For some of the attendees at the first of the Agricultural Community Engagement (ACE) twilight meetings for 2013, the farm tour provided a first-time look at several aspects of a large dairy farm operation.
For the dairy farmers in the crowd of more than 40 at Holsum Elm Dairy, it was chance to visit another dairy farm.
Sponsored by the Professional Dairy Producers of Wisconsin and state towns and counties associations, this year's series of six ACE meetings during the final two weeks of August was designed for both input and education on agricultural issues.
These issues covered a span of local community and government unit relations and state and federal legislation on issues pertaining to agriculture.
As part of the education goal, a tour of the facilities was conducted at each of the six host farms.
The tours here were led by Holsum Elm manager Kevin Wellejus, a veterinarian who previously practiced in New York and Pennsylvania, and Bob Nagel, also a veterinarian and the general manager of both the Holsum Irish and Holsum Elm dairies in Calumet County.
With Wellejus and Nagel both being veterinarians, they handle a large share of the routine herd health work. A local veterinary clinic is called about two to three times a month, usually for any situations involving surgery, Wellejus indicated.
Dating to 2006, Holsum Elm is the home of about 3,600 cows that are part of the milking herd and the heifer calves born there through the age of seven months.
Then they go to four contracted growers in Wisconsin and a couple in Iowa before returning to begin their first lactation.
To a question by one of the attendees, Wellejus noted that 12-13 calves are born on average per day with 24 being the highest he's aware of - a number that puts a strain on the two or three employees who oversee the close-up pen of cows and the calving.
There are 42 employees - two-thirds of whom are involved as teams of five or six for the milking shifts.
The maternity barn employees check the pen of close-up cows every 30 minutes and move those expected to calve within a couple of hours to a special calving area.
The fresh cows are given a health check-up that includes a review of any antibiotic treatments that would require the milk to go to a waste milk tank, Wellejus explained.
Wellejus indicated that cows remain in the herd for an average of two and one-half years (annual turnover rate of nearly 40 percent).
He also mentioned the groups of heifers entering the herd pan out with lactation ranges of one-four years in some cases, and that at least one cow in the herd has been producing for 10 years.
The artificial insemination breeding philosophy at Holsum Elm Dairy is tilted toward having mature cows weighing about 1,200 pounds and with a rounded shape rather than toward larger Holsteins with a more square body, Wellejus stated. Larger cows are too big for the free-stalls, he said.
In penned groups of about 430 head, the cows are milked in an 80-stall rotary parlor. During the 30-40 minutes that their home pen is open, manure is removed, bedding is leveled or replenished, and a new batch of feed is delivered.
Recent milk production has been averaging 84-85 pounds per day on three times per day milking, Wellejus pointed out.
He said use of bovine somatotropin is selective and the management team has not opted for other methods to boost milk production such as the installation of long-day lighting or an upgrading of the mixed rations to a point that would no longer improve profitability.
One of the attendees observed that there was no mooing from the dry and close-up cows in the free-stall barn that the visitors toured. Wellejus said that was sign that they are content, happy, and comfortable.
Another indication of cow health and comfort is the observation of how many are chewing their cud while on their approximately eight-minute spin on the rotary milking parlor, Wellejus said in replying to a question.
A low rate of cud chewing is a good indicator of a possible problem with nutrition or with an employee who is not pushing the cows properly as they move through the holding parlor onto the rotary milker.
Inside the free-stall dairy barns, a combination of natural ventilation, fans, and a sprinkling system is designed to keep the cows comfortable during times of hot and humid weather.
Wellejus noted that the automatic system is activated for sprinkling when the temperature reaches 78 degrees and for the fans at 80 degrees.
Forages and corn are purchased from about 15 area farmland owners - three or four main ones - within a several mile radius. Wellejus noted that most of those owners stepped out of dairy farming in the past five-20 years.
To another question, Wellejus said Holsum Elm does not obtain corn shredlage as part of its feed supply but noted that two custom cropping operators in the area have begun to offer it. He explained that prices are set for the supplying growers in the spring.
The operation likes to have four months of reserve forage on hand - a practice that also provides enhanced levels of sugar and starches in the ensiled feed, Wellejus observed. He said forages make up 65 percent of the dry matter in the mixed ration.
With conservation practices that make several uses of the same water, the daily usage per cow is 30-35 gallons per day with a top of 48 gallons when the sprinklers are in use, Wellejus pointed out. A two-step procedure involving the first use of fresh water and a plate cooler quickly reduces the milk temperature from 100 degrees to 35 before the milk is direct loaded into tankers.
Manure from the dairy herd first goes into an anaerobic digester to create methane gas that is the raw material for the production of electric power.
The electric power generated is sufficient to serve about 900 residences, Wellejus noted. He said all of it is sold to the utility and that the power needed at Holsum Elm is purchased.
The next step in the manure management system is separating the solids and liquid with the solids.
Once dry, the solids are reused for bedding while the liquid is applied to cropland as fertilizer either through draglines or spreading by truck.
Wellejus said the weather conditions and cropping timetable restricted the dragline application to about 60 percent of the volume this year compared to about 85 percent at the sister Holsum Irish Dairy about four miles away.
Wellejus said the preference is for the dragline application for reasons such as cost, safety, and roadway traffic and potential damage but that access to enough land within 4-5 miles is not easy.
Liability concerns and the need to obtain agreements from public and private property owners to put hoses across their land sometimes stand in the way, he explained.
During the discussion portion of the event, Kenn Buelow, the developer and current senior partner of the two Holsum entities, was asked what the economic impact of the two operations is.
He replied that about $2.4 million is spent per month in purchasing supplies and services and employees earn $2.4 million per year and receive health insurance coverage.
He also added manure is sold at a discount on its crop nutrient value to area farmers, and some food processors in the area bring their waste products for disposal into the bio-digesters rather than loading them into their local wastewater treatment system or sending them to a landfill.
As Green Tier participants in a program overseen by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, the two entities are engaged in practices involving the protection of surface waters, reduced use and reduced contamination of groundwater, energy efficiency, waste disposal, and protection of air quality.
This is according to Holsum's Green Tier handout summary that is current as of October 2012.
The two Holsum units also generate fertilizer values of approximately $1 million per year from the manure applied to area fields, the handout indicates.
This reduces the cost of natural gas by about $450,000 for obtaining a similar amount of commercial fertilizer and, according to research by the University of Minnesota, increases crop yields by four-eight percent, according to the handout.
On one Saturday every year at each Holsum facility, area residents are invited to pick up manure solids for use in their gardens and yards. A free-will offering is taken to support a scholarship program.