Biosolids used for comfortable, cow-friendly bedding
Kewaunee – The public tends to frown on bigger farms, but those who operated farms with more than a 1000 cows say it is because of their size that they are able to incorporate state-of-the-art technology to get the most from their manure while protecting the environment.
Just as cities need to figure out ways to deal with sewage, farms are adopting systems that remove water from the manure in a way that the water can be safely reused for irrigation or elsewhere on the farm, while the separated solids can be distributed as a fertilizer to the fields or reused as bedding for the livestock.
Pagel’s Ponderosa Dairy was one of six farms recently hosting a dairy technology tour sponsored by the Professional Dairy Producers of Wisconsin. On the tour, visitors saw the methane digester that produces enough electricity for the city of Kewaunee. From the digester, the dairy also presses and dries enough biosolids to bed their entire milking herd and young livestock.
Because of the removal of some of the nutrients in the solids, the farm can apply more liquids closer to the farm. This reduces the need to distribute so much liquid with trucks, saving on fuel and roads.
Pagel’s Ponderosa Dairy is owned by John Pagel and his family.
“I still live in the house that I was born in, and I took over the farm from my parents in 1980 when I was 21 years old,” Pagel said.
He has four kids involved in the business, along with many long-term employees who he says are like family. Pagel’s son Brian manages the digester system.
Since its inception in 1946, Pagel’s Ponderosa Dairy has grown in steps to its current size of 8,500 acres and 5,300 milking cows.
Tour participants also saw the farm’s newest barn, a tunnel-ventilated freestall barn and the rotary parlor.
Of special interest on this technology tour is the way the farm manages its nutrients.
Working with other farms
The farm is a part of Peninsula Pride Farms, a nonprofit environmental stewardship coalition formed in April by dairy farmers.
Its aim is to leverage the ingenuity of the agricultural community, university research and scientists to meet water quality challenges in Kewaunee and southern Door County.
While there are many sources of pollution, the fact that there are 16 very large and regulated dairy farms in the county has led these producers to lead efforts to find better ways to handle manure.
Pagel is also a partner with Dr. Don Niles in a sister farm, Dairy Dreams, a 2800-cow dairy 12 miles away that is also a member of Peninsula Pride.
“We can be most effective by working toward solutions in a collaborative manner,” Pagel said. “We want to be part of the solution, so dairies can be here in the long term.”
Peninsula Pride Farms focuses on promoting farming methods that create measurable and sustainable improvements … and creates benchmarks for continuous improvement for individual farms that take into account the unique characteristics of each farm.
Peninsula Pride has 43 farm members ranging in size from 60 to 6,000 cows. The organization is partially patterned after the well-known Yahara Pride Farms in Dane County that is working with the community to lower phosphorus inflow in Madison lakes.
Both organizations are following the pattern of the very successful Discovery Farms program that monitors and measures results of various systems and then shares those findings with others interested in adapting new methods of keeping nutrients where they are needed most, on the crop fields.
In describing the digester and separation system on the Pagel farm, Ponderosa Dairy CFO Greg Bethard said the farm does not make money from the electricity produced on the farm.
He pointed out the farms with digesters in the U.S. do not get paid much for the power they put on the grid, and they must buy that power back again at a much higher rate.
“If we want to use the biogas for anything, we must scrub it," he said. "We get cleaner bedding because of the digester, but we need to figure out a way to use the energy coming off of it, too.”
He said it is much different in Europe where farmers build what they term “a giant concrete cow” to process feed like a cow’s rumen processes it. In Europe there is a profit potential for creating energy so they sell their cows and sell the biogas they produce by putting forages directly into the digester.
As for farms here, Pagel said, “We need to find ways to export phosphorus off-site. Phosphorus is getting in short supply (as a purchased nutrient), so if we can dry it and press it into a cake, we could sell it.”
The nutrients Pagels spread on their farm are applied according to their nutrient management maps. They measure soil depth on their farm in order to better manage the nutrients on the shallow and diverse soil types.
“Sink holes in this area are an issue," Pagel said. "We need these maps so we can stay away from the sink holes.”
He pointed out that recent well pollution that took place in the area came from a small farm that did not map the area and got too close to a sink hole.
The farm’s philosophy from the start has been to be a good neighbor. Bethard states, “We all live in the same community, and we want good ground water. We can’t afford to goof.”
He sees it as a solvable problem, and there is new technology out all the time to deal with it. He predicts within the next three years two or three different systems will be perfected that will coagulate suspended solids, skim off suspended particles.
“If we can get the water out of it we can sell the nutrients off-site," Bethard said.
“We would never be able to bed with this recycled material if we did not take the moisture out of it. The material is 70 percent moisture as it comes out of the press, and we dry it down to 50 percent moisture.”
They run the drier 12 to 14 hours a day. They built a larger system that is needed for their dairy in order to open up the possibility of drying separated solids for other farmers in the area in the future.
When using this dried material on the cow beds, Bethard said it is important to have a good base.
“Put on a thin layer of the dry material every day," he said. "Cows love it, and our lie-down rate is very good."
The tub-drying concept was developed originally by Pagel and used for two years before investing in commercial sized-equipment.