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A framed plaque symbolizes the dairy sustainability award earned by Petersen Dairy Farm.

A framed plaque symbolizes the dairy sustainability award earned by Petersen Dairy Farm. Photo By Ray Mueller

Petersens earn national dairy sustainability award

June 13, 2013 | 0 comments


By turning a potential negative into several positives, the Petersen Dairy Farm has earned an Outstanding Dairy Farm Sustainability award for 2013 - only the second dairy farm in Wisconsin to obtain that recognition.

The annual program, which also provides awards for energy efficiency, renewable energy, and sustainability practices in dairy plant processing or manufacturing, is sponsored by the Innovation Center for United States Dairy, which is based at Rosemont, IL.

This was the second year of the awards program.

"This is the ultimate pat on the back," farm co-owner Mark Petersen told attendees at a June 3 media gathering at the farm to generate more public attention about the award.

He, his brother Steve, and their semi-retired father Lawrence ("Pete") have a 50-cow dairy herd with a rolling herd average of more than 31,000 pounds of milk.

Petersen Dairy Farm, which crops nearly 400 acres, is located directly across Outagamie County JJ from Appleton North High School. The landscape across the highway to the south is dominated by single family residences.

Because of that proximity, the Petersens acted pre-emptively to such concerns in the urbanizing neighborhood as odors, runoff, tractor traffic on the highways, and possible roadway spillage of the approximately 10,000 pounds of manure emanating daily from their milking cows and 65 youngstock.

Concern for and involvement with the community were major reasons why Petersen Dairy Farm earned its award.

New Opportunity

The presence of the many new neighbors by the mid-1990s created an opportunity that has been very successful for 18 years, Mark Petersen points out.

The Petersens compost all of their dairy manure, turning it into a value-added product that is sold to gardeners, landscapers, and other buyers in volumes from five-gallon pails to truckloads.

They also mix a raised-bed product that’s a combination of good topsoil and compost.

Within easy view of the residential area, the Petersens set aside a couple of acres for the windrows of composting manure, which are turned about once a week with a mixer in order to maintain the composting process.

Before they purchased their own unit, the Petersens shared one with the nearby Oneida Nation Farm.

Petersen said the composting site, at which manure becomes saleable topsoil in one year or less, is licensed by the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade, and Consumer Protection.

It has a border filter strip to protect against runoff to the adjacent farmland and surface waters to which it drains.

Leaves, lawn thatch, and other organic materials are also acceptable for composting, Petersen noted.

Because of the necessity of having a carbon source to accommodate the composting, soybean straw is added as an amendment at times, he indicated. "This could a science fair project."

Newspaper Bedding

Of the manure that is composted, about 1,500 pounds per week started as recycled newspapers that are used for all of the bedding for the cows and young calves inside the dairy barn.

Because of how the chopped newspaper would blow away outside, grain straw is used for bedding in the calf hutches.

In a practice dating to 1988, the Petersens pay for the newspapers that are turned into bedding - approximately two million pounds in 25 years. The payments go to St. Edward Catholic School in Mackville, Xavier High School in Appleton, and Appleton’s Central Catholic school system. The students and staff at those schools collect the discarded newspapers.

Approximately 25 percent of the newspaper supply is obtained for no cost, Petersen indicates. That portion is dropped off by area residents who are aware of the recycling and by some of the 1,500-2,000 annual buyers of the composted topsoil.

Petersen estimates that the chopped newspaper absorbs about 30 percent more moisture than straw does.

Until the recent spike in the cost of straw, Petersen Dairy Farm was paying about $20 more per ton for the recycled newspapers than what straw would cost.

Local Concerns

In the early 1990s, Petersen became a member of an advisory committee charged with providing ideas on environmental sustainability within the area watersheds.

One of the other members was the then Outagamie County Extension Service soils, crops, and horticulture agent John Biese, who attended the media session here.

That experience led the Petersens to begin zone tillage on a lot of their crop acres in 1995, thereby reducing both soil erosion and the loss of plant nutrients.

"I had to point a finger at myself before pointing it to anyone else," Petersen commented. He cited the algae blooms on area bodies of water as one sign of a problem.

The switch to zone tillage reduced diesel fuel usage from as much as nine gallons per acre to as little as 30 ounces, Petersen stated.

The four-inch wide tilled ridges - for 30-inch corn rows - provide soil that is approximately five-seven degrees warmer than the surrounding soil in the spring, thereby enabling earlier planting and germination of the corn, he explained.

In addition to protecting the natural and crop input resources, Petersen said that crop yields have been increasing as a result of the new practices undertaken in the past 20 years.

He indicated that zone tilling works well on all of the varied soil types on the farm.

Another recycling effort at Petersen Dairy Farm has been the placement of tile, obtained from construction projects, as the floor for the mangers in the dairy barn. The smooth surface contributes to a much cleaner manger than other materials.

A 1,200-gallon water tank at the edge of a shed collects rain water from the roof. This water is used in the farm’s power washer for cleaning equipment.

Asked by the Wisconsin State Farmer if there were any other practice(s) that he would like to carry out, Petersen said it would be as an embellishment of the direct marketing already in place with the composted manure.

This would be the on-farm sale of milk (pasteurized) and beef but this would happen "only in a perfect world," he remarked.

Mutual Support

The Petersens’ entry for possible recognition for the U.S. Dairy Innovation Center was prompted by their herd veterinarian Kelly Peters of Countryside Veterinary Service of Appleton and by Kevin Erb, a regional certified crop adviser for the University of Wisconsin Extension Service.

Erb, who also attended the media event here, has guided, monitored, and documented the Petersens’ composting practices for 15 years.

He explained that the process depends on using oxygen to nurture the bacteria, which convert the manure in as little as one growing season to one calendar year.

Among the basics for composting are having a windrow large enough to generate internal temperatures of 120-140 degrees Fahrenheit and then churning the windrow if the temperature drops below 110, Erb indicated. Usually, this requires turning the windrow about every 10 days.

Erb has also documented the reduction of soil erosion and nutrient loss as a result of the zone tillage. He puts both reductions at about 70 percent.

Soil compaction is greatly reduced and excess surface water tends to infiltrate rather than run off, providing reserve moisture for longer periods during a drought, he added.

Other Winners

The Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy sustainability award winners for 2013 included Green Valley Dairy of Krakow (WI) for outstanding achievement in renewable energy.

That award is based mainly on the installation, beginning in 2005, of three anaerobic digesters, which have a capability of producing 1,200 killowat hours of electric power.

Other winners for 2013 were the Unilever ice cream plant at Henderson, NV - in the dairy processor category - for the water usage and energy efficiency practices that it began in 2010.

Another winner was the Ballard Family Dairy and Cheese at Gooding, ID, - in the energy efficiency category - for the use of solar thermal power for heating water, new lighting, vacuum pump replacement, and a change in its milk cooling method for a total carbon footprint reduction of 121,500 pounds for year.

Wisconsin’s previous winner of the Outstanding Dairy Farm Sustainability in 2012 was Holsum Dairies of rural Hilbert in Calumet County.

Information about applying for the award is available on the USDairy.com/Sustainability/Awards website. Applications are evaluated by a panel of judges coordinated by Dairy Management, Inc.

Major sponsors of the annual awards program are DeLaval, Elanco, DVO Anaerobic Digesters, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the World Wildlife Fund, Zoetis (formerly Pfizer Animal Health), the Milk Processor Education Program (PEP), and the Center for Advanced Energy/Idaho National Laboratory.

Other sponsors are Syngenta, the U.S. Dairy Export Council, Dolphin WaterCare, and the quasar energy group.


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