2007 Distinguished achievement award: Donald Erbach

// Mechanical Engineering

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Donald C. Erbach
Retired national program leader for engineering and energy
U.S. Department of Agriculture Agricultural Research Service
BSME ’65
Beltsville, Maryland

As a boy, Don Erbach spent mornings and evenings milking cows on his family’s 80-acre diversified dairy farm. While he enjoyed farm life in New Holstein, Wisconsin, milking was what he calls “a thrill you can get over pretty fast.” He dreamed of creating a more mechanized milking process. After earning bachelor’s degrees in agricultural engineering and mechanical engineering from UW-Madison in the 1960s, and while working on a graduate degree in ag engineering, he designed a device that would remain on cows for long periods to ease the milking process.

His device didn’t take off, but throughout his career his interest in agriculture and engineering has remained steadfast. Erbach began work in 1966 with the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Agricultural Research Service (ARS) in Ames, Iowa. He spent 23 years as an agricultural engineer with the unit before becoming research leader of the USDA Soil and Water Conservation Research Unit.

Later, he applied his soil and crop production research knowledge at the ARS National Soil Tilth Laboratory in Iowa and as laboratory director and research leader with the National Soil Dynamics Laboratory in Auburn, Alabama. In 1999, he moved to the ARS headquarters outside Washington, D.C., where as national program leader for engineering and energy, he led agency programs in bioenergy and crop production research.

As a research engineer, he has authored or coauthored more than 200 publications on his work in agricultural soil compaction, crop residue management, weed and insect control, and conservation tillage. He has served on various agricultural task forces, including a White House science and technology policy task force. He has consulted on soil compaction management in Europe, participated in a science exchange in China, consulted on conservation tillage projects in Argentina and Hungary, and served as a visiting researcher for a tillage and energy study in Australia.

Erbach retired in September 2006. Since his retirement, he has been invited to speak on bioenergy at several conferences in North America and Europe. In June 2007, he became president of the American Society of Agricultural and Biological Engineers. He also officiates golf tournaments—a sport he has enjoyed since learning to play as a graduate student in Madison.

He and his wife, Sharon, have been married for 42 years. They have two children, three granddaughters and two grandsons. Their son Don is a public affairs consultant in Little Rock, Arkansas. Daughter Adrienne is agriculture branch chief with the White House Office of Management and Budget in Washington, D.C.