Dairy Nitrogen Cohort Challenge

Nitrogen is essential to our existence.  Nitrogen is transformed from its inert form in the air we breathe to building blocks that become amino acids or nucleic acids that comprise our genetic code.  The nitrogen cycle includes the incorporation of nitrogen into biological processes. Through mineralization, ammonium is cleaved. Nitrification occurs in the presence of oxygen as nitrite and nitrate are formed. Denitrification occurs in the absence of oxygen as nitrogen is returned to its inert form and is released to the atmosphere.  Once in the atmosphere, it awaits the opportunity to be re-incorporated through biological processes to organic nitrogen. At dairies, nitrogen is in plants the animals consume, the animals, animal products (milk, meat, and offspring) and their excrement (feces and urine).

Your challenge as a cohort of graduate students from multiple disciplines and institutions is to 1) characterize the nitrogen cycles within a dairy farm and 2) communicate your dairy nitrogen model to a lay audience, and 3) explore opportunities for optimizing beneficial nitrogen products.  This cohort challenge uses a dairy farm system to track nitrogen entering a farm in animal feed, fuel, or animals and exiting a farm in animal products (milk, meat or animals), as nitrogen emissions (ammonia, nitrous oxide, inert nitrogen), or manure. Dairy farms are a complex connection of nitrogen cycles producing both human edible proteins and nutrients from non-edible sources and emissions or unmanaged/lost nitrogen. How can you optimize while considering both human dietary contributions and local to global concerns related to natural resource management (soil, air and water qualities)?

Your cohort’s products will impact the decisions of dairy farmers, policy makers, and food supply chain companies investing in improving the sustainability of dairy systems.  Students will integrate your cohort’s products into a nationally acclaimed Virtual Dairy Farm (http://virtualfarm.psu.edu/). Students will interact with scientists as they explore the complex systems of a Dairy Nitrogen Challenge.

Who Is Leading This? This challenge is one of several challenges being planned for piloting during the fall of 2019 as a result of an NSF Funded project, “The INFEWS-ER: A Virtual Resource Center Enabling Graduate Innovations at the Nexus of Food, Energy, and Water Systems”.

Luis Rodriguez, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, is leading this Cohort Challenge.

For additional information contact: Deanne MeyerRick Koelsch, Rebecca Larson, or Eileen Fabian.


Dairy Nitrogen Cohort Course Schedule

Tentative Class Schedule:

The Dairy Cohort Challenge is expected to start October 1, 2019, include a face-to-face experience in March 2020, and conclude by May 1, 2020. Zoom workshops will be scheduled to accommodate as many students as possible.  They will be held weekly.


Today’s academic and business professionals are increasingly asked to address wicked challenges such as those at the nexus of food, energy, and water.  Successful professionals will need both the technical and power skills (interdisciplinary skills) critical to high performing and diverse teams needed for tackling these wicked challenges.

The course will develop young scientists capable of applying “team science” for engaging multiple disciplines in addressing a wicked food/energy/water (FEW) challenges. The cohort challenge will build analytical skills and critical thinking techniques applicable to the interface of dairy cattle and the environment using nitrogen as the connection to FEW challenges.

Course material will be delivered through synchronous and asynchronous activities.  Web meetings will provide synchronous learning. Near the conclusion of the Dairy Nitrogen cohort challenge, the cohort will assemble for a two to the three-day symposium for additional learning opportunities and finalize the proposed products resulting from this effort. Symposium travel expenses will be paid by the NSF project funding this development of a Transdisciplinary Model for graduated education around Food/Energy/Water challenges.

What are the Learning Outcomes?

Technical (Dairy Nitrogen) Outcomes

  • Students will develop a working knowledge of the complex connection of nitrogen cycling within a dairy system resulting in both production of human-edible products and transformation of nutrients from non-edible nitrogen sources, nitrogen use in soil, as well as nitrogen losses potentially associated with odors, greenhouse gases and organic compounds emitted to water resources.
  • Students will collaboratively map and communicate their dairy nitrogen model to a lay audience delivered through the Virtual Dairy Farm website developed by scientists involved in the Dairy Coordinated Agricultural Project (http://wpsudev2.vmhost.psu.edu/virtualfarm/explore)
  • Students will individually create an educational product (short video, 1-page fact sheet or other product) that delivers fundamental information appropriate for a lay audience on one topic or component of the Dairy Nitrogen Model.

Interdisciplinary or “Team Science” Outcomes:

  • Students will gain an understanding of concepts specific to Systems Thinking;
  • Students will communicate effectively across disciplines using visual mapping;
  • Students will apply principles of “High Performing Teams” in establishing their own interdisciplinary team;
  • Students will recognize the importance of engaging stakeholders and consider their perspectives

Final Product?

The cohort will develop a CV ready educational product that will added to the nationally acclaimed Virtual Dairy Farm (http://virtualfarm.psu.edu/). This virtual dairy farm USDA Dairy Coordinated Agricultural Project led by a land grant university team. The cohort will be asked to identify gaps in and create an educational product(s) for stakeholders associated with the spectrum from public policy to farmers.  Users of this educational product will be able to communicate: 1) important nitrogen flow pathways in a dairy system, 2) nitrogen losses from the system and potential impacts on the environment, 3) opportunities to improve management of nitrogen including potential for energy capture, and 4) opportunities to store nitrogen in the system to benefit the environment. The student cohort will demonstrate and communicate to others a working knowledge of nitrogen management in a dairy system.

Who is Leading This? A multi-disciplinary team of land grant university faculty are designing graduate student experiences to help students successfully contribute to team-based approaches for addressing these complex challenges. This team is funded by a National Science Foundation educational grant for developing unique educational opportunities for the next generation of professionals addressing Food/Energy/Water (FEW) challenges.  Our project was funded to create “The INFEWS-ER” A Virtual Resource Center Enabling Graduate Innovations at the Nexus of Food, Energy, and Water Systems.

The Dairy Cohort Challenge is one of several practicum experiences for engaging graduate students in experiences to apply both their technical and soft skills for addressing a wicked challenge. Deanne Meyer (University of California – Davis), Eileen Fabian (Penn State University), Becky Larson (University of Wisconsin), and Rick Koelsch (U of Nebraska) are providing leadership for the Dairy Cohort Challenge.

How Much Time Will I Commit as a speaker?  We are designing this to be roughly equivalent to a 3 credit hour course for those on a semester system (4.5 credit hours for those on a trimester system).  We encourage students to work with their advisor to build this into the student’s academic plans as a 3-credit hour special problems course.  A full course syllabus and description are available for documentation requirements.

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