William Bill George Bickert

April 9, 1937February 1, 2017
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Dr. William George Bickert passed peacefully on February 1, 2017 in his home after a long battle with Parkinson ’s disease. He was surrounded by loving family as he passed. Bill was an amazing and loving husband, father, brother, grandfather and great grandfather. His loving support ,caring nature, and sense of humor will be greatly missed.

For forty-five years Bill served in numerous capacities as a professor within the Agricultural Engineering Department at Michigan State University: instructor, extension educator, researcher, and mentor. Today, walking onto a modern-day dairy, you don’t have to look far to find the impact he had on the global dairy industry.

In the early part of his career, Bill taught courses in the area of agricultural electrification. The consummate educator with expectations of perfection and excellence, he was once given a box of red pencils by a student who was sure Bill needed more considering the amount of red marks he applied to students’ papers. During the early 1970s, Bill with a team of graduate students developed the first automatic milking machine detacher (patented) and other milking parlor innovations that reduced the drudgery of milking cows and increased per person cow milking productivity three fold. In addition to human benefits, the automatic detacher benefited cows as well since over or under milking was reduced.

Throughout the eighties, Bill pioneered strategies and designs for the modern day embodiment of naturally ventilated freestall facilities and transition cow housing, which included overall facility layout, freestall environment, stall design, and stall base options. Each of these developments resulted in increased cow health and increased producer profitability. Nearly all of the most modern dairy facilities today utilize some form of naturally ventilated housing system. Also, starting in 1980 with Bill’s leadership, the Michigan Ag Expo was held on the Michigan State campus at what is now known as the Ag Expo site. Ag Expo has gone on to be the largest agricultural exposition in the region. Bill served as the Chairman of Michigan Ag Expo until 1994.

Bill was a member of the American Society of Agricultural and Biological Engineers (ASABE) where he served on many dairy housing related technical committees. He was widely published in ASABE, The Merck Veterinary Manual as well as a regular contributor in the popular dairy press.

Throughout the 1990s to present, Bill’s focus was on manure management and how it relates to overall dairy production systems as well as society as a whole. With the widespread acceptance of sand bedding as a freestall base came a host of manure handling challenges. Bill along with graduate students developed a system for separating sand from manure (patented) and strategies for handling sand-laden manure, which resulted in the often referenced publication “Storing and Handling Sand-Laden Manure—a Description of Manageable Practices for Midwest Farms”. Just prior to his retirement, Bill worked to mainstream the concept of integrated manure systems along with common sense approaches for helping dairy producers coexist with neighbors.

In addition to dairy cows, Bill loved and was concerned for all animals’ welfare. His dream for retirement was to live in the middle of 40 acres and raise cattle. He built his dream home in 2007, but raised Puerto Rican Paso Fino horses instead of cattle. He enjoyed his horses immensely, and rode until he was not able. He also loved spending time with his dog Scarlett and later with Rana.

He will be greatly missed for his sense of humor, sharp mind, humility, and a great love for family, life, cooking and getting his hands dirty on the farm. His living survivors include: Juliet and Gretchen Bickert, his daughters, his wife Rosie Spagnuolo Bickert, and her two sons, Michael and Daniel, who became his sons. Grandchildren listed by age include: Joshua, Amanda, Shana, Lucas, Jason Daniel, Gavin and Cody. Great grandchildren include: Kyron, Juliana, Hailey, and Leo.

A Funeral Mass will take place at 11:00 am Saturday, February 4, 2017 at the Catholic Community of St. Jude, 801 N. Bridge St., DeWitt, MI with visitation one hour prior. The family will also receive visitors Friday from 6-8 pm at the church. The Rosary will be prayed at 7:30 Friday. In lieu of flowers, donations in memory of Bill may be made to Great Lakes Caring Hospice. The family is being served by Gorsline Runciman Funeral Homes, DeWitt Chapel. Memories and condolences may be shared with the family at


  • Visitation Friday, February 3, 2017
  • Rosary Friday, February 3, 2017
  • Funeral Mass Saturday, February 4, 2017

