure unfold. The season premier of The Amazing Race airs on Friday, Sept. 26 at 7 p.m. CST, with the finale in early December. DeJong and Warren’s team is named—and can be followed on Twitter using the hashtag—#SweetScientists.

DeJong plans to watch the premier with friends and family in Madison. Warren is hosting a “red carpet event” for around 60 family members at her parents’ home in St. Louis.

The following week, the food science department plans to throw a celebratory pizza party, where faculty, staff and students can (re)watch the premier alongside the new celebrities.

“It was an experience of a lifetime, and I hope it helps inspire other people to do the things they’ve always wanted to do,” says Warren. “The sky isn’t even the limit.”

The Amazing Race

Amy DeJong and Maya Warren (in magenta) among their fellow competitors. Photo courtesy of CBS.

Huffington Post: “Wisconsin students know their meat”

Don’t be surprised if the line at Bucky’s Butchery gets a little longer. The UW’s student-run retail meat shop wasn’t exactly a secret, but if it were, the secret got out. Last Wednesday it was the focus of an article in the Huffington Post titled Wisconsin Students Know Their Meat.

“The UW-Madison Meat Lab, which includes Bucky’s Butchery, its commercial butcher shop, is a farm-to-table operation in its truest sense,” writes  author Theresa McCullar. “Pork and lamb come to campus from the university’s farms 20 miles north of the city to be “harvested” (slaughtered), cut, processed, packaged and sold – almost completely by undergraduates – in the Meat Lab’s facility.”

UW-Madison isn’t the only land-grant school with a meat program. McCullar says. Wyoming, Texas, Iowa and Kansas—places with far more cattle and hogs—do too.

“What sets UW-Madison’s Meat Lab apart, however, is the school’s location in the state of Wisconsin – historically, a prominent destination for German immigrants, who brought to the Midwest their expertise in curing meats,” she points out.

Master Meat Crafter training program

Bucky”s Butchery manager Robby Weyker

But some menu items “speak to Madison’s present more than its past: lamb and pork chorizos, oxtail, and beef heart and tongue. [Store manager Robby] Weyker has discovered an unexpected subset of shoppers who flock to Bucky’s Butchery: graduate students and faculty members from South America, Asia and Europe. They request cuts of meat and offal that would be unfamiliar, if not unwanted, in typical American grocery stores.”

Bucky’s Butchery and the UW Meat Lab are located between the dairy barns and the white foot bridge crossing University Avenue (map available here). The store is open every Friday from 11 a.m.–3 p.m. It takes cash, checks and credit cards.

Sign up for emails to learn about Bucky’s Butchery’s weekly specials: meatlab@ansci.wisc.edu.

Want a greener office? Visit the Horticulture plant sale Sept. 19-21

Want to green up your office or living room? UW horticulture students will be ready to help at their fall plant sale, Sept. 19-21 at the Stock Pavilion. The UW-Madison Horticulture Society holds this event each year to raise funds for conferences, field trips and other club activities.

“This year’s plant sale will include over 1,300 plants and more than 50 different varieties,” says horticulture grad student Terri Theisen. The inventory will include indoor tropical plants, cacti, hanging baskets, orchids, succulents, bromeliads, sensitive plants, lucky bamboo, crotons, ferns, money tree, air plants, venus fly traps, living stones, plant care supplies, and much more.

It will be a busy week for the horticulture students. They’ll spend a couple of days before the sale taking delivery, arranging and pricing the plants. But “Friday, Saturday and Sunday will be where all the fun is: chatting to people about plants, matching people with the right plant for their needs,“ says Theisen.

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 to businesses in the green industry such as botanical gardens, wineries, CSAs and farms in Wisconsin and northern Illinois, Theisen adds.

Sale hours are as follows:

  • Friday, Sept 19: 9 a.m.–6 p.m.
  • Saturday, Sept 20: 10 a.m. – 6 p.m
  • Sunday, Sept. 21: 10 a.m. – 4 p.m (or while supplies last)

Download the plant sale flyer.

