Written by Anne Krapfl | Photos by Christopher Gannon
Sept. 12, 2023
Science with Practice personified
Written by Anne Krapfl | Photos by Christopher Gannon
- B.S., animal science, University of Wisconsin, River Falls
- M.S., animal production, Iowa State
- Ph.D., ruminant nutrition, Iowa State
Dahlke received the 2023 Award for Outstanding Achievement in Extension or Professional Practice.
Garland Dahlke's software is used by animal producers or extension specialists every day in every state. It takes some nudging for him to acknowledge that. Dahlke is an animal nutritionist for Extension and Outreach, specifically the Iowa Beef Center based in Kildee Hall. The Marshfield, Wisconsin, native also is a dairy farmer at heart, and he said his experiences from the farm -- such as experimenting with vegetable and cereal salvage feeds -- and a few years in feed sales supplement his ISU research projects and bolster his software applications.
Since 2003, Dahlke has developed about a dozen software programs, spreadsheets and calculators for Windows that measure or track an assortment of details about production animals but all with the same goal: Help producers improve their bottom line.
One of the most successful is the Beef Ration and Nutrition Decision Software (BRaNDS), for which he created two editions for different platforms, as well as versions for horses, sheep and goats. The software helps producers select specific feed rations for individual animals using competitively priced ingredients, resulting in healthier animals, lower production costs and quality, economically priced meat for consumers.
Servicing the BRaNDS' users and keeping it updated, based both on his research and producers' needs, is a big part of his job now. Every other year or so he finishes an update and hopes to release the next one this winter.
"Once they use it for a while, producers develop ideas about what they'd like, so they make suggestions for improvements, and I build it in for them. They're usually pretty good ideas," Dahlke said.
At their request, Dahlke worked with extension teams in nine states from Indiana to Montana to develop a state-specific BRaNDS for each, branded for their university and used by their clients. The feed library and weather data he selects are location-specific, and the extension professionals advise Dahlke on other data they'd like their BRaNDS to use.
If the model isn't working, he understands the science in a way he can fill in the gaps. That's why his software is unique and other states have adopted some of it.
A Dahlke product with worldwide use is his estrus synchronization planner, which gives cattle producers more control over the timing of the breeding and calving season. Previously offered locally as a $25 download, several years ago the International Association of Animal Breeders agreed to pay for updates if Iowa State offered it for free. So, Dahlke tweaks it a bit each year with updates from the National Beef Reproductive Task Force and sends the association an invoice for his time.
"It's in their interest to have it available to farmers who use artificial insemination for cattle," Dahlke explained. To date, the planner has more than 31,000 downloads worldwide.
Absent a Garland Dahlke, farmers could access this kind of help from a battery of private companies offering cloud-based and subscription-required services. But that's a different experience.
Since his return to Iowa State in 2003, Dahlke has fielded more than 17,000 phone calls from producers, most connected to the BRaNDS software and many from the Midwest.
"They all have extension field specialists who help them, but the software is what connects me to all of them," he said. And the callers respect his knowledge enough that what starts as a computer inquiry frequently ventures into another topic.
For example: "I have two feed guys telling me I should add this mineral or that mineral to my cattle feed. What do you think, Garland?"
Or: "I have a pen that's always under water. What can I do about that, Garland?"
Or: "There's more than 40 protocols available to get all my cows to conceive at the same time, but the literature doesn't take a stand on the most effective options. What's the best one Garland?"
Part of what makes Dahlke unique, according to animal science professor emeritus Dan Loy, are his kind interactions with producers who seek his help. Until his July retirement, Loy worked across the hall from Dahlke and heard one end of many of those 17,000 calls.
"He's always patient, always walks them through the solution like they're the only person in the world," Loy said.
But he also said Dahlke is unique among extension specialists because he "eliminates the back and forth" that normally would occur between researchers and programmers.
"He understands the science, but he also can dive into the [computer] models," Loy said. "If the model isn't working, he understands the science in a way he can fill in the gaps. That's why his software is unique and other states have adopted some of it."
Dahlke didn't set out to be a software applications specialist. He wasn't a teen computer gamer, in fact "quite the opposite." But when he arrived at Iowa State in 1991 for a master's program, the research assistantship offered to him involved developing software to determine the break-even point for raising pigs to their market weight. Thus began his programming education in the "school of hard knocks."
In 1994, his doctoral co-major professors asked him to update 1980s-era software for Iowa farmers that tracked the rations and growth of feedlot cattle. His update worked in ultrasound imaging of the animals for locations where that emerging technology was available.
Ph.D. in hand, Dahlke returned to Wisconsin to farm with his cousins. He hatched an early forerunner to BRaNDS for his family's use during those six years, and within a year of returning to Iowa State, he, Loy and animal science professor emeritus Daryl Strohbehn released the first version.