UW Vet Lab

A state budget investment of about $10 million in the UW veterinary lab stands to give a boost to Barron and Wisconsin’s agricultural industry as a whole.

The funding in the 2021-23 biennial budget will enable a 4,000 square foot expansion and remodel of the existing 5,600 square foot Wisconsin Veterinary Diagnostic Lab in Barron.

Lab director Keith Poulson said increasing testing capacity at the lab will mean hiring of new positions and could also enable growth in the ag industry.

Barron’s lab is one of two in the state—the other is in Madison—and it primarily services the poultry industry, namely Jennie-O Turkey Store and Pilgrim’s Pride, both of which have facilities in western Wisconsin and Minnesota.

Poulson said having efficient testing is essential when it comes to processing and shipping animal products, so the lab expansion is a big help for that industry.

Should a viral disease outbreak occur, the lab’s services become critical.

“The last time we had to deal with this was in 2015 when we had the highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) outbreak infect Wisconsin flocks,” said Poulson. “We ended up having to transport samples to Madison to be tested via the State Patrol, which slowed the testing process.”

Though State Patrol officers can drive pretty fast to Madison, the process kept birds waiting on trucks.

“Diagnostic testing is critically important to effectively manage disease outbreaks in food producing animals to keep the production cycle moving,” said Poulson.

But the lab’s work goes beyond chickens and turkeys.

It offers full service pathology on anything from cows and horses to dogs and cats.

Pathogens in sheep and goats are tested there.

Testing of milk cultures and liquid calf feed products is done in Barron.

The lab also does testing for equine infectious anemia. Known as a Coggins Test, a horse must test negative before it can cross state lines to go to shows, for example.

Poulson said this type of testing at the Barron lab has doubled in each of the past 3 years.

“I could see us adding a position just for that type of testing,” he said.

Poulson anticipates adding two or three positions, and possibly more in the next few years.

“With the ability to deploy more types of tests for Wisconsin poultry and veterinarians, we are expecting the caseload to continue the growth we have seen over the past few years,” said Poulson.

The lab currently has 12 employees, but not that much office space.

“Currently, we have staff sharing janitorial closets for desk space,” said Poulson. “They need space to have a desk and a room that we can all fit to have lab wide meetings.”

Poulson said he is hoping to see the expansion happen by 2023, and then for the renovation of the old space to be complete by 2025.

“The building was built in 1991 and is essentially a cinder block walled ranch home with residential HVAC,” he said. “The facility is not up to biological safety code to run high complexity diagnostic testing. The most notable changes will be a complete overhaul to the HVAC for lab safety and quality, addition of a biological safety level 3 laboratory, adding space for staff to work and meet as a group, and addition of a drive thru for specimen drop off.”

Poulson said that they were fortunate to get funding in this budget cycle, because the final details of the expansion proposal came together a bit last-minute.

He said local legislators Sen. Janet Bewley, Rep. Dave Armstrong and others helped in getting it included in the budget.

“It’s a relatively easy sell when it comes to supporting Wisconsin ag,” he said.

Poulson said the funding amount was approximately $10 million and could change as the project moves to the next phase, depending on design and construction costs and other variables.

The UW Veterinary Diagnostic Lab has a board that meets quarterly. The next meeting is at the Barron location, 1521 Guy Avenue, at noon on Aug. 16. The meeting is open to the public.