Kewaunee dairy farm wins national sustainability award for its practices, innovation

Christopher Clough
Door County Advocate
Dale Bogart, left, and Duane Ducat, of Deer Run Dairy in Kewaunee grab handfuls of cow bedding made from manure treated in their anaerobic digester, which creates renewable natural gas from the manure and removes almost all pathogens and odor from the byproducts.

KEWAUNEE - Deer Run Dairy always has worked to grow its business of raising and milking cows while being responsible, environmentally concerned neighbors. Now they have a national award to recognize those efforts.

The Kewaunee-based dairy farm won an Outstanding Dairy Farm Sustainability award from the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy, an organization that works to advance social responsibility among dairy farms and commit "to provide the world responsibly produced dairy foods that nourish people, strengthen communities and foster a sustainable future," according to its website.

Seven total sustainability awards in four categories were announced last month by the center for its 11th annual U.S. Dairy Sustainability Awards. Deer Run is one of four farms in the country to win a Dairy Farm Sustainability award this year, the others being based in North Carolina, California and Minnesota. Judges evaluated dozens of nominations based on economic, environmental and community impact, along with innovation and replicability.

Sustainable and eco-friendly dairy farming has long been a source of controversy in Kewaunee County, which has more dairy cows (about 27,500) than people (20,563), a shallow-soil topography ill-suited to handle manure and fertilizer runoff from that many cows and long-running water quality issues with many private water wells that can, and do, get contaminated. Most of the cows are found at mega-dairies called concentrated animal feeding operations, or CAFOs; the county has 17 of them, with only Manitowoc (24) and Brown (23) counties containing more in the state.

Deer Run Dairy is one of those CAFOs, growing from about 70 milking cows when Duane Ducat started the business in 1983 to about 1,650 milking cows and 250 dry cows on its 2,500 acres today. But Duane, who co-owns and operates the farm with his son Derek and partner Dale Bogart, who came aboard in 2008, said they've always worked to find ways to minimize the effects of the farm on the environment.

"That's our goal, clean drinking water and a thriving farm and community," Duane said during a July 13 media tour of the farm. "We want to be good neighbors."

The Innovation Center cited numerous conservation practices and related innovations implemented by Deer Run as one of the main reasons for its award. The center also cited the farm's approach in practicing conservation and sustainability throughout the various facets of dairy farming, from manure use and cow health to cover crops that help prevent water and soil runoff.

"When it comes to being sustainable, we look at all areas of the farm," Duane said. "We have a culture around here, and we embrace the idea of trying new things."

One of the major innovations Deer Run installed, in 2011, was an anaerobic digester, which uses bacteria in an oxygen-less setting to eat organic material – like manure – and afterward emit a biogas, in manure's case methane. The bacteria consume almost all the harmful pathogens found in manure, reducing them by a thousandfold, or down to one-tenth of 1% of pathogens found in untreated manure.

Until 2020, the farm used the methane to power a 16-cylinder generator, but that year the digester was converted to produce renewable natural gas, a clean, low-carbon fuel. Duane said it produces enough RNG to power about 600 homes.

The material left in the digester after the bacteria do their job is used by the farm for bedding that's softer than sand and nutrient-rich, cleaner-than-usual fertilizer. And the traditional strong smell of manure so well-known in Wisconsin was almost nonexistent during the tour, something Duane said the farm's neighbors have mentioned over the years.

"It was always my intention to get a digester," Duane said. "I didn't want a sand bed."

"It's proven to be really comfortable bedding for the cows, and it's clean," Bogart said. "The bacteria cleans the manure."

Last year, Deer Run began work with a company to expand the digester system’s capacity by installing a mixing tank that will enable other farms to bring their animal waste to the farm for use in the digester.

Derek Ducat of Deer Run Dairy in Kewaunee talks about the diverse cover crops, some of which are seen between the rows of corn, planted at the farm to have the cover established for as much of the year as possible, further preventing runoff and creating healthier soil.

The farm is also in the midst trying a different feed for its cows that is expected to reduce methane in their rumen (the largest compartment of their stomach) by 9%, or the equivalent of 500 metric tons of carbon dioxide a year, Bogart said. Antibiotic use is minimal, and the barns are cross-ventilated by fans that conserve energy while keeping the animals comfortable.

Deer Run also has diversified its cover crop plantings to improve soil health and prevent runoff. Along with the corn it plants for animal feed and the rye that's widely used as a cover crop, it also plants crops that grow at different times, so when the corn is harvested, other plants already are in place to provide the cover. Clovers and turnips are among the plants now growing among the rows of corn stalks.

"When you take the corn off in the fall, the cover crop is already established," Derek said. "The more species you get, the greater the soil health."

The Ducats and Bogart also work to share what they've learned and practiced about dairy farming and conservation with other farmers and the public. Duane Ducat is a founding member of Peninsula Pride Farms, an organization of farmers from Kewaunee and southern Door counties that works to help its members use agricultural practices that are safer for the water and encourages innovative techniques and technologies.

"When non-farm people come to the Conservation Conversation (a semi-regular gathering hosted by Peninsula Pride Farms members), they're really impressed by what we're doing," Duane said.

And with water quality continuing to be an issue in Kewaunee County, the operators of Deer Run said they're not resting on the laurels of the national award. They say they'll continue to find innovations and new ways to keep their cows and soil healthy while being as sustainable and environmentally sound as possible.

"We're always pushing here to keep getting better and better," Duane said.