Crave Brothers: Cow pies, clear skies and sustainability

Gloria Hafemeister
U.S. Deputy Secretary of Agriculture Steve Censky visited Crave Brothers Farm on Wednesday where he commended the family for their sustainable agriculture practices and green energy production.

WATERLOO -  Crave Brothers Farm at Waterloo welcomed at least 130 visitors on Wednesday to learn more about the family’s sustainable agricultural practices and energy production and to celebrate June Dairy Month.

In a program that was booked as “Cow Pies to Clear Skies” the Crave family, together with Dairy Management Inc. (DMI) and Wisconsin Conservation Energy Forum, hosted tours and talked about sustainability practices on the farm.

Scott Coenen  of the Conservation Energy Forum told the gathering, “Our purpose is to highlight what we think renewable energy can look like. Every time you hit that light switch you’re paying someone around the world for that energy. We’re not doing that here. The dollars stay right here at Craves. We need to encourage more of this.”

The event showcased the two bio-digesters and the manure separation system that reduces the farm’s carbon footprint. It also provided an opportunity for (DMI) and the Crave family to unveil a mural at the farm’s Crave Brothers Farmstead cheese plant honoring farm families throughout the country. The mural is personalized to feature the cows, crops and cheese produced by the Crave families.

A special guest at the event was U.S. Deputy Secretary of Agriculture Steve Censky who commended the families for their involvement with the Green Energy Program.

He told the gathering, “We (USDA) are always looking for ways to help the farmers with innovation.”

He said USDA is not only a safety net and crop insurance for farmers but it also encourages green energy and conservation programs.

“In Wisconsin we are working with several groups to reduce run-off and nutrient loading in watersheds,” he said.  “We are also investing in renewable energy projects such as digesters.”

Asked whether there are opportunities for smaller farmers who might not be able to afford digesters for a smaller herd, he said, “Our programs are size-neutral.  There are opportunities for smaller farms working together on shared projects.”

He also points out that the margin protection programs are greatly improved and are benefiting farms, especially smaller farms.

Heifers graze in spring, summer and fall on the Crave Brothers Farm.  Milk cows are housed in a free-stall barn all year for cow comfort and so they can provide consistent feed that results in consistent flavor in cheese all year round.

He notes, “What is important is continuing to invest in research so we can continue to make progress in all areas of agriculture.”

Serving as spokesperson for the family, Mark Crave described the family’s philosophy.

“What we do is like putting a puzzle together, incorporating all the things we do: raising healthy forages, healthy cows, practicing environmental stewardship and building a better community,” he illustrates.

He said the goal for the family from the start was to operate their business in an environmentally friendly way.

They utilize a computer-controlled anaerobic digestion system to generate electricity - enough to run their rural Wisconsin farm and cheese plant and over 300 homes.  The system also creates heat which is used on the farm and at the family’s on-farm cheese plant and also fuels the dryer that produces cow bedding from separated manure solids.

He says they monitor the quality of the bedding and they now know it is clean and safe. 

“In April we had the highest milk production and milk quality in the history of our farm,” he notes.

Mark notes, “This system changes the liquid in the lagoons from organic to mineral state.  It reduces the odor and makes the nutrients more available to the plants.”

Visitors Wednesday toured the facility to see the unique separation system that was just recently designed and built specifically for their farm.

They turn out eight semi loads of bedding a week, enough to bed the 2600 cows and young heifers.

Mark says, “As exciting as this technology is, it’s only one example of how modern dairy farms conserve our natural resources.”

He illustrates, “In our milking parlors, cold water is used in plate coolers to help cool the milk for storage, saving energy from alternative cooling systems.”

He took the opportunity to promote the dairy industry in general.

He points out that modern agriculture has enabled fewer farmers to produce more food using less resources than ever before in human history.

“Farmers are the original recyclers,” he notes.  “Farmers have always used manure from their livestock to fertilize the crops that feed the livestock.”

He states, “Did you know milk production in the U.S. has the lowest carbon footprint in the world?  It’s only 60 percent of what it was about 50 years ago.”

Regarding the relationship between farmers and consumers he said consumers are looking for things that aren’t there – GNO free, fat free, gluten free. 

“We farmers talk about what our product is, not what it is not,” he notes.  “ I tell consumers, ‘when in doubt ask a farmer and then tell a friend.’”

George Crave’s involvement with the cheese factory has put him in touch with many consumers over the years.  He notes, “There is so much confusion among consumers. We tell our story of crops to cows, cheese to consumer.”

Crave Brothers Farm started with brothers Charles and George on a rented farm in 1978. In 1980 they purchased their current farm and later brothers Tom and Mark joined the business.             

Today the farm includes the four brothers plus the next generation Andy, Jordan and Patrick as owners and other family members work on the farm in various capacities.