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Five 40-under-40 winners discuss the industry’s future

PD Editor Walt Cooley Published on 17 January 2014

The following individuals were among the finalists selected last year for the 40 Under 40 in Agriculture Awards. More than 200 individuals were nominated for the award, and the winners were chosen based on their leadership and commitment to advancing the cause to double food production by 2050.

We asked a few of the winners who have ties to the dairy industry to talk about their current work and their thoughts on global milk and food production at the start of 2014.



Todd Bilby

Todd Bilby
Dairy Technical Services Manager
Merck Animal Health

Jude Capper

Jude Capper
Livestock Sustainability Consultancy

Jeff DeFrain


Jeff DeFrain
Research Nutritionist
Zinpro Research and Nutritional Services

Mark Lyons

Mark Lyons
Vice President of Corporate Affairs

Emily Meridith

Emily Meredith
Communications Director
Animal Agriculture Alliance

What projects or research will you be working on this year? How will that work influence global food production?


BILBY: My projects will continue to focus on pursuing strategies to improve both fertility and health in the modern-day dairy cow. I will be doing additional research to evaluate opportunities to improve reproductive efficiency on commercial dairies.

Through both on-farm consultation and multiple research initiatives, numerous new approaches will be implemented this year to improve both calf and cow health. By improving both health and reproduction, we will reduce our carbon footprint and increase our food production globally, allowing us to meet global food supply needs by the year 2050.

CAPPER: I am focusing on both the dairy and beef industries to assess how on-farm management practices affect sustainability. For example, if more dairy producers use sexed semen, how does that affect resource use, carbon footprint and economic impact per unit of milk?

My current projects have a global focus. I’m currently working with data from South America and will be examining Australia and Europe to assess sustainability gains that can be made within specific regions. I believe that to feed the world we need to embrace global opportunities for improving productivity.

DEFRAIN: This year, I have focused on publishing some research on feed efficiency and a piece on claw lesions in dairy cattle. Feed cost is the single-largest cost of producing milk.

Altering trace mineral nutrition to improve animal health (i.e., reduce lameness, improve reproductive performance, reduce SCC) allows dairy cattle to direct more nutrients to milk production and less to maintenance and immune function. This ultimately yields improvements in feed efficiency and reduces the cost per hundredweight of milk.

LYONS: My primary focus area is China, where I have been based since January 2012. We have put together a program we call China Now, where we are working on initiatives that will help China to feed itself. We have started five research alliances with local universities and will sign two more in the next six months.

These alliances are focused on helping China become more agriculturally productive and connecting the country with the outside world. We have started work on a Dairy Farming Institute to open in August 2014. A reference point for Chinese dairy operations, the institute will have global significance as a training and teaching institute co-located with 12,000 dairy cows in northern China.

MEREDITH: There’s never a dull moment here at the alliance because we have the privilege and responsibility of representing such a broad and diverse industry.

This year I’ll continue to monitor what activist and other detractor groups are up to, correct misinformation and proactively engage audiences in those same spaces. I’m really passionate about trying to connect the consumer with their food supply, so I’m always trying to find new and inventive ways to converse with audiences outside of agriculture.

What do you believe are the challenges to advancing milk production in order to double the food supply by 2050?

BILBY: I believe our greatest challenges are fivefold. First, we must overcome the obstacle of negative consumer perceptions about modern agricultural production practices. Second, we must resist pressure from retailers to change current production practices or inhibit the use of approved technology to create niche marketing opportunities.

Third, we must address environmental pitfalls (such as water quantity and quality), improve manure management and overcome reduced crop availability due to a lack of available land, unforeseen weather-related events or turning our food into fuel.

Fourth, we must overcome legislation backed by activist groups to end or severely inhibit current production agricultural practices. Finally, we must stem the continually tightening restrictions for FDA approval of new technologies.

CAPPER: One of our biggest challenges is public perception. Regardless of the science behind a particular management practice or technology, if the public won’t accept it, we are unable to use it. We’ve seen this trend with rbST-free milk, lean finely textured beef or “pink slime” and increasingly with the prevalence of “antibiotic-free” or “hormone-free” claims.

We can make amazing gains in milk yield per cow, which reduces both environmental impact and keeps milk affordable to the consumer, but as an industry we need to be better at communicating why we do what we do in order to maintain public acceptance of dairy products.

DEFRAIN: Identifying and recruiting highly motivated young people into this industry who possess the love, passion, cow-sense and work ethic required to manage dairy cattle. I constantly find myself bumping into young people who are often unaware of the diversity of careers available in this industry and how rewarding it can be.

LYONS: From the production side, I believe we have to go back to the crop level to improve soil nutrition, which can enhance the nutrient value of our grains as well as the level of productivity of our crops. Secondly, we must improve the welfare and nutrition of our dairy herds by optimizing what makes a dairy cow so unique. Balancing rumen function means we will optimize productivity.

MEREDITH: I’m one of the award winners who’s not a producer, so I have a unique answer to this question. For me, I think the way we feed the world is by providing people with options.

