Agricultural research pays dividends that stretch far beyond the farm gate. One of the best examples happened 100 years ago when University of Wisconsin scientists were working a puzzle involving dairy cow diets.
Up to that point, most agricultural scientists thought that the optimal dairy diet consisted of the right balance of carbohydrates, proteins, fats and total calories. Farmers disagreed. They knew that some cows fed on supposedly balanced diets thrived while others fell ill.
"There was something missing," says David Nelson, emeritus professor of biochemistry at UW-Madison. "The farmers knew it; the scientists hadn't discovered it yet."
The missing ingredients turned out to be vitamins.
Nelson has taken the story of vitamins under his wing. The humble project that sent UW scientists of the early 1900s looking for the missing ingredients in dairy diets is a classic story of how agricultural problem-solving led to remarkable advances in human and animal nutrition, he says.
For example, the discovery of vitamins nearly eliminated rickets and pellagra from the world, diseases common as recently as the 1950s, Nelson points out.
A key figure in the vitamin story was Stephen Babcock, the first UW agricultural chemist. Babcock heeded farmers' worries that seemingly complete diets were not always enough for dairy cows. He set out to find out what was missing.
Babcock fed groups of heifers different sets of "balanced" diets. Some were based on corn, others on wheat or other grains. Corn-based diets produced healthy cows that birthed healthy calves. Cows on the other diets often had aborted or had malformed calves.