FRANCISCO CONTRERAS, AGRICULTURE OUTREACH SPECIALIST

Born in Mexico City and raised in Chavez, Mexico, Francisco Contreras initially entered higher education with the inspiration to work as veterinarian. He excelled in agriculture and later earned a degree in agriculture with an emphasis on dairy animals.

I grew up in Mexico, the Northern part of Mexico, which is bordered by Texas. The closest border I would say is Eagle Pass Texas. Before I came here I was working in Mexico at a research institution. Like the ARS here—the agricultural service here—the equivalent in Mexico. I was working for fifteen years there, doing research there, basically working with dairy cows too, and goats. Yeah, that’s what got me interested. And working with crops. 

My first interest was to be a veterinarian. When I finished high school, the condition of the university was at a point where I couldn’t go into the vet school, so I choose agricultural. But at some point agricultural with emphasis on animal sciences.

The official name of my is position is outreach specialist. I’m working in the, what we call, the “feed efficiency project.” This is a multi-estate project that was granted by the USDA and the National Institute for Food and Agriculture, for five years. So basically this includes seven universities, like Wisconsin is one of those, Iowa, Michigan, Florida, uh, North Carolina, Netherlands. Part of the goals of this project  is to create a database with the information about genotype and phenotype in 8,000 cows, lactating cows. So basically my position is to collect those data and give it to the scientists. Then they are gonna put all this—in addition to  collecting this data we are taking—also, blood samples for DNA. So these scientists, or faculty, they’re gonna put together the phenotype and the genotype and data and try to identify genes correlated with the feed efficiency of lactating cows. And that’s a part of the research. This grant also has a extension component and education component, so I’m working also in the extension component. Trying to distribute…um… keep telling people more about the importance of feed efficiency of lactating cows.

Dairy cows have been bred to produce more milk. So in the course of twenty years cows are producing more milk, but also they are getting taller and weighing more. So probably twenty years ago, where the average cow would weigh probably 1400 pounds, right now some cows are weighing, at the farm like 2,000 pounds. So in addition to producing more milk, cows are eating more, but also growing more–taller and weighing. So what we try to do in this project, with this database, is try to select cows that are more efficient. Produce equal or more milk , without eating more. So they are more efficient in the feed that they are eating. See we don’t need to have monster cows to produce more milk. We can have our regular medium size cows, producing a lot of milk, with less feed. If we give less feed to the cow, also we have less wasting of nutrients to the soil to the environment.

Some days it’s working just in the office. I get data from the other trials and then just organizing this data, put it in the spreadsheet and then at some point when they have all the complete data, I send it to the person in Michigan State where they collect all this data and analyze it, do some kind of statistical analysis. But on regular days, I work in this data, organizing this data, putting it in the… ( hand motion referring to repetition). I do some calculations, like if the information is in pounds I pass it to kilograms, because we need it in kilograms. If meat production is in pounds, I pass kilograms. At some point, this information–we submit it to the meetings for presentations and posters. So I need to start working on that or write manuscripts for publication. That’s part of my daily job.

It’s different activities during the week. Some days I need to go to the farm. There are two places here in Wisconsin: one is Arlington, one is in Prairie Du Sac. We collect feed samples from the farm. When  I’m not in the office, for example, let’s say Thursdays, I go to my office  around seven in the morning. I stay there checking my email, doing some computer work. And then around 8 AM, I go  to the farm, Arlington, about forty five minutes. Then we weigh the cows. It takes about an hour. Take some milk samples, go with those milk samples to the lab to drop the samples there for analysis, and then come back to my office.

I usually try to work with a purpose. So I try to have my calendar so I can say, “I can do this, this day, and this, this day.” And, “why do I need to do that?” So I try to keep track of what I’m doing every day. I usually try to be responsible at my job. The main point is that the more precise the information the information that we get from these cows, at some point in the future it’s gonna be more important for people, for producers.

The main goal of these databases that we are creating with the university–all of us are creating this to try to select these cows that are more efficient. So at some point, the more precise information, the better  it’s gonna be in the future for the farmers to select cows that can produce more with about the same amount of feed. And that’s very important, to keep doing that. So my motivation is: keep the dairy industry in business, and try  to be more efficient  in producing milk, without polluting the  environment. So we can feed the cows, with less pollution to the environment. That’s one of my interests and goals.