CALS plant breeders harvest feedback from local chefs, farmers and foodies to develop tastier veggies


Photo by M.L. Johnson/AP.

This past Wednesday, CALS plant breeders held the first of three summer field days for chefs, farmers and foodies to taste and provide feedback on vegetable and fruit varieties being improved for local restaurant and fresh market uses.

“I think it went well,” says organizer Julie Dawson, an assistant professor of horticulture and UW-Extension urban and regional food systems specialist. “We had about 35-40 people there who were all interested in the trials, and they asked good questions. The tasting was [so] popular, we ran out of score sheets.”

Dawson and her fellow CALS plant breeders will use the field day ratings and other feedback to help guide their breeding efforts, with the goal of developing improved vegetable and fruit varieties that Wisconsin farmers like to grow and that local chefs are excited to serve.

Reporter M.L Johnson from the AP also showed up at the field day and wrote a nice article describing the broader effort. Here’s an excerpt:

Participating chefs receive weekly deliveries of produce that they evaluate on a 5-point scale for qualities like sweetness and texture.

Dan Bonanno, the chef at A Pig in a Fur Coat, estimated he’s tasted 80 varieties of tomatoes — “I never knew there were so many different tomatoes” — since mid-July. For him, the big find has been a sweet corn bred to have a less sugary taste and firmer texture than most popular varieties.

“I ripped open the husk, took a bite, and it was like eating a pear,” Bonanno said. “It was so juicy … I’m like, wow, you can make a very nice sauce or gelato with it because it’s already naturally sweet and buttery and it had so much water.”

According to Dawson, 10 farmers have been participating in the project this summer by growing vegetable trials on their farms, and four chefs have been receiving—and offering feedback on—weekly produce deliveries. She’s looking for more participants for next year.

The next veggie-tasting field day is set for Monday, September 22 and will focus on beets, carrots, onions and tomatoes. The third and final one is on Tuesday, October 21st and will feature potatoes, winter squash and carrots. Both run from 3 – 5 p.m. at the West Madison Agricultural Research Station, 8502 Mineral Point Rd, Verona WI 53593, universitydisplaygardens.com.

On the track of not-so-sweet corn

You might wonder why Bill Tracy bothers to breed new varieties of sweet corn. It’s already unbelievably tender and crisp and supersweet. We just need more of what we’ve got, right?

Not really, says Tracy, chair of the UW-Madison agronomy department, who has been breeding sweet corn since the 1980s. There’s a lot of things besides sweetness to worry about. And in fact, sweetness is something a lot of people would like less of.


Bill Tracy’s sweet corn team is in the midst of harvesting and sorting what they’ve collected from variety trials at the West Madison and Arlington Ag Research Stations.

“Modern sweet corn has excellent eating quality, flavorful and tender​. We are always looking to make improvements to eating quality but the corn is probably sweet enough,” says Tracy. “We want to improve disease resistance, weed competitiveness, shelf life, and other traits to make it easier to grow and provide better more consistent quality for the consumers.”

“We are also looking at developing non-sweet vegetable corns for culinary uses. Many chefs and cooks feel modern sweet corn is too sweet for many recipes. In 2014, we began new efforts in developing non-sweet vegetable corns. We have gathered heirloom sugary sweet corns that are prized for their corny flavor. We have also searched world collections for starchy corns that have been bred for eating quality when harvested green. We have Chilean choclos that will be tested by chefs in Madison this summer and fall. Since Chile has a similar growing condition to Wisconsin the choclos are well adapted here.”

And the perfect ear of fresh corn is only part of the equation. Sweet corn processors have very different needs. Processing corns must be very disease resistant and high yielding (tons per acre).

“They must also have very high recovery—number of cases of product per ton, which is affected by kernel-to-cob ratio. Longer kernels and thinner cobs which equals higher recovery.

cornharvest2“They also cannot be too tender because they need to withstand mechanical harvesting and processing. Fresh corn sold through grocery stores needs long holding capacity or shelf life.”

Wisconsin ranks third in the nation for sweet corn production (Minnesota is first) and 13th for fresh corn (Florida is no. 1), according to the National Agricultural Statistics Service.