For the past 12 years, Kurt Vogel, PhD, associate professor of livestock welfare and behavior at the University of Wisconsin - River Falls (UWRF) in the Department of Animal and Food Science has kept his eye on the ball and not wavered from pushing toward one goal while achieving many others in the process. When he first started his career in academia, he aspired to work toward bridging the gap between the meat industry and academia. After joining UWRF as an assistant professor of livestock welfare and behavior in 2011, Vogel committed to mentoring undergraduate and graduate students, which played a big part in his academic and career path.

Having grown up working on his family’s dairy farm, his work ethic and preference for working directly alongside students in the university’s meat lab and processing livestock in the on-campus meat plant are part of what he enjoys most in his role at UWRF. He wears many hats in his current role and one of those is a hardhat as part of the protective equipment required to demonstrate and teach students about meat processing procedures, from livestock handling to further processing.

Ryley Rehnelt, an alum of UWRF, is the meat lab manager, a role he has held for about three years. He employs about 20 undergraduate students at the plant, which he points out is one of the highest-paying student jobs on campus and a great way for them to learn many skills. He works closely with Vogel in the plant, almost on a daily basis.

“He’s my boss, but he’s not above doing any job and treats us as equals,” Rehnelt said.

Animal welfare background

It’s no surprise that for Vogel, who earned his PhD working under Temple Grandin, PhD, professor of animal science at Colorado State University, researching and teaching with a focus on animal welfare is a passion and a lifetime commitment. And, like Grandin, Vogel stays engaged with the meat processing industry through research and consulting projects while continuing to teach and lead students and growing his corner of UWRF’s College of Agriculture, Food and Environmental Sciences.

A recent example was in late 2022, UWRF announced the launch of the Humane Handling Institute (HHI), which Vogel championed by submitting a proposal for funding from the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection’s (DATCP’s) Meat Development Program. The DATCP approved funding totaling $525,000 to support HHI. Vogel serves as the director of the institute, which has a mission to develop skills specific to the industry’s humane handlers, stunner operators and maintenance workers through a certification program that includes a series of five educational workshops.

Earlier in the year, Vogel also led the development of another program designed to promote meat science as an educational and career path for high school students in Wisconsin. Part of $5 million in funding assistance from the DATCP’s Meat Talent Development Program, the high school curriculum was developed by a team of Vogel’s students and led by Hannah Olsen, a graduate student at UWRF.

Working alongside Vogel, Olsen, a second-year graduate research assistant, is leading the development of curriculum designed for teaching high school students about the meat processing industry by promoting meat science as an educational path that can lead to a wide array of fulfilling careers. The program is a four-module, 10-hour meat science curriculum. It includes: an introduction and history of meat science; details of transitioning livestock muscles to meat cuts; meat processing, which includes two labs; and an overview of the variety of careers in the meat industry. Olsen pointed out that the two labs that are part of the meat processing module focus first on jerky production followed by fresh bratwurst processing.

The majority of the grant is earmarked to pay for 100 lab kits to be given to 100 high schools in Wisconsin that are approved through the university’s grant program. Each approved school will receive equipment that includes a meat grinder, sausage stuffer and a dehydrating system as well as smaller tools such as knives, cut-resistant gloves, disposable gloves and seasonings needed to complete the processing labs.

“We have 14 schools that will be pilot testing the program,” said Olsen, and they received the content for their curriculum in early February and plan to be rolling out the program this year and providing feedback to Olsen before the final curriculum is made available to 100 schools.

The hope is for the concept to be picked up by other school districts outside of Wisconsin, and based on recent inquiries from educators in Iowa, Minnesota and the East Coast, that may very well come to fruition.

UWFR 2.jpgEmma Hamilton, an undergraduate research assistant working in the Animal Welfare Lab, collects data as part of a research project on captive bolt stunning. (Source: University of Wisconsin River Falls)


Industry ties

Soon after Vogel joined UWRF in 2011, his relationships in the meat industry and his reputation for working with Grandin began to benefit the university, including the animal welfare consulting work he took on.

At that time, Oscar Mayer officials were working with Vogel to explore alternatives to using gestation stalls for hogs, which was becoming a hot-button issue in the pork industry.

