It’s a crisp fall day as Augusta Hagen drives south of Monroe, Wisconsin into Illinois. Mahon Farms Dairy is just across the state line in Winslow and sits amid a landscape of cornfields and fall foliage, punctuated with wind turbines. The dairy farm is a mix of old and new buildings, sheds and barns, as well as rows of silage in their long, white tube-shaped bags. A biting wind rushes over the open areas, bringing promise that winter is on the way. Hagen, a dairy nutrition consultant, stands with herdsman Don Gilbertson and the two talk like old friends.
The two are in fact old friends. Hagen is from the area and knows many of the local farmers. Hagen and Gilbertson fret over important details like ration mixes, feed particle size, protein and starch levels, and manure consistency. These feed and nutrition details make all the difference, Hagen explains. They all help optimize milk production.
The consulting session really is a two-way street for them. Hagen knows her company’s feed mixes and nutrition science and Gilbertson, who also used to work in the feed industry, is the one interacting with the cows every day.
“Those girls out there are more like my family to me than anything,” says Gilbertson. “I am able to keep track of generations, see cows’ great, great, great grandchildren. I can see the genetics carry through them. This farm has come a long way with nutrition science.”
Mahon Farms is a well-kept operation of 150 cows. While the farm has been around since the 1940s and is currently owned by Gary and Deb Mahon, one thing becomes apparent when you’re there — it takes a village to run a dairy.
On any given day, dairy farms across the country host a multitude of visitors. Nutritionists, agronomists, veterinarians and other consultants bring in outside expertise and also serve as a sounding board for new ideas or a second opinion.
Hagen, at 25 years old, is not the first person you’d expect to be doling out advice to farmers who have been in the industry for multiple generations. But, Hagen has had the benefit of a unique education. She spent her graduate career immersed in both hands-on training and scientific research projects — thanks to the UW-Madison Department of Dairy Science and its strong relationship with her employer, Vita Plus.
Vita Plus is primarily a livestock feed company. The company markets feed products and services to dairies across all eight upper Midwest states, where 370 employees together with their reselling partners service the feed needs of about 350,000 cows.
The company was founded in Fitchburg in 1948. Several years later, it moved to its current plant location on West Badger Road in Madison. Today, the corporate headquarters is just a block away from the plant on Fish Hatchery Road. From the get-go, says Vita Plus vice president, Al Schultz, the company was built to not just compete in the dairy feed field, but to push it further. “The name ‘Vita’ means ‘life’ in Latin and the ‘Plus’ part was [about] more than just sustaining life, but optimal production of meat, milk and eggs. It was saying, ‘We’re not just feeding [animals] to keep them alive,’” he says.
Vita Plus’ founding idea — that vitamin and mineral fortification could boost animal health and productivity — wasn’t common practice in the 1940s and today it serves to push the company to constantly strive to be ahead of the field. That drive places a premium on research and education, as the company seeks state-of-the-art approaches to developing and using feed.
Schultz himself has benefitted from Vita Plus’ commitment to education, obtaining his Ph.D. from the UW-Madison dairy science department in 1991 while also leading the company in his current role. Seeing the benefit of continued education, Schultz helped found the UW Dairy Science/Vita Plus Master’s Degree Fellowship, an opportunity that offers an undergraduate student the chance to pursue a master’s degree in dairy science while the company pays their tuition and employs them part-time.
“We see a need for trained nutrition staff that may not necessarily want to go on into research and get a Ph.D.,” Shultz says. “There wasn’t much funding for master’s candidates who didn’t want to go on to a Ph.D. and do basic research, so Vita Plus stepped in and said we would fund a graduate student who is going to get a master’s degree with an emphasis on the practical aspects of dairy nutrition and the science behind it.”
Hagen obtained her master’s degree through the Vita Plus fellowship in 2012. She also did a research internship with Vita Plus as an undergraduate. She says the work was “a good way for me to get a better handle on the science and have a better appreciation for how much work it takes to research something.”
The fellowship is just one part of a robust and mutually beneficial relationship with the UW-Madison’s Department of Dairy Science. Schultz says the company’s close ties to the university serve as “an opportunity for consultation with UW staff on an ongoing basis.” Vita Plus employees often help lead lectures in the department, or participate in dairy judging and Dairy Challenge competitions. The result is a lot of discussions, e-mails and conversations about problems in the industry and opportunities to collaborate.
Kent Weigel, chair of the UW-Madison dairy science department, says the relationship is advantageous to both parties. “Our long and mutually beneficial relationship with Vita Plus is a perfect example of the Wisconsin Idea. It extends the borders of our animal nutrition and dairy management laboratories well beyond the boundaries of this campus or its research stations, and together we solve practical problems and enrich the lives of Wisconsin dairy farm families.”
“It’s a world-class group,” Schultz agrees. “So for us to be able to continue to tap into that knowledge base is important. Besides, that’s the pool where our future employees are going to come from.”
Nick Uglow, a dairy specialist with Vita Plus, is one of those employees. A UW-Madison graduate with bachelor’s degrees in dairy science and agricultural journalism, Uglow’s consultant position includes working closely with dairy farmers to build rations based on examining forages, reviewing herd records, walking facilities and troubleshooting farm challenges that may stand in the way of performance and profitability. The UW-Madison connection, he says, makes that job a lot easier.
“If there is any sort of question that I have on one of my customer’s farms or a dairy I’m prospecting, I feel I can reach out to UW faculty like Randy Shaver or Dave Combs, who are very approachable on answering any questions. We also have our technical staff in the Madison office who have a close relationship with the university.”
Building relationships with students that don’t end upon their graduation is a rewarding experience, says Randy Shaver. Shaver, a UW-Madison dairy science professor, has seen four of his students move on to jobs with Vita Plus. “In our students, both graduate and undergraduate, I try to plant the seed for curiosity, active and life-long learning, critical thinking, creativity and problem solving. This really seems to fit in well with the approach at Vita Plus.”
“When I was in school,” Uglow says, “if you had told me I would be in the nutrition field, I would have laughed.” But all that changed when he enrolled in Dairy Science 535, the undergraduate capstone class. It gave him the opportunity to get out on especially progressive farms and see how the care for cows was transitioning. Uglow says it was “exciting,” and he knew then that he wanted a job in an industry that’s “ever-evolving.” If Uglow’s laughing today, it’s only because he’s on a career path he never imagined to be so progressive back in college.
Like Uglow, Cindy Cooper stumbled across her love for dairy nutrition back in the UW-Madison dairy science department. For Cooper, it was professor Ric Grummer’s formulation class. “That was when I felt my interest growing in working in the dairy nutrition field,” she says. The department led her to join the dairy judging team and other clubs, as well as work to hone her speaking and presentation skills. “And all those real life experiences,” she says, “were a huge part of getting me ready for my career.”
Today, Cooper serves as a formulation and nutrition specialist, a sort of feed alchemist, processing the countless orders that come in from the company’s producer customers as well as other feed dealers and co-ops. “We are the central hub for all the formulation requests from all the Vita Plus locations,” she explains. Her workspace indicates what a big job that is — Cooper’s desk and any adjacent clear space is filled with piles of organized papers, each stack a list of amounts and ratios carefully calibrated to provide the perfect mixture of grains, feed, minerals and supplements to the customer.
While orders from dairy cows make up the bulk of her work, on any given day Cooper could be building feed recipes for beef, chickens, goats or the occasional alpaca. “Some days can get quite hectic,” Cooper admits. But, she says, she loves working one-on-one with a customer to formulate a feed order specific to their needs — a recipe that will help them provide the best nutrition possible for their stock.
“What sets us apart from our competition,” says Schultz, “is the quality of our staff helping to work with producers on both their nutrition programs as well as overall herd management.” Farmers don’t pay any consultant fees, he notes. That service just comes with the feed order. Consultants like Augusta Hagen drop by to make sure that Vita Plus is connecting what academics and industry leaders are studying to what is working for farmers in the field.
The Mahons and their dairy managers would be the first tell you that it’s this focus on people that keeps them coming back to Vita Plus. Back on their farm, Hagen and Gilbertson have gone inside for coffee and to escape the wind in order to continue their consultation about feed rations. Mid-conversation, rain droplets begin to hit the windows.
“Stop it!” yells Gilbertson at the clouds. “Come back tonight. It better not be raining … I have things to do.”
Killing time, he then begins to discuss the farm’s 18-year relationship with Vita Plus, with Hagen being his third consultant during that time span.
“My philosophy is I’m not looking elsewhere [at other companies] because I’m satisfied and happy with the product and nutritional advice I’m getting,” he says. “Vita Plus gives me the flexibility I need to use my own products and theirs together. That’s a kind of relationship you don’t get elsewhere.”
After the rain, the pair finishes the visit with forage sampling and a walk by the cows as they eat. Hagen bends forward to take a handful of feed, inspecting it, and again comments on the particle size.
“Cows are picky,” she says. “If the particle size isn’t just right, they’ll only pick out and eat what they want to, leaving important nutrients behind.”
In essence, the company that provides this mid-sized dairy with its feed rations is also able to help them with all aspects of their business, tapping into a sixty-year history of experience and the world-class science being done by the UW-Madison Department of Dairy Science.
“The only problem is the cows haven’t read the diet requirements to know what exactly they should eat in the ration,” Gilbertson says with a laugh as he pets one of his cows on her nose.