There’s a market for everyone, and ag’s biggest challenge is finding a way to work together for the industry without making false claims, using misinformation or fear to differentiate products in the marketplace. We also need to work on communicating “outside” the ag bubble and forming meaningful relationships with our true stakeholders.

What role model or leader has inspired you and your career?

BILBY: Without a doubt, the professor for my Ph.D., Dr. Bill Thatcher, instilled in me a passion for improving dairy production through science and critical thinking that knows no bounds. In addition, I am thankful for my parents, Ross and Cheryl Bilby, who did not have the same opportunities to pursue an advanced education as they provided for both my brother and me.

They realized the importance of a proper education, continually encouraged us to seek knowledge and also promoted a strong work ethic and other core values that have certainly brought me to where I am today.

CAPPER: My first boss in the U.S. was Dr. Dale E. Bauman at Cornell University. I am so incredibly honored and proud to have had the opportunity to work with him and, more importantly, learn from him, both in terms of gaining knowledge and leading by example.

Dale approaches research with the most amazing combination of scientific inquiry, practical animal knowledge and public awareness of any scientist that I have met or worked with. The contributions he has made to the dairy industry are second to none. He is a great inspiration to all who know him.

DEFRAIN: My grandfather, Howard DeFrain, who started our family’s dairy in southeast Nebraska; my father, Rex, who taught me how to feed and manage dairy cattle at a young age; and my uncle Dennis DeFrain, who also obtained a doctorate degree after growing up on the family dairy. I also give credit to 4-H and FFA, as I think about programs that gave me a solid foundation for working and achieving.

LYONS: My first role model is the first VP of Alltech, a man I called “Uncle Bill.” Bill Cheek quickly taught me the importance of relationships and treating people fairly. The next role model is no surprise. I have worked closely with my father, Dr. Pearse Lyons, throughout my life, starting to travel with him on business trips from the age of 9.

He has given me my space to develop while always offering advice and ideas of what he would do. My final role model would be Jim Drysdale, Alltech’s second customer, who has built more than 23 breweries around the world. He helped me significantly in Sao Pedro, where we built the largest yeast plant in the world.

MEREDITH: I’ve been blessed with so many mentors in this industry, people who I admire and look up to. As someone who did not come from a “typical” agriculture background, I’m immensely grateful to my supervisor at the USDA – Carol Blake – for taking a chance on a journalism student at George Washington University.

I still admire Carol’s positivity, calmness under pressure and dedication. And … without Carol and my other supervisors at the USDA, I never would have fallen in love with the agriculture industry and be doing the job I am today. Trust me, I wasn’t always the easiest intern.

What advances do you hope to see the U.S. dairy industry make by the end of your career in about three decades?

BILBY: I hope the dairy industry continues to make advances in technology that will allow us to manage the cow on an individual basis versus at the pen or herd level. I would like to see the dairy industry continue to find ways to advance animal genetics that improve herd health and well-being as well as identify strategies to utilize pharmaceuticals in a more targeted approach.

Lastly, I would like to see the dairy industry come together with other ag industries to educate our youth in a more mainstream fashion about where and how our food is produced.

CAPPER: In 2010, the world record-breaking cow produced more than 72,000 pounds of milk in one lactation – that’s more than three times the yield of the average cow, so we have the potential to go a long way in improving productivity.

If every cow gave us that much milk and we could maintain excellent health, welfare and fertility, the dairy industry of the future would be golden. On a more realistic level, I’d like to see a highly successful industry with producers engaging with consumers so they valued the many nutritional benefits of dairy products – and understood that soy, almond or rice juices are not milk.

DEFRAIN: On the global side, I hope we can achieve incredible advancements in global distribution networks of dairy products. We produce such an amazingly wholesome and nutritious product. I hope and pray milk produced here in the U.S. can reach parts of the globe it has never touched before in the next 30 years.

On the cow side, I think the adoption and implementation of individual animal activity and health monitors along with “smartphone” technologies will be beyond my imagination. Some of these technologies will allow us to detect subclinical disease upon onset or even before it affects animal performance.

LYONS: I believe the most important thing we can achieve within the food industry is understanding each other from one end of the food chain to the other. If we approve the nutrition and welfare of animals, and take care of our land, we will end up with better-quality and more valuable products to supply to much more satisfied customers.

We need to be open to innovations that will improve the wellness of our animals, benefit the producer and consumer alike, and reduce the impact agriculture will have on our land. I don’t think that the 2050 challenge is any different, and I have no doubt that we will find new ways to enhance not only the products we produce, but the land on which we produce it.

MEREDITH: The dairy industry in the U.S. is truly a model for the rest of the world in terms of sustainability and food safety. There’s no doubt in my mind that as an American I’m blessed with the safest and most affordable milk, and milk products, in the world.

In the next three decades, I hope our dairy farmers can help those around the world adopt similar models, not only to reduce the global environmental impact of animal agriculture, but also to help ensure that people around the world have access to safe, and affordable, milk. We need to share our knowledge to end hunger and feed the world by 2050. PD

Walt Cooley

Walt Cooley
Progressive Dairyman