William Bill George Bickert

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July 4, 2017

It was my privilege to be Bill's last graduate student at MSU before his retirement. As I think every graduate student who ever worked with Bill can affirm, Bill was passionate about his work, loyal to his grad students and a great advisor, mentor and friend. Also, as many of you know, Bill was an unparalleled source of knowledge and information about the dairy industry and beyond. Bill had an astounding command of names, places, dates, rules of thumb, you name it. I actually used to keep a file in my desk that I called Bills Bits and after conversations with Bill, I would update it with whatever nuggets of knowledge Bill had shared. And there were many, many entries in that file.
I also admired and marveled at Bill's gift for connecting and communicating with people. Bill had an innate ability to draw you in and make you feel special. It didn't matter if the crowd was 1 person or 1000 people.
I also had the good fortune to spend many hours with Bill during his retirement. We used to meet for lunch on a regular basis and I greatly appreciated Bill's continued support and interest in my professional pursuits. He always wanted to hear about my activities and was always ready with advice which was definitely a Bill characteristic. I feel very privileged to have known Bill and be able to count him as a mentor and friend. I will miss him but more importantly, I am grateful for his presence in my life.

July 3, 2017

When papa was sick, I always liked taking care of him and listening to his funny stories. He always made me laugh. When it was warm outside, I liked pushing him in his wheelchair on the porch. He was a great cook! I love and miss you papa.
Cody Hannewald

July 3, 2017

Papa was a brilliant man who always knew how to figure anything out. He was funny and made me laugh. I love you papa.
Gavin Hannewald

July 3, 2017

Bill was my stepdad but he was more like a father to me. We had our times when we didn't get along, but I always knew he loved me. The life lessons he taught somehow come back into play in my daily adult life. In addition to teaching me how to take the 10 minute shower, he passed on his famous method of making hamburgers. He was a great cook! He also encouraged me to be the best person I could be. Even though Bill is gone, the impression that he left behind will outweigh his absence. I am grateful he played such a big part in my life. I love you Bill.
Daniel Hannewald

