Deer Run Dairy wins national sustainability award

From cover crops to no till, Kewaunee County farm focused on conservation


KEWAUNEE, Wis. – Protecting water quality and improving soil health are priorities at Deer Run Dairy where conservation practices are integrated into the fiber of the farm.
From cover crops to no-till farming, partners Duane Ducat, Derek Ducat and Dale Bogart put the environment first as they work in sync with the land which they hope to sustain for generations to come. Focused on land and animal stewardship, Deer Run Dairy nurtures cattle and crops to help both reach their full potential.

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As a result of their work, Deer Run Dairy is a recipient of the Outstanding Dairy Farm Sustainability award from the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy. The operation was one of seven farms, businesses and partnerships recognized in 2022 for its socially responsible, economically viable and environmentally sound practices and technologies that have a broad and positive impact.
“I have always leaned towards the sustainable side of things,” Duane said. “Mother Nature knows what he’s doing, and we want to make sure we’re working with nature to control the things we can rather than working against it.”
Duane bought the farm in 1983.The Ducats and Bogart milk around 1,600 cows and farm 2,500 acres near Kewaunee. Starting out with 80 cows, Duane reached 130 milking in a tiestall barn before joining forces with Dale in 2000. The two farmers combined herds and built a facility at the same location in 2008. In addition to his career as a dairy farmer, Duane also worked full time at a nuclear power plant, recently retiring after 44 years of service.
Deer Run Dairy also does custom fieldwork for other farms and is a member of conservation-minded groups like Peninsula Pride Farms, the Wisconsin Demo Farm Network and the Discovery Research program. The partners feel their involvement in these organizations has been a big help to conservation efforts at home, and thus, the farm is seeing tangible results in the soil.
Duane’s son, Derek, is seeing the efforts in action.
“Our soil structure is definitely changing with the use of cover crops and no till,” Derek said. “One field soil test showed a half percentage increase in organic matter, which improves the soil’s water holding capacity and infiltration. It’s pretty exciting to see results in a short timeframe.”
Last fall, Deer Run Dairy achieved its goal of having no bare ground when they seeded 100% of their cropland with cover crops. Cereal rye is the main cover used. They also plant blends of turnip, radish, barley and rye after wheat or fourth crop hay. A big change for the farm in the last six years was bumping down their planting rate for rye, going from 50-60 pounds per acre to 25-30 pounds.
“A diverse cover crop ties everything together and helps improve the soil,” Duane said. “Cover crops also keep the ground moist and help with crusting issues. We’ve learned that you want to keep rye in when planting corn to soak up the moisture, but we roll down the rye to ensure the corn gets sunlight.”
No tilling has been a way of life at Deer Run Dairy for many years with more and more acres converted each year.
“We’re trending over to no till for the most part, and cover crops give us the ability to do that,” Duane said.  
Derek agreed.
“When we’re coming out of hay, we do cover crops instead of terminating and going straight to corn,” he said. “We put cover crops right into hay and find that the ground mellows out and is more forgiving, making it easier to plant into. It was eye-opening in 2018 when we discovered our equipment carried so much better on no-tilled fields versus conventional-tilled fields.”
Derek also likes that no tilling eliminates the need to pick stones.
“In the long run, it’s about being more efficient,” he said. “Also, we’re not burning fields through tillage or releasing carbon when working the land.”
This year, the Ducats started interseeding into corn – planting turnip, radish, three kinds of clover and buckwheat. They are hoping to get multiple years out of their clover and perhaps not have to terminate the crop each growing season.  
“We’re trying new things like putting that same blend into V3 to V5 corn so that it doesn’t compete with the corn,” Derek said. “We struggled with interseeding cereal rye. It doesn’t do well.”
As a demo farm, Derek said they have the opportunity to try new things and get ideas from other farmers.
“We used to plant radishes at 15 pounds per acre when we started, and now we plant at 1 to 2 pounds,” he said. “As a member of this group, farmers don’t have to start from scratch. We can all learn from each other.”
The farm does trials and studies to determine how their practices are benefitting the land. For example, they are monitoring edge-of-field runoff to analyze the role of cover crops in reducing runoff. Through Peninsula Pride Farms, Deer Run Dairy is also using a field to market platform that analyzes the metrics of various approaches and their effects on the soil. The farm is one of 10 using the technology and is on its third year of the three-year trial.
“It’s hard when you first get into these practices,” Derek said. “You wonder what you are going to get out of what you’re doing, but the field to market tool provides results you can bank on.”
The Ducats also credit their methane manure digester as an important component in helping their operation be more environmentally friendly.
“Before I built this dairy, I knew I wanted to have a digester,” Duane said. “I didn’t want to use sand for bedding because it