“I was doing some consulting with them at a time when they were just dipping their toe into the animal welfare space,” said Vogel.

During those interactions, the company expressed interest in taking more steps to enhance its animal welfare efforts. Vogel’s recommendation was for Oscar Mayer to invest resources in university programs that were developing opportunities for the industry’s next generation of animal welfare and quality assurance professionals. A key part of that support would be providing seed money to facilitate grants and grow a viable program with an academic partner, Vogel pointed out.

“They thought that was a really good idea so I helped them kind of lay that out; what it would look like,” he said.

Soon thereafter Vogel hosted Oscar Mayer officials on a visit to UWRF, during which he was given good news by the director of quality assurance at that time, Tricia White.

At one point during that visit, Vogel got some game-changing news from White.

“‘I want you to know that we’re going to give the money for the program you described; just to you,’” Vogel recalled, which was a huge windfall for the university and ultimately was the birth of what would become UWRF’s Animal Welfare Lab.

“That was pretty impactful,” he said, “that was our start.”

Early on, farm animal welfare was the focus of the new initiative, which initially included a summer internship program sponsored by Oscar Mayer that produced a handful of career industry professionals. Since 2012, UWRF’s Animal Welfare Lab has served as a unique academic hub for undergraduate research, teaching demonstrations, and animal welfare judging and assessment. In 2014, as part of the partnership, Vogel was named the Kraft Foods/Oscar Mayer faculty scholar and UWRF’s Animal Science program welcomed the expansion of the existing animal welfare cours : Animal Welfare (ANSC 115) as a required course for animal science majors and added a new course: Quantitative Animal Welfare Assessment (ANSC 415).

In 2016, Vogel was promoted to associate professor of Livestock Welfare and Behavior. He continued to teach and found himself doing more consulting work in the industry, much of it coming from referrals from Grandin at CSU.

UWFR 3 Joel 2.jpgKurt Vogel, a previous graduate student of Dr. Temple Grandin's when he earned his PhD at Colorado State University, was recently interviewed for a documentary about her lifelong contributions to the meat industry and the autism community. (Source: Joel Crews/Sosland Publishing Company)


Academic pivot

And then the pandemic struck, causing a slowdown in activity at all universities, including UWRF, and hindering access to meat plants, where outside visitors were widely seen as unnecessary risks to the well-being of workers. It was then that Kate Creutzinger was hired to work with UWRF to conduct and oversee research at the Animal Welfare Lab as part of a state-funded program called the Dairy Innovation Hub.

“Her position is a co-op with UW-Madison that’s focused on applied research that will benefit the dairy industry. She was hired specifically for her expertise in behavior and welfare, which makes me very happy because she’s trained in other species as well,” Vogel said.

Hiring Creutzinger was somewhat of a tipping point for how the Animal Welfare Lab would evolve because it provided the program with the research bandwidth it needed. While the majority of her work is focused on dairy research it also overlaps into other areas within the department.

After the pandemic, as life returned to normal, research projects began ramping back up, including a substantial USDA grant that was awarded to Vogel’s team to research captive bolt euthanasia (which is led by Karly Anderson, a co-op PhD student who is co-advised by Vogel and Ruth Woiwode, PhD, at the University of Nebraska, another former graduate student of Grandin’s).

HHI conception

Then, in January of 2022, Vogel’s colleague at the university told him about a program announced by Wisconsin Governor Tony Evers that would provide $5 million as part of the American Rescue Plan Act to fund programming for meat talent development t

“I had this idea bouncing around in the back of my head for years that the industry needed a training center for humane handling,” Vogel said. “We didn’t have that, and we needed that.”

He envisioned a university-based program designated to train workers at meat processing plants who work in livestock handling, and coach them up and develop their skills. Vogel reached out to officials at DATCP who were responsible for dispersing the funding for the program and pitched them on the idea of creating a training center to teach workers in the industry about the specifics of live animal handling, proper stunning, determining insensibility, sticking etc. He said the premise for the training differed from that offered by the Professional Animal Auditor Certification Organization (PAACO), which is intended to certify animal welfare auditors.

“That’s a massive difference,” Vogel said of the distinction between training for animal auditors versus live animal handlers in plants, “because you can’t get into the same kind of hands-on application that we need for the folks who are working on the front lines.”

When he first pitched the idea to DATCP officials in February 2022, they quickly recognized how valuable it would be to the industry. They shared their support for the idea with the state meat inspection bureau, where the consensus was loud and clear.

Vogel remembered the feedback was, “That is the right person at the right time, and we need to do this,” and the enthusiasm for moving forward spread to the secretary of agriculture’s office and beyond. Vogel and his team put together a formal proposal detailing the specifics of how the Humane Handling Institute would work, which was submitted to the state in April 2022.

“Initially we asked for funding just to get the HHI running,” including salary support, investments in equipment and tools, educational material and other basic items. After signing off on that part of the program, DATCP officials came back to Vogel and his team to help identify who would most benefit from the HHI training that had been proposed.

Knowing there are approximately 120 slaughter facilities across the state of Wisconsin, Vogel said, “I told them that we needed to have at least one person out of every plant trained through this program. Their response was ‘I think we should make it two,’” which was an eye-popping surprise to those on Vogel’s side of the table.

The grant request was quickly adjusted to reflect the request of the state officials to provide additional funding for the tuition reimbursement cost for a total of 240 people to go through the program, to ensure every plant in the state could have two frontline workers trained. After the proposal was approved, funding allocation to UWRF began June 1, 2022. Vogel said that commitment represented a “transformative” investment, as the grant supports the HHI through the end of 2024.

While the initial focus of the talks with DATCP was on the creation of the HHI, state officials made it clear that there was also an opportunity to develop programming to educate younger people about career opportunities available in the meat industry. This led to another idea being pitched to create high school curriculum focused on meat science, as part of a campaign led by Arquimides Reyes, PhD, an assistant professor of animal science at UWRF’s who also is committed to developing beef industry leaders for the future.

The total funding that was awarded from the state was over $600,000, including $80,000 for the high school meat science curriculum and the remaining $520,000-plus earmarked for the HHI. The good news was made public in October 2022 and soon thereafter, Vogel hired a former student of his, Ashlynn Kirk, as the program manager for the newly minted program. Kirk earned her bachelor’s degree in animal science at UWRF and had recently earned a master’s in animal biology at the University of California, Davis.

She said the decision to move back to River Falls for the this opportunity was an easy one. Her plate is full as the HHI program consists of five different two-and-a-half day workshops covering the following topics:

  • Animal welfare (on-farm through transport)
  • Livestock receiving and lairage
  • Humane restraint and stunning
  • Stunning equipment operation
  • Building a robust, systematic approach to animal welfare

In late February, Kirk, along with Abby Tomandl, Kelsey Kuehni, and Nathan Garvey - student employees at the UWRF Meat Lab - began pilot testing the curriculum for the workshop titled “Building a Robust Systematic Approach to Animal Welfare.”

To prepare for the stunning part of the training, Kirk recently ordered mannequin-like livestock animal heads of several species, designed to be used for training.

“They are life-size model heads that have a removable top, allowing for a reusable brain canister to be placed inside for stunning practice,” she said. “They will be used to help teach people how to use a captive bolt,” she said.

For the training, the plan is to construct several different types of restrainer models and position the training heads in the restrainers to simulate real-world stunning scenarios without worrying about a live animal possibly suffering during a session.

“It totally takes the pressure off the person learning so they can focus,” Vogel said, “and if they make mistakes, we can coach them more effectively.”

With Vogel at the helm, animal welfare research, teaching, training and advancing the awareness of its importance is a significant priority at UWRF.

“It’s an exciting time to be here,” Vogel said, who at the age of 38 has already achieved so much in terms of bridging the gap between industry and education.

“It’s not uncommon to sit down with this team and see peoples’ eyes well up with tears at times because what we’re doing here really matters,” Vogel said.

He attributes the accomplishments at UWRF largely to the faculty and students who share his passion and excitement for the work being done with an optimistic outlook.

“It feels like we might be on to something,” he said.