I’m not directly tied to producers, not with me, but with faculty from the university, yes. In fact, in February we gave some seminars around the state, here in Wisconsin. We went to different counties to give talks about the efficiency of dairy cows, how to improve the efficiency of dairy cows, and to present some results that we got from a survey. We were three speakers in that seminar. I was talking about a survey that we sent, three years ago, to all the farmers. Most of the  producers in Wisconsin, I mean it’s not much, about 900 producers in Wisconsin, and also some producers in Michigan. So I was a part of getting those results and then there was another professor talking about nutrition, and another professor talking about the different tools to be more efficient.

The information I gave to the farmers was to say, “We send the surveys to you, you send us the results, this is what you are doing! This is what you are doing in terms of the nutrition, of grouping cows, and how you are feeding your cows.” So basically we gave them the picture of what some of the farmers are doing and what we think they should improve. The other two professors were talking more about a specific point of how they can improve managing the cows, and nutrition of the cows. These more “efficient cows” are producing more methane, and other nitrates into the soil. So at some point you select cows that are more efficient you are gonna have more methane production, which is gonna have an impact on the environment with all these greenhouse emissions. 

There were farmers very interested to try to do better. So definitely the farmers, at least in Wisconsin, and I think in other states also. They are interested in how they can do better. So this information, at some point, is gonna give them some kind of  decisions to use as tools to work better on the farm. Usually it is recommended that dairy farmers group cows based on the nutritional needs of the cows. And based on the results we got back from the survey, not all the farmers are grouping in that way. They are grouping in another aspect or some of the farmers are not grouping for any specific reason.

The long term of this project is gonna be for all the dairy industry. At some point all this information is gonna be available for all farmers and companies to select bulls for more efficient cows. The benefit is not just gonna be Wisconsin, it’s gonna be all the dairy industry, in all of the U.S., and probably, at some point, the world. Its when you bring the information to them when they say, “oh my God! What’s gonna happen? What can I do better?” But at some point they keep doing there routine of their regular day. We have some farmers stuck in their traditional ways and some farmers that are progressive.

With just going one day to give this seminar, it’s not enough to keep in touch with the farmers. I think that, at some point, is important. I would try to be more in touch with the farmers. Try to do more, one by one, with the information. Visit the farmers, learn what they are doing, learn what they are thinking, and then try to keep…planting a seed in  the farmers mind, and try to keep in touch with them so we  get more data. Just keep doing it and bring it to them. I think that’s a way I would modify it a little bit, if I keep doing this work.

Since I finished my bachelors degree, I wanted to be a scientist. So I have been blessed to keep working in science for a long time. Trying to transfer this science to the farmers is my goal. I feel at some point blessed that I keep doing what I want to do in my life. Probably not too much money, at some point, I’m not rich, but I keep doing what I want to do. So I am at the point where I wake up and I still don’t say “ooh, I gotta go to work,” as if it was a burden. I wake  up in the morning and say, “Let’s go to work!” My philosophy is, if you can move, retirement for what? Keep doing what you want to do, that’s the retirement.

Working with science you realize how important small details are, and you learn a lot from specific issues. So I think at some point, it gives you a different perspective of things that happen in the world. For example, how the cow produces milk. Probably you never think about how the cow produce milk. You don’t see all the work that is behind that glass of milk. You just go to the fridge here, and get the milk and drink the milk, and say oh it’s good. But when you go to the farm and see the science in dealing with trying to improve the efficiency of the cow—because it is a very complicated system inside the cow—you can realize that when you drink the milk. So to me, you appreciate more  of the effort of the farmers and all with what they are  doing. This is why I’m doing research, so they can do better.

I try to mention this, as much as I can, to the people; all the work, for example, behind a glass of milk, so being a farmer everyday, and feeding the cows and trying to do good management, to produce the milk or cheese, or product that is in our food. You don’t realize the hard work, in the winter, when everything freezes.There are no breaks, like Christmas breaks, for farmers.

— Monisha Freeman