Reuniting vegetables with dairy
Wisconsin leads the nation in both dairy and vegetable production; these industries are keys to Wisconsin’s economy. They are also vital components of a healthy diet! It’s not surprising that in the early days of farming in Wisconsin, vegetable production and dairy cows were frequent partners in the farm economy. Modern day challenges, however, have inevitably led to more specialization in agricultural systems. With the need to increase production efficiency to meet the food needs of an increasing human population, it’s not a surprise that specialization occurred, and it’s no wonder why these two important staples of early farms drifted apart.
But June is Dairy Month in Wisconsin, and we are happy to report that this trend is beginning to reverse itself! An excellent example can be seen in the Central Sands premier vegetable production area where Wysocki Produce Farms— a multi-generational family farm growing vegetables on the sands from Nekoosa to Bancroft —have joined forces with Central Sands Dairy— a leading dairy producer that provides milk to the cheese plant at Foremost Dairies.
This exciting venture was started by the Wysocki Family over 10 years ago and based on a vision that the two seemingly very different production systems could be melded together to form a single, highly productive and yet more sustainable way of farming. The dairy and the vegetables systems each bring opportunities to the table that can be blended to generate synergies that make integrated farming systems sustainability a reality.
The dairy manure brings nutrients and energy to the party. The essential plant nutrient, nitrogen, was once a relatively minor cost, but has grown exponentially more expensive over the past decade. The nitrogen from the manure provides most of the nitrogen for the vegetables grown, helping in economic stability to the farm and more affordability to the consumer. The 3000 cows lounging contentedly in the dairy, munching their carefully balanced feed in the climate-controlled/open air barns generate an amazing 40 million gallons of manure per year. None of this is in evidence in the barns, which have a healthy aroma of silage and fresh hay. The manure is all whisked away to the manure digester, a very ingenious device that generates energy for the farm and beyond. The digester ferments the manure at temperatures up to 105 degrees for 2-3 weeks – sufficient to kill any potential pathogens. The solid output of the digester represents pure gold to the crop producing side of the farm in the form of rich compost. The liquids, which usually run over 20% nitrogen, along with the compost are spread on the production fields, directly replacing the high-priced, manufactured nitrogen sources, which can be the largest carbon sources and energy drain in conventional agriculture. All that manure may sound like a lot, but at Wysocki Farms, it translates into an economic and environmental bargain!
But how does manure provide energy? The fermentation in the digester generates methane, a gas that is quickly converted into electricity to power all the needs of the dairy operation with enough left over to supply the municipal grid. When you add it all up—the energy savings from fermentation, the value of the nitrogen produced for the crops, the environmental savings from not using artificially produced fertilizer —the dairy really does bring a lot to the party! Add the full time employment for 35 dairy workers and the value of the milk to the cheese plant and you have a synergy that really works.
But what does the vegetable side bring to the partnership? Processing crops such as sweet corn, peas, green beans and potatoes are vital to the food security of the US. The Central Sands ranks among the leaders in production in vegetable crops, and it is critical that we can continue to produce these crops in the region. To keep doing this, we need to care for the land long-term. That is why this integration of vegetables helps diversify the landscapes by introducing new crops and increasing the length of crop rotations in the area. Adding corn, corn silage, and alfalfa to the vegetable’s rotation has improved weed control by adding new alternatives to the farmer’s toolbox to manage weeds that are difficult to control in vegetables. Alfalfa has the added advantages of being a deep-rooted, perennial crop that fixes its own nitrogen: the deep roots break up soil compaction naturally and reduce the need for energy- intensive deep cultivation; the increases in biodiversity that come with a long term crop like alfalfa are already being seen in higher bee and pollinator populations; and the ability to fix its own nitrogen further reduces the need to add more artificial nutrients to the system.
There are other examples of how the two enterprises can work in tandem— incorporating the high-organic matter digested solids (compost) into the sandy soils of Central Wisconsin, promises even greater long-term rewards. Although still being evaluated, the enrichment of soil biodiversity is bringing observable increases in ecosystem services such as greater water holding capacity, improved resistance to wind erosion and loamier soil structure that has consistently increased vegetable yields.
Bringing vegetable and dairy systems together holds great promise for increased sustainability; as Jeff Sommers, farm manager for Central Sands Dairy says: “Closing the loop has created a whole bunch of synergies that we haven’t even measured yet.” Perhaps the June Dairy Month of the future will be celebrated together with the wonderful mix of early summer vegetables!