Federal regulators take notes from Wisconsin farmers

Colleen Kottke
Wisconsin State Farmer
Jim Ostrom, left, one of three Milk Source partners, talks about the new technology and techniques used at Rosendale Dairy that is allowing the farm to increase efficiencies while reducing its carbon footprint.

Raised in America's Dairyland, David Ross, assistant administrator of the EPA Office of Water, remembers sitting in a meeting with other key players in the federal agency discussing nutrient management plans.

"Just out of curiosity I asked how many of them had ever written an NMP. Just two hands went up and one of them was mine," Ross said. "No one else in the room had ever written one, applied for one or worked with an agronomist creating one."

At that moment Ross decided it was important for EPA officials to get out of the office and get in touch with those dealing with all of the federal regulations.

"We need to talk to the people that deal with these regulatoins and have them give us ideas on how to streamline the recordkeeping instead of making the plans longer and more complicated," Ross said.

In an effort to get out on the front lines of the agriculture industry, Ross along with his colleagues from the EPA and the US Department of Interior toured agribusiness operations on Oct. 30 including Rosendale Dairy that houses the state's largest dairy herd.

"We want to learn about these people and their businesses so that we can go back to our organizations and teach them what actually happens out here as opposed to what they think happens," Ross said.

Rosendale Dairy, which belongs to the Milk Source family of farms, is owned by partners Jim Ostrom, John Vosters and Todd Willer who all hail from multi-generational Wisconsin farm families. The farm, located near Pickett, Wis., currently milks 9000 cows three times a day on two 80-stall rotary parlors. Each day the cows produce enough milk to fill 15 semi tankers. The milk is transported to Foremost Farms USA in Appleton where it is turned into mozzarella cheese.

Milk Source LLC partners, John Vosters, left, and Todd Willer, right, share information about technology used on Rosendale Dairy to protect the environment and provide optimum comfort for the herd of 9000 cows housed at Rosendale Dairy in Pickett, Wis.

Ostrom told the visitors that the present farming model has evolved greatly in the years since his grandfather farmed.

"In my grandfather's generation in the early 1900s, the rain would run off the roof into the cow yard washing it clean. Today we have a full containment facility for our manure," he said.

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The manure produced by Rosendale Dairy's cows – which is the farm's third largest source of revenue – is applied to 15,000 acres of the 34,000 acres laid out in its mulitple Nutrient Management Plans, with different nutrient products matched up with specific soil and crop needs.

Standing next to the farm are two new digesters that are in the final phase of construction. The structures (four in all), owned by DTE and break down the manure creating raw biogas. The company processes the raw biogas into renewable natural gas (RNG). That product is transported to a DTE Biomass Energy-owned RNG unloading station where it is injected directly into the interstate pipeline. Rosendale Dairy is among several large Wisconsin dairies creating renewable energy this way.

A new anaerobic digester owned by DTE and located on property its leases from Rosendale Dairy will collect biogas from breaking down the manure from the farm's herd of 9000 cows which will be processed into renewable natural gas.

"There's a very substantial boom for this and I think it's a part of large livestock facilities' future," Ostrom said.

Aubrey Bettencourt, deputy assistant secretary for Water and Science with the DOI says federal agencies need to be made aware of the amount of data and the speed at which technology is evolving in agriculture.

"You have all this information on each animal and every single acre on the farm and we need to make sure from the government's perspective that our programs and policies are keeping up with you," she said. "We have to get caught up so that we can support you and where you want to be in the future."

Despite the size of the Milk Sources' farms, Ostrom says he and his partners consider them 'family farms' and are invested in keeping the enterprise moving forward.

"Farmers are the only group of people that raise our kids to raise our grandchildren as farmers," he said. "We're thinking about how to get our children involved in agriculture so my grandchildren can someday be a part of this."  

Ross said regulators think about numbers and often view farms based on head counts.

"They lose that connection and as the level goes up they keep forgetting there are people involved," Ross said.

"And they speak about agribusiness as though it's a bad word. As if you're not supposed to be successful," Bettencourt said. "We have a lot of educating to do in the agencies about what modern agriculture looks like."

Tim Petty, left, Assistant Secretary for Water and Science of the U.S. Dept. of Interior and Dave Ross, Assistant Administrator for the Office of Water in the Environmental Protection Agency share their insights on the latest collaboration between federal agencies.

Tim Petty, assistant secretary of water and science for the DOI, says its important for federal agencies to partner and work together on water issues more efficiently and effectively. A recent executive order authorized by President Donald Trump establishing a Water Subcabinet consists of the EPA, DOI, USDA, Army for Civil Works, US Dept. of Energy and NOAA. 

"Before the six agencies were all working in separate silos. This busts those silos with the President saying you will work together," Petty said. "We are moving forward and working together and with the states in a much better, more productive way."

Ross says regardless of the outcome of the election, he believes the Water Subcabinet is good government.

"Another president could unwind the executive order but in our view this is good, transparent government. This gets federal agencies working together efficiently and spending taxpayer money more intelligently," Ross said. "I can't imagine someone would think that's a bad idea and get rid of it. This effort was sorely needed and I'm pretty confident it will continue."

Dave Ross and Aubrey Bettencourt, of the Environmental Protection Agency and Mike Huebsch, second from left, of the Wisconsin Water Alliance join Milk Source LLC partner, Todd Willer, left, in viewing one of Rosendale Dairy's two 80-stall rotary parlors.