Agricultural Natural Resources Communications

June 27, 2017

Visit a modern-day farm and it's likely you will see groups of cows being milked with automated milking equipment, baby calves and young heifers housed in white dome-like calf hutches and open-sided barns with curtains that can be rolled up or down depending on the season of the year. The business of dairying has come a long way since the days of our grandparents and great-grandparents when milking cows by hand was the norm.
Several of the conveniences many of today's dairy producers around the world take for granted can be traced back to the efforts of one Michigan State University (MSU) researcher and professor, Dr. William Bill Bickert Professor Emeritus of Biosystems and Agricultural Engineering.
Today's technologically advanced dairy farms reflect decades of research, much of which can be traced directly back to MSU and Dr. Bickert. For Dr. Bickert, who committed more than 45 years of his life to research and teaching that focused on finding practices to better serve the dairy industry, it was all about converging the needs of both the cow and the farmer into an optimal and productive environment.
The results from Dr. Bickert's years of work designing milking and management systems and procedures are evident on nearly every dairy farm in the country. In the 1970s, he led the team of graduate students who were responsible for designing the first automatic milking machine detacher. Commonly referred to as an automatic take-off, this advancement in milking technology is noted as one of the first innovations to improve both worker comfort in the milking parlor and increase worker productivity by allowing workers to monitor more animals at the same time. In addition, the automatic take-off improved the cow's productivity and health by eliminating the exertion of pressure on a cow's teats once the udder stopped releasing milk.
Dr. Bickert's next round of work explored available housing environments for cows. New, more modern facilities were needed as the red hip-roof barns that had dominated the countryside for decades started to phase out. Dr. Bickert teamed up with his MSU animal science colleagues to investigate ways to improve animal health and comfort through building designs. Bickert, who stated many time that the old barns were designed for human comforts and not for the cows, led his team of graduate students in designing naturally ventilated barns. By eliminating the traditional wood, steel or concrete barn walls and replacing them with retractable curtains, the cowsstill housed inside the buildinghad access to free-flowing air movement. The change in barn design resulted in substantial improvements in cow health and cow comfort.
In addition to changing the overrall look and functionality of the barns, the MSU researchers also looked inside the buildings at the width and length of stalls and the type of bedding material used. Dr. Bickert's over-arching desire to improve cow comfort led to industry-wide adoption of differently designed stalls. Producers also started moving away from traditional bedding materials such as straw and replaced it with sand. Today, nearly every dairy farm across North American follows the guidelines first established by Dr. Bickert and his colleagues.
Dr. Bickert's work has resulted in healthier and more comfortable cows that are reaching higher levels of milk production while at the same time producing higher milk quality, says Larry Nobis, a dairy farmer from St. Johns. Dr. Bickert's work has taken a lot of the drudgery out of dairy farming and improved the environment for everyone working with cows. It all adds up to a healthy, profitable industry that is not going away.
Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, Dr. Bickert traveled around the state and country teaching dairy farmers how to effectively implement improvements that result in enhanced cow comfort and how making building design changes can directly influence the productivity of both cows and workers.
The MSU land-grant mission made it possible for the university's researchers to conceive the many innovative solutions to challenging problems that have made a lasting impact on the global diary industry because of the three-prong approach of the land-grant mission at Michigan State University. The researchers and educators in East Lansing, were able to take the work done on paper and in the laboratory and transfer it to working dairy farms around the state through the network of Extension educators. This transfer of knowledge helped propel Michigan State University to be one of the leading dairy research venues in the country.
In Dr. Bickert's last few years at MSU, he turned his attention to manure management. Though the change by numerous producers to sand bedding significantly helped improve cow comfort, incorporating sand into the manure created a whole new set of problems for farms, particularly with how it affected the equipment used to handle and remove manure.
In the mid-1990s, Dr. Bickert and a new team of graduate students began investigating the feasibility of removing the sand from the manure. Their work led to the development of a patented sand-manure separator that has since evolved to become one of a number of new on-farm technologies used to manage manure nutrients.
Once again, Dr. Bickert worked with his collegial network of MSU Extension educators to inform producers about the latest developments in manure management systems and practices and evolving technologies available to farmers. Dr. Bickert's publications continue to be widely cited in ongoing research studies on manure management.
Dr. Bickert worked to mainstream the concept of integrated manure systems along with common sense approaches for helping dairy producers coexist with neighbors, says one of his former graduate students Andrew Wedel. You don't have to look far to find the impact that Bill has had on the global dairy industry.
Since retiring from MSU in 2007, Dr. Bickert and his wife established a farm that specializes in breeding and training pure Puerto Rican Paso Fino horses. He also continued to dabble with activities related to dairy and livestock environments.

Andrew Wedel

June 27, 2017

Good day, my name is Master of Science, Andrew Wedel, Professional Engineer. I introduce myself in this manner not as a matter of self-aggrandizement, but rather to note something that I am honored to saythat I was a student of Dr. William G. Bickert. He was my mentor, colleague, and friend.

As perhaps some of you know, Bill didn't have many students considering his almost 50-year tenure at MSU, mostly because of a predominant extension appointment, plus I believe he was pretty particular with whom he wanted to work. At any rate, it is truly an honor to be from the same academic bloodline as: Tim Harrigan, Rick Stowell, and Truman Surbrook, all university professors. John Gerrish, university professor and co-developer of the automatic milking machine detacher and Dennis Armstrong who worked with Bill on milking parlor optimization and now global dairy consultant. And, Rolf Rische who worked with Bill on milking parlor automation and founded the Germania milking equipment company. Each of these people and many others I've not mentioned are Bill's legacy of excellence.

So, how did I meet Bill? In January of 1991 I was sitting in my apartment at the University of Delaware doing homework when my roommates parents phoned to say a world renowned agricultural engineer specializing in dairy facilities would be speaking to local dairy farmers at the local Grange Hall and asked if we would like to attend. The catch? There would be dinnerfree dinnerfree roast beef, mashed potatoes, and gravy dinner! I RSVP'd, at once, in the affirmative. I never knew that my desire for, mostly, a free meal would have such a profound effect on my life. Bill liked to tell this story when introducing me at meetings. It would make him practically double over and laugh. To this day, I'm not sure why? Why is that, Bill? If I were to guess, I'd say once-upon-a-time in North Dakota State, a young agricultural engineering student named Bill Bickert sat in his apartment, working a problem set, craving a free meat and potato dinner.

At dinner Bill mentioned there were graduate school opportunities at MSU in dairy housing. I was immediately interested. Bill and I continued talking over the course of the next year and I arrived on the MSU campus August 6, 1992.

