January 30, 2022 at 6:07 p.m.

Sustainable dairying into the next generation 

Composting, cover cropping incentives are key for panelists
Cody Heller (from left), Pat Troendle and Michael Jenson, Jr. speak about composting, cover cropping strategies and green energy practices they are using on their farms during Form-A-Feed’s producer panel Jan. 13 in Welch, Minnesota. The producers believe that by utilizing these practices, their farms will become more sustainable for the next generation. PHOTO SUBMITTED
Cody Heller (from left), Pat Troendle and Michael Jenson, Jr. speak about composting, cover cropping strategies and green energy practices they are using on their farms during Form-A-Feed’s producer panel Jan. 13 in Welch, Minnesota. The producers believe that by utilizing these practices, their farms will become more sustainable for the next generation. PHOTO SUBMITTED

By Kate Rechtzigel- | Comments: 0 | Leave a comment

WELCH, Minn. − Every dairy farmer milks cows and manages the land just a little bit differently than their neighbors. For three farmers, they found practices that not only help achieve their farming goals today but create a sustainable future for another generation.   
Three producers − Michael Jenson Jr., of Elk Mound, Wisconsin; Pat Troendle, of Lanesboro; and Cody Heller, of Alma Center, Wisconsin − shared ways they have made their dairy farms more sustainable for the next generation during the seminar, “Arming your dairy for the future,” at Form-A-Feed’s Dairy Conference Jan. 13 in Welch. 
“Sustainability is kind of a political keyword in a way, but if I was going to put a word on it, I would call it profitability, and that matters to us,” Jenson said. “By implementing compost, we were able to save $8,000 and improve the quality in our forages.” 
Jenson and his family − wife Jenny and kids, Michael III and Kylee; and his parents, Michael Sr. and Phyllis − milk 120 cows with two Lely robots and raise beef cows. Jenson beds with recycled solids from a neighboring farm and also composts. 

Composting became a sustainable option
When Jenson was looking for ways to improve the sustainability, and ultimately profitability, of his dairy farm, composting was not an option he readily thought of. 
“It’s kind of funny; I didn’t know much about compost when we started,” Jenson said. 
After several meetings with representatives from the United States Department of Agriculture Natural Resources Conservation Service, composting soon became a part of the Jensons’ sustainable farming methods.   
Only one day following a consult to explain the method of composting, Jenson started his journey with the practice. 
“It’s been the best thing we’ve done,” Jenson said. 
To start a lane, he begins with a 6-inch base that is rich in carbon, either pen pack manure or cornstalks.
“They call this base an evaporation wagon,” Jenson said. 
Afterward, Jenson goes out daily and spreads liquid manure on top of the base. The manure comes from the barn or other pens.  
“The key is spreading it thin, that way we get natural evaporation,” Jenson said. “There’s no wrong way of doing it.”
Typically, the family applies two or three months’ worth of manure before pushing the waste into a row. 
“Once it’s in a row, that’s when the composting process actually begins,” Jenson said. 
To speed up the process, Jenson and his family have a company that turns the compost. 
“If you don’t have the equipment, that’s fine,” Jenson said. “We started with nothing. We had a manure spreader and a tanker, and that’s what we started with. It’s so simple to start, anybody could do it.” 
Under perfect conditions, the compost can be ready to spread on the fields within six to eight weeks after the initial turn. 
“There’s really no wrong way to do it. It’s nature; it’s going to work,” Jenson said. “Anything you can do will help it along and increase the speed, but ultimately, the end product is going to be the same.” 
All in all, Jenson is proud of the success he has seen on his farm by utilizing compost. 
“During the consult, we figured it would cost us up to $12,000 to have a manure pumper come and move my manure, but if I spread it myself, I would save $8,000,” Jenson said. “That year, we ended up making $4,000 an acre on 2 acres. … My first year after we starting using the compost product, I got first in corn silage at the World Forage Analysis Superbowl and the second year I got third. I had some of the best corn silage in the world, and I contribute that all to the compost product.” 

