University of Wisconsin Dairy Barn

University of Wisconsin Dairy Barn with cows
Photo by UW–Madison Archives

The first barn in the country to be designated as a National Historic Landmark, in 2005, was built on the west side of the University of Wisconsin–Madison campus in 1898. The Dairy Barn, 1915 Linden Drive, was designed by architect J.T.W. Jennings of Chicago. Its style was based on barns that could be seen in Normandy, France, at the time. The Dairy Barn was unique because it had a basement and three floors, plus a cylindrical silo with a water tank above it. The round silo, a common sight on today’s farms, was an experiment then. A ramp on the outside of the building leading up to the third floor permitted hay to be hauled by horses to the top floor and then dropped down to the cows below. Other sections that were part of the original Dairy Barn included two livestock barns set perpendicular and attached to the rear of the main barn and a classroom/livestock judging arena between the two livestock barns. Much to the public’s amazement, the Dairy Barn was lighted with electricity.

Dean William A. Henry noted about the Dairy Barn, “Our agricultural college now has a dairy barn, which is worthy in some measure of the great dairy industry pursued by our people, and in the room devoted to stock judging, we have the comfortable quarters so much needed by the students of the agricultural college.”

Photo courtesy of UW–Madison Archives

After 1909, three more additions were made to the Dairy Barn. Even though the original structure has been altered over the years, the exterior still looks very much like it did during the first half of the 20th century, the period of significance that gives the building its landmark status. The Dairy Barn was the site of numerous research projects and teaching demonstrations intended to support Wisconsin dairy farmers between 1898 and 1954. Staff at the university applied scientific research and methodologies to practical problems of dairy farmers, leading to many discoveries that were applicable to other fields.

Prior to the Civil War, wheat was an important cash crop for Wisconsin’s settlers. Between 1840 and 1880, Wisconsin was considered “America’s breadbasket” because one-sixth of the wheat grown in the nation came from the state. However, wheat production ran its course because of soil exhaustion due to lack of crop rotation, diseases, insect infestations, and declining wheat prices. Beginning in the mid-19th century, dairying began to be the best alternative to wheat. Dairy farming was picked up by German and Scandinavian immigrants to Wisconsin. Its popularity was aided by efforts of William D. Hoard, a future Wisconsin governor and a Yankee from New York, where dairy was the leading industry. Hoard tirelessly promoted the dairy industry for nearly 50 years. In addition, the agricultural college played an active role in encouraging dairy farming throughout the southern part of the state. By 1899, more than 90 percent of Wisconsin farms raised dairy cows. By 1915, Wisconsin had become the leading dairy state in the nation, producing more butter and cheese than any other state.

One of the most important scientific experiments conducted in the Dairy Barn was the single-grain experiment. This cattle feeding study, conducted between 1907 and 1911, was championed by Stephen M. Babcock, who earlier had developed a test for determining the butterfat content of milk. The outcome of the feeding study showed that other factors (vitamins and minerals as yet undiscovered) were essential for good health, and helped lay the foundation for the science of nutrition.

Photo courtesy of UW–Madison Archives

The Dairy Barn played a role in research and education directed at safeguarding the health of Wisconsin’s cattle. Perhaps one of the most significant applications was the teaching of testing techniques for bovine tuberculosis, resulting in the eradication of the disease. Other useful scientific methods researched, tested, and/or taught at the Dairy Barn include selective breeding of cattle, tracking cattle pedigrees, and knowledge advancement in artificial insemination. All of this research was instrumental to Wisconsin’s rapid adoption of dairy farming in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, bringing about its reputation as “America’s Dairyland.”

Dairy farming in Wisconsin continues to have a greater presence on the rural landscape today and plays a larger role in the state’s current agricultural economy. Of the $88.3 billion impact that Wisconsin agriculture has on its overall economy, dairy accounts for nearly half of that total with a contribution of $43.4 billion, according to the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board.

Over the years, the Dairy Barn has housed not only dairy cows, but beef cattle, bulls, sheep, pigs, poultry, and now horses for both research, teaching, and extension activities. The Dairy Barn is still used by the Animal Sciences department within the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences (CALS) today. Each fall semester, Professor John Parrish teaches a course in reproductive physiology. A group of three or four students has a cow they are required to manage via hormonal injections to be able to artificially inseminate her. If that breeding process is not successful, the students breed the animal when she is naturally in heat. An ultrasound exam is used to determine if the cow is pregnant. Fifteen to twenty-five cows are housed in the Dairy Barn for this hands-on class.

The Dairy Barn is the only place on campus where students can observe the cattle’s natural behavior and safely perform the breeding procedures. The Animal Sciences department spends approximately $12,000 each year to provide animals and give students access to those animals for the semester.

Photo courtesy of Wisconsin Trust for Historic Preservation, 2005

In the spring, Professor Parrish teaches equine reproductive management. Six mares and two stallions are housed in the Dairy Barn at that time. Students learn mare evaluation, artificial insemination, and hormonal treatment. With the stallions, Professor Parrish teaches semen collection, evaluation, packaging and shipping, and male breeding evaluation.

Another spring semester class is taught by Equine Extension Specialist Liv Sandberg. During her equine business & management class, students learn about appropriate health care, facilities, feeding management, diseases, vaccinations, biosecurity on a farm, and horse genetics. Guest speakers are brought in so students can learn about a variety of avenues for making income from horses. A live camera has been mounted on the Dairy Barn so anyone can observe the animals. To view the cows or horses, go to .

Today, the mission of the Dairy Science Department and Department of Animal Sciences is to discover, develop, and disseminate knowledge. While the Dairy Science department focuses on dairy-related activities, the Department of Animal Sciences focuses on all livestock species. The departments are internationally recognized for progressive research and educational programs. The Dairy Barn stands as a witness to those missions and as a tribute to the scientists and scholars of the past—those who believed they could improve the livelihoods of Wisconsin’s dairy and livestock farmers by providing research-based knowledge that could be used to improve those industries.

Jeanne Engle is a freelance writer.