In his talk Bill went on to describe the applied researchand I emphasize appliedhe was doing in natural ventilation of barns and how it was being implemented on farms. I emphasize applied because Bill wasn't a test tube and petri dish or proving/disproving the laws of thermodynamics kind of guy. Not that he couldn't handle the rigor of that kind of research, but rather because as he would often say, I'm just a country boy from North Dakota. That's just it, he really was just an ordinary guy that liked to work with ordinary people solving meaningful problems. He did just that for almost fifty years.

So, a reoccurring theme of the talk was centered on the term cow comfort and the importance of cows being comfortable so they could reach their genetic milk producing potential. Comfort started in the milking parlor with proper equipment, procedures, and protocols and straight through to the barns, including stall bases and ventilation. Although I am certain it wasn't his intention at the time, but the term cow comfort now is deeply embedded in the dairy production lexicon. Bill's research was nothing short of groundbreaking. Bill's, work on the automatic milking machine detacher improved the lives of farmers by reducing the drudgery of milking cows, as well as, making the milking process safer for cows. His work on improving barn ventilation and stalls, indeed made cows more comfortable and in turn increased milk production and life-span. At the end of his university career Bill focused on environmental issues related to dairy farms and the idea that large animal agriculture and society can coexist in harmony without detrimental effects to our natural environments.

Some things I will miss and remember about you, Bill:
•Prototype testing in cold Michigan winters capped off by, yes, roast beef and mashed potato lunches at the J&M Diner.
•The wedding of Rick Stowell I'm not sure if I've ever laughed so hard. Rosie, probably remembers that.
•Our annual study trip where we would fly to someplace and just visit farms for a few days to see what's new and to catch-up.
•Visiting dairy farms in California and somehow ending up in Yosemite.
•Not having somebody to call when I need advice about something in the dairy industry or involving how to deal with people.
•Talking about things over a six pack that was iced-down in a hotel sinkjust simply experiencing gemütlichkeit, as he would say, the German word for warmth, friendliness, and good cheer.
In essence, Bill's career and life can be summed up as one that resulted in making life better for everybody. For the dairy producers, profitability and quality of life was increased. For cows, more comfortable barns. And for society, environmental strategies for helping farms and society to coexist. Now it is up to all of us to, as Bill would say at the end of a conversation, carry on.

Rosie Bickert

June 24, 2017

A Tribute to my Beloved Bill
I believe there is a Divine purpose for our lives on earth and that specific people are placed in our lives to help us achieve our spiritual destination. I also believe that in marriage, we are brought together to help each other become the best individuals and partners that we can be. Bill was that specific person God placed in my life. Bill not only provided me with an undying love and commitment, he also provided me with the foundation and freedom on which to grow.
So many years ago, when we first met, I was in the abyss of my life. I was lost, confused, and felt unloved and defeated. Bill saw into my soul to the person I truly was and helped my true self emerge into who I am today. Over the years, we helped each other explore the true nature of our spiritual selves and as a result shared a relationship that will remain united to the end of time.
I thank you Bill, for all the love you so generously gave, all the support you provided to hold me up, for sharing so much of yourself, for allowing me to witness your wisdom, inner strength and vulnerability, for the years we shared on earth. You are deeply enbedded into my heart and into my soul. Until we meet again Rosie

Jimmy and Alayna Spaulding

May 27, 2017

Bill was a brilliant man. A very creative and inspirational personality. We are incredibly thankful for the time that we could spend with him, to learn from him, and to enjoy his sense of humor. Our friendship with Bill was initially professional, but we soon learned that Bill and Rosie would be forever friends. We now consider them to be a part of our family. Words cannot effectively express how much we miss Bill, and how happy we are to have known such a wonderful man.

Barb Hultberg

May 19, 2017

Bill was my big brother and my hero in life. We had our share of normal sibling conflicts, but I looked up to him throughout our growing up years. He was smart, funny, talented, and the life of the party. He was loving and caring and a shoulder to cry on, if need be. He used his talents and abilities to make the world a better place. I will always love and admire him. God bless his precious memory.

gretchen Bickert

May 12, 2017

I love you Dad and miss you so much.