Dairy farm turns manure into compost side hustle
GRAND CHUTE - Would you have the courage to dig your hands into a pile of compost knowing it was made out of cow poop?
“It’s about a year from the backside of a cow to this,” Mark Petersen, of the Petersen Dairy Farm, said as he scooped up a handful of the rich compost mixed with soil.
It smelled like earth.
“The composting process takes most of the odor away,” he said. "It's a neat, clean product. It's transformed into something that's totally different."
Every cow produces about 27 tons of manure a year, and what to do with it is a big issue — especially when the farm is steps away from homes and businesses.
"We have to do all we can to manage that manure properly so it does not pollute the environment," he said.
At most farms, manure is typically stored and spread on fields once or twice a year.
Here, however, Petersen and his father, Pete, and brother, Steve, have made it a side business since 1995. They turn all of their cows' manure into compost and sell it to home gardeners. At the same time, they've also largely eliminated runoff that could potentially pollute groundwater.
And they've eliminated the big stink.
Changes going on at the farm right now — prompted by a bite out of the farm for roundabout construction at Edgewood and Lightning drives and a stormwater pond — mean the composting operation is currently being moved and modernized with updated safeguards.
The farm operation
The Petersen farm at 5410 N. Ballard Road was once in the countryside, but is now surrounded on all sides by homes and businesses like Kwik Trip. Appleton North High School is steps away.
It’s a small, 65-acre farm with a red barn, 110 Holstein cows and calves, a house built in 1904 and fields that are planted in corn, soybeans and alfalfa.
Pete, Mark and Steve Petersen, a father and two sons, are the second and third generations on this farm. Pete Petersen, 88, has lived here since 1935, many decades before Appleton’s northward march. Mark spoke for the family.
Changes make a difference
When a four-acre chunk of the farm was needed for a stormwater pond and a portion of a roundabout, the composting pad had to be shifted a bit north and east. The Outagamie County Highway Department contributed some engineering expertise, non-pervious clay fill and assistance getting updated DNR permits as part of the negotiated land purchase deal.
“We’re taking materials out of the pond to build up the compost pad and improve drainage,” said Curtis Riedy, the department's project foreman. “It works out for them and works out for us.”
The Petersens will mix manure with organic material, like leaves and newspaper, on the new pad. Oxygen-using bacteria break down the manure and generate heat up to 150 degrees, which kills weed seeds and pathogens, and gives off carbon dioxide and water vapor. The Petersens continually turn over the pile to expose it to air and keep the process going.
It’s a time and labor-intensive process that many farms don’t do.
The new impervious pad helps with environmental protection in the composting operation, said Petersen. The pad will be surrounded by certain types of grass and clover.
“To prevent runoff, you can’t have too much of slope. We’re putting in new varieties of vegetation to stop runoff and filter it,” he said.
Composting the farm's manure — 33,000 tons of it since 1995, he figures — also keeps phosphorus from entering waterways through raw manure runoff.
More farms should compost, he said.
“Manure management should be on the front burner in Wisconsin because it is causing a lot of trouble," he said.
More than half of the phosphorus in the Fox River and most of its nutrient-laden suspended solids are from agriculture, he said. That's both from runoff and from some commercial fertilizers not applied property.
“Phosphorus contributes to algae bloom. It's really disturbing."
Compost tilled into the soil tends to stay put, he said.
Even before the current changes, the Petersen farm was considered a model in the composting world.
“I’ve taken people from around the country to their farm to show what a well-managed operation can be,” said Kevin Erb, a manure management expert and director of UW Extension’s Conservation Professional Training Program.
He said there isn’t a groundwater threat from the Petersen farm or others in this part of Outagamie County because of its depth of soil, unlike the problem areas in Calumet and Kewaunee counties where soil is shallow over fractured bedrock.
The more pressing issue at the Petersens' property is the one of farm vs. urban sprawl.
“When I look at the urban development that’s occurred in the last 20, 25 years, there’s been the real potential for conflict between farms and urban neighbors,” said Erb. “The reason the Petersens went to this alternative management system was to manage odor concerns and be a good neighbor. No question in my mind that they have.”
“I honestly do not smell it,” said Matt Oetzel, store leader at Kwik Trip on E. Edgewood Drive. It's the business closest to the farm.
The Petersens are considered such a role model of sustainability and good stewards of the land that they were invited to the White House in 2013 and presented a national sustainability award from the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy.
Value of manure
While the Petersen farm’s main income still comes from selling milk to Simon’s Cheese in Little Chute, composting nearly all of its manure and selling it has been a good side business, especially as milk prices drop because of oversupply.
The value of manure as fertilizer is generally estimated at about $130 per cow per year. The Petersens charge $2 per 5-gallon pail.
“To remain competitive, it’s nice to have something like this, to have a value-added product to sell,” said Petersen.
The Petersens will likely sell out of this year’s compost supply by the end of June, as they do nearly every year.
One unexpected side effect of composting is that it brings the buying public to the farm and elevates the Petersens’ public personas.
“The relationship with the community is something we didn’t see coming,” he said. “They see what's going on here and they talk to us.
"When they see us in the grocery store, they say, ‘hey, it’s the compost guy.’ That’s cool.”