Troendle cover crops to improve soil health
Troendle has used cover crops to help conserve the soil and give the land a nitrogen boost on his family’s farm which sits in a valley in southern Minnesota.
Troendle and his wife, Chris, and brother-in-law, Ben Taylor, milk 200 cows and run 600 acres, 40 of which are an organic cash crop.
“One of things my family and I think about when we’re talking about sustainability is that we are blessed to have 6 inches of top soil when it rains,” Troendle said. “We want to make sure it stays there. So, we’ve really emphasized cover cropping, particularly in the past 10 years.” 
Much like Jenson, Troendle started with little equipment. They first used a grain drill that was not meant to be used for no-till management of the soil. 
“We’d come in right after the day we would do corn silage so there was a little bit of moisture in the ground,” Troendle said. “We seeded in the cover crop and were able to get some decent cover crops.”
However, in the last three years, they have upgraded to a high-speed disc with an air seeder. 
“Now, we can actually cover some acres at 8 to 10 mph, and we’ve been able to reduce our rates from 80 pounds an acre of a four-way blend to 50 pounds an acre of winter rye, turnips, radishes and Dwarf Essex Rapeseed,” Troendle said. “Next year, we are going to reduce that blend down even more and add in oats.” 
According to Troendle, their biggest challenges have been with winter rye. 
“We want things to green up in the fall so it can hold that topsoil, and we want things to get green in the spring,” Troendle said. “But, when you’re working with rye, we found that you either want to get it killed or worked in before it gets 6 inches above ground.”
Troendle said in his experience, it has taken a two-day rain event for the rye to go from 6 to 11 inches, making the cover crop difficult to work with. By reducing the amount of rye in the blend, they hope the cover crop will be easier to manage.
Troendle also grows organic crops on a two-year rotation: a corn cash crop and an oat and pea blend, and a seven-way blend of forages.
“Planting one thing in a cover crop is better than nothing,” Troendle said. “But our topography really drives what we feed our cows; we need to feed a 60-40 diet of alfalfa and corn silage to the cows in order to keep nutritious topsoil.”

Heller invests in renewable energy options
After nearly four years of inactivity on the farm’s manure digester, Heller is ready to start the machine up again.
Heller installed the digester in 2013 when the Wisconsin government had an energy program that allowed grant funding to support the installation and a contract with a power company. Now, under a new contract, Heller will be able to sell liquified natural gas to a Canadian-based company.
“So, economics again have come back to the table and shown us that we can profit off our manure,” Heller said.
Heller and his wife are the fourth generation on their farm in Jackson County, where they milk 1,500 cows, raise 2,000 hogs and run about 6,000 acres. 
Heller stopped using the manure digester when it was not a profitable management option for his farm.
“I have finally reached a point where I can view the numbers and monetize to make manure management through a digester economical, and that hasn’t been true in the past,” Heller said. “When the power purchase agreements were in place and that green energy was paying us a subsidized dividend, it made sense. Today it makes sense again.” 
Heller is also adding solar energy to the farm. 
“It all revolves around the carbon footprint,” Heller said. “These developers are working with wind, solar, digesters and other green energies to net zero your farm and make it economical for that carbon credit to come into play.”
Investing in renewable energy is a way Heller can be confident his children will have an opportunity to farm if they so choose. 
 “I have to be worried about my children and what their future looks like, so staying ahead of the sustainability curve is my goal,” he said. 
Once the solar panels are installed, Heller estimates each one will bring in about $1,200 per acre of cropland. Between the panels, the Hellers are going to plant strips of alfalfa or other grass varieties. 
“These crops will grow low enough so they don’t block off the panels,” Heller said. “But we are going to take our least productive land, add solar and make a profit on it.” 
Heller is also looking forward to the opportunity to show consumers the sustainable efforts his farm is putting in place. 
“(The power company) is able to say which farm the energy is coming from and how much,” Heller said. 
For anyone looking to take their dairy’s sustainability practices to the next level, Heller encourages them to be curious.
“Putting it together is a big challenge,” he said. “The more people you can ask questions to, the better.”


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