Sustainability is the end game for Rosenow
Cowsmo Compost flourishes for over 20 years
Manure is stored for about three months before it is ready to package under Rosenow’s standards. PHOTO BY DANIELLE NAUMAN
WAUMANDEE, Wis. – Farming among the rolling hills and bluffs of western Wisconsin’s Buffalo County can create challenges for farmers striving to reach goals of both environmental and economic sustainability. John and Nettie Rosenow have spent the last 20 years working on doing precisely that.
“We wanted to be in the business of milking cows, not crop farming,” said John Rosenow of the cow-centered focus of Rosenholm Dairy. “We have tried to minimize our cropping experience and maximize our cow experience. We try to buy as much of our commodities as we can and then grow our forages on about 800 acres, using 100% no-till farming practices.”
The Rosenows milk 600 cows in a double-9 parlor on their dairy farm near Waumandee. In addition to the dairy operation, the Rosenows have created a separate business, Cowsmo Compost, producing and marketing organic compost and potting soil. As the composting business has grown, Rosenow spends most of his time marketing and overseeing that endeavor, while Nettie has taken over the majority of the herd management tasks. The Rosenows hosted a Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation Leaders of the Land tour Sept. 10.
A barn fire in 1989 caused the Rosenows to take a serious look at their dairy operation, and determine if and how they might proceed in the dairy industry. Moving forward, the Rosenows built a naturally-ventilated freestall barn in 1990, with a manual flush system, which was the first curtain sidewall barn in the Midwest.
“We are a CAFO, with about 1,100 animal units, so our 800 acres wouldn’t take the nutrients,” said Rosenow of how Cowsmo Compost came to be. “Our options were to sell the manure or to rent more land. We didn’t want to rent a whole lot of land, so we needed to find a market for manure.”
Rosenow said he started dabbling in composting after building the new barn, becoming serious about his efforts, building a compost pad and purchasing a compost turner in 1997.
In the 24 years since beginning to market compost in earnest, business has slowly grown and flourished to the point where Rosenow is unable to fully meet demand, he said. The product is sold in 20 states and four foreign countries. The Rosenows have developed a second product, an organic potting soil, which they are selling primarily to organic vegetable growers. To help meet the growing demand, Rosenow has begun working with two other farmers to make compost for the business.
“All of the solid manure created here from 1,100 head is sold as compost,” Rosenow said. “It is a year-round business.”
The management practices used on Rosenholm Dairy all work symbiotically with each other to meet the end goals of sustainability, both environmental and economic.
Both the freestall barns and the parlor are cleaned by use of manual flush systems, which Rosenow said works well down to about 15 degrees Fahrenheit. The parlor is flushed reusing the water used for cooling milk and washing the parlor equipment. Water recycled using a system of three plastic-lined lagoons, which hold about 6 million gallons of water, is used to flush the alleys in their freestall barns.
“We keep reusing the water,” said Rosenow of the farm’s water conservation efforts. “The process we use for the lagoon water is important because we are able to separate it. We have to keep the water clean; it can’t become slimy or problematic. If it gets so it won’t go through the screens of our separator, then we have major problems.”
Keeping the water clean and reusable is accomplished through the use of an aerobic system. This system also helps eliminate odor from the lagoon water. Rosenow noted that every time the barn is flushed and water passes through the fine-screen separator, air is added to the system, helping to keep the water clean.
“We have to have clean water in order to flush and separate,” Rosenow said. “We do everything in our power to do that.”
Water from the lagoon system is also used to irrigate their fields, through a system of underground pipes.
The freestalls are bedded daily with sawdust, which is primarily obtained as a byproduct from a local furniture factory. The sawdust adds carbon to the compost mixture.
The barn allies are flushed using water from the lagoons, using about 2,200 gallons of water to flush each alley. After the flush, water and debris are collected in a tank with an agitator and pump. From the tank, it is pumped to the separator, which has no moving parts and is made of stainless steel and plastic. Manure comes through the separator at about 70% moisture. Freshly separated manure is blended with a pile of dry manure to obtain a moisture level of approximately 60%, where it sits on what Rosenow calls a weeping pad until it is hauled to the compost pad.
“We have learned over the years what moisture level we need to make the best compost we can,” Rosenow said. “The compost is turned typically about three times a week.”
According to Rosenow, the composting process is achieved because of the bugs in the manure from the cow’s digestive system.
“If they have oxygen, they will consume the carbon,” Rosenow said. “In that process they give off heat and carbon dioxide. Every time we turn the compost, we are releasing the heat and the carbon dioxide into the air and reintroducing oxygen back in; the turner takes in the inside and moves it to the outside. It will only compost about the top 6 to 8 inches, and as you turn it, you will eventually get the whole thing composted.”
Rosenow takes an honest approach at marketing Cowsmo Compost, pricing the product to cover his margins and be profitable.
“I have found that people will buy your product because of performance rather than appearance,” Rosenow said. “I tell people that I am not a very good salesperson, so I had better have a good product to sell. And, I really believe that we do have a very good product.”