Skip to main content
ARS Home » Midwest Area » Madison, Wisconsin » U.S. Dairy Forage Research Center » Resources » New Research Dairy Updates

New Research Dairy Updates
headline bar

Planning the New Dairy at U.S. Dairy Forage Research Center

Dr. Dennis Hancock

Center Director

USDA-Agricultural Research Service’s U.S. Dairy Forage Research Center | Madison, WI

The planning phase for building the U.S. Dairy Forage Research Center’s (USDFRC) new research dairy in Prairie du Sac, WI is very nearly complete. Our team of USDA ARS personnel, UW faculty and staff, U.S. Army Core of Engineers, and a group of 15 external advisors have worked diligently with our Architectural and Engineering firm to design a world-class dairy research facility. In the coming months, we will be breaking ground on this new facility and expect a 30 to 36-month construction timeline. We anticipate that by the end of 2026, we will have several research units at a facility that can better replicate the conditions of modern dairy systems across the country and be a worthy successor to our current aging and outdated research facility.

The USDFRC’s new state-of-the-art research facility will provide our Scientists and staff the capability to replicate and study dairy productivity, forage management, and environmental impacts on systems that are more relevant to current dairy farms (Figure 1). One of the main modernizations is that we will have four replicated, 60-cow modules set up with automated milking systems (AMS) that we can study both free flow and “milk first” directed flow set ups. The design of the AMS modules will also allow us to precisely feed and monitor intake at the bunk and in the robots.

/ARSUserFiles/50901500/New Dairy/Figure 1. Site plan for U.S. Dairy Forage Research Center.png

Figure 1. Site plan for the U.S. Dairy Forage Research Center’s new research dairy. The buildings labeled in the figure include A) Visitor's Center, Administration, and Laboratory; B1) Animal Emissions Unit; B2) Advanced Animal Nutrition Unit; B3) Conventional Freestall Barn; B4) Milking Parlor; B5) Special Needs and Maternity Barn; B6) Robotic Freestall; B7) Calf Barn; B8) Agronomy Research; B9) Feed Mixing; B10) Feed Storage; B11) Shop, Pesticide, and Machine Storage; B12) Building Connectors (not labeled); B13) Milk House; B14) Fuel Storage; B15) Commodity Storage; C1) Liquid Waste Storage Facility Cells 1 and 2; C2) Solid Stack Building; C3) Solids/Sand Separation Facility; C4) Leachate Runoff Collection; E1) Existing Agronomy Machine Shed; and E2) Existing office and meeting rooms.

We will also have 20 pens of 8 cows to do replicated group-feeding trials in a conventional freestall system with capabilities of accommodating cows that range from the size of modern mature Holsteins to first-calf Jerseys. Another addition will be a state-of-the-art calf barn where we can extend our research into the earliest phases of the dairy cow’s life cycle. The new facilities will also have sophisticated emissions chambers where we can measure methane, ammonia, and other gaseous emissions from the cows under different rations and temperature and humidity levels.

We will also retain the capability to do advanced and highly controlled, individual-animal, ruminant nutrition trials using 48 tiestalls. Our existing heifer-rearing facilities will be retrofitted to become a pasture-based system with a goal of grazing 50% of the heifer’s annual DMI from 22 rotationally-grazed paddocks.

The new dairy will replace our current facility that is showing its age and is increasingly outdated (Figure 2). The old dairy was built in 1979-80 to assist the dairy industry that at that time had entered a revolutionary phase where the focus was on the intensification of forage production and maximization of the herd average. Researchers and Agricultural Experiment Station directors in several states in the North Central Region worked with Congress and USDA Agricultural Research Service (ARS) leadership to establish a federal research center in Wisconsin to help refine forage management and dairy nutrition recommendations to help the industry meet that challenge. But finding a site for a federal research dairy was challenging.

/ARSUserFiles/50901500/New Dairy/Figure 2. Current U.S. Dairy Forage Research Center Fam.png

Figure 2. The U.S. Dairy Forage Research Center’s current research dairy.

When the current dairy was built, the Badger Army Ammunition Plant (BAAP) was still actively producing munitions for the U.S. military, but it had approximately 1300 acres that could be cropped. Congress and ARS leadership established our current research dairy just off that installation. The U.S. Army granted the farm permission to crop land in the BAAP, but it was a safety and security risk to build a dairy on a military installation that built explosives. The only other site for the dairy was a parcel of federal land off the installation and across Wisconsin highway 78. This put our cropland over 4 miles away from the dairy and meant that our farm equipment must cross a busy state highway. Moreover, the greatest risks were that the dairy would be perilously close to the Wisconsin River. For example, the manure storage is ~750’ from the Wisconsin River and a couple of our barns are within 300’ of the river. Additionally, over 80 primary residences or vacation homes have been built within 1000’ of our dairy since the first cows moved into our dairy in 1980.

While the current research dairy has served its purpose well, we have many challenges keeping it running efficiently and in a manner that truly represents modern dairies in the U.S. The facility was built to accommodate 325 Holstein cows of the late 1970’s era (e.g., 1200-lb, 5 ½’ tall, etc.) that ate ~50 lbs of DM/d and gave 17,000 lbs of milk/year. Through superior selection and attention to efficiency, modern dairy cows are around 1600 lbs, eat 40% more, and give approximately twice as much milk. While our planning team looked at a massive renovation of the existing facilities, it was deemed too expensive and impractical, and it would still pose risks to the environment and sour relations with our neighbors and the local community.

We are excited to see this new research dairy’s architectural drawings. We are beginning to visualize just how revolutionary this new dairy’s capabilities will be for us. Though there is a lot of work that must be done between now and some time in 2026 when we actually start milking cows in this new facility, we already have several experiments in mind that we will be ready to start as soon as it opens. Look for more updates from our Dairy Forage team in the coming months.


Slides from the May 1, 2023 Public Meeting

This is the slide set that was presented at the 1 May meeting at the Culver Community Library in Sauk City. This slide set summarizes the plans to build the U.S. Dairy Forage Research Center’s new research dairy (S8046 US-12, Prairie Du Sac, WI 53578).