Roche brothers of Columbus consider themselves 'biological farmers'

Gloria Hafemeister
Correspondent
The Roche brothers, from left, David, Kevin and Dennis are aiming to farm in a way that they constantly improve the soil.

COLUMBUS, WI – The Roche brothers at Columbus call themselves “biological farmers.”

Kevin, David and Dennis Roche and their wives Tracy, Amy, and Jacki operate a farm that has been in the family since 1852.  Kevin says they are constantly striving for healthier soil and crops and he knows that everything that is done on the soil has an impact. He not only considers the basic nutrients, but the micronutrients and the role they play in the structure of the soil and the ability of the plants to utilize all the nutrients.

The Columbus farm family served as one of the hosts of the Wisconsin Cattlemen’s Association annual tour on Saturday, June 26. The event began with a tour of the 1,300 head feedlot followed by a description of how they manage their 3,760-acre grain operation.

The feedlot operation finishes groups of Holstein steers, dairy crosses and straight colored, which are marketed at various locations depending on market preference.

Cattle arrive at around 400 pounds, with a target market weight of 1,400 pounds. All pens of cattle are tracked for dry matter intake per day, daily gain, and profit per animal.

In the past the family did custom feeding but now they own all the cattle, which are fed ryelage, corn fines from a local elevator, distiller’s grain, pellets and corn silage.

“The ryegrass helps them eat better and diversifies the diet," Kevin Roche says. "They have a more constant dry matter intake. We track everything every day on the computer and know it has made a difference.”

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The Roche family harvests rye when it heads out. This year they planted half triticale which Kevin believes adds more nutrient value and is easier to pack .However, they did not harvest as much tonnage.

“We house the cattle in a barn that is bedding pack, then they go to a flat barn with rubber “Easy Fix” slats,” Kevin said.

He describes the flat barn as “a comfort barn” built back in 1972.  They replaced the roof twice and installed rubber slats in 2015. The Roche's will likely replace the rubber within the next few years but believe it pays for itself in cow comfort and rate of gain.

"We monitored the animals in the beginning and noticed they all wanted the rubber slats in favor of the others,” Kevin said.

The Roches had another building built in 2013. Because of the roof’s pitch and the angle of the building the facility stays warmer in winter and cooler in summer.

The bedded pack barn was built in 2007 and at first had no insulation. After replacing the roof in 2016 they installed bubble insulation in the roof and opened the sides, resulting in better air circulation for the animals. Kevin expects the roof to last longer.

The brothers estimate they provide 41 square feet per animal. The living areas are scraped and bedded twice a week. The Roches put in a wood chip base twice a year that is covered with corn stalks and discarded drywall scraps.

“We figure these drywall scraps help prevent pneumonia, odor and flies. The hairy wart disappeared, too,” Kevin says.

He notes that the calcium sulphate in the dry wall is not only good for the bedding pack but it is very helpful in the composting that they do with their manure.

When manure is mixed with dry-wall scrap and monitored and turned it becomes a very beneficial additive to unlock other nutrients in the soil.

They began composting manure about 10 years ago and have seen many benefits.

With all these animals on a feed lot, Kevin says they needed to look at feed-lot runoff and manure management. At the time, some of the animals were housed in a confinement barn with liquid storage under the barn.  The brothers didn’t like the idea of building a lagoon and liquid manure storage for the feedlot area so they developed a composting system to utilize not only the solids from that barn but also some of the liquid from the other barn.

“I didn’t like the idea of all that liquid manure because hauling liquid encourages compaction and there are odor issues to consider,” Kevin said.

Instead, they haul manure across the road and place it in numerous long windrows.  Then they come through with a turning machine as needed.

The Roches point out that nutrients in compost are mostly in the organic form and are highly resistant to leaching. Composting is a speeded-up version of a natural decomposition process. 

Microorganisms feed on manure and organic waste from the plant or animal kingdoms. In the presence of air, the organisms reduce these complex compounds into a stabilized organic material similar to humus, the organic fraction of soil.

The brothers monitor the windrows with a temperature probe. It's beneficial to allow the matter to warm just enough to kill the weed seeds but they try to avoid heating it too much.  If the composted manure is hot and dry it isn't turned as much. Water is added if it becomes too dry.

Kevin describes it as a biological. The material is applied at a low rate, not so much for the nitrogen as for its other qualities.

“Our goal is to unlock the mineral nutrients and N, P and K that is already in the soil.  We use less commercial fertilizer when we get the biology in the soil going,” Kevin explained.

He adds, “The phosphorus and potassium is in a different form in compost than in manure. Some nitrogen is used up in the composting process. With the addition of the drywall, the nitrogen is locked up in the compost. In the field, manure must also compost in order to be beneficial but it takes a year or more for that to happen. This speeds the process.”

In earlier years they added 100-200 pounds of gypsum per ton of manure, either by spreading it on the beds in the barn or adding it directly to the windrows. Now they have arranged to get drywall scraps from area builders, which are placed in pens where the cattle stamp them down, mixing them with the manure. 

The Roches also incorporate some leaves from the city of Columbus. Liquid manure on the leaves creates compost quickly.

They apply 2,500 pounds of compost every 2-3 years on approximately 800 acres of cropland.

While they have been at this a decade the Roches say they are still learning.

David describes that the missing piece in the process was the cover crops. The brothers have been active with the area Healthy Soil Healthy Water group of farmers with a keen focus on sustainability.                              

The currently feed some of the grain they produce and market the majority of it. The family has utilized no-till since the early 1990’s and then moved into strip-till to better manage soil warm-up in the spring and deal with high residue. They plan to switch to raising more wheat in order to better accommodate the use of cover crops which  have a longer growing season after wheat than after corn harvest

The brothers say they enjoy getting together with farmers at educational events and learning from what others are doing. They particularly follow the methods of Rick Clark and Dave Brown, both successful cover crop managers who have spoken at numerous healthy soil meetings during the last few years.

Kevin points out that these farmers became organic farmers “by accident.” He says the combination of compost, minimum tillage and cover crops helps to eliminate the use of chemicals on the land, especially when a crimper is used to kill off rye in spring rather than a chemical. 

When the Roche’s started composting they developed a market for selling their compost to gardeners but have abandoned the idea due to the time it takes to manage that portion of the business. However, they see so much benefit to the compost on their farm that they now use everything they have to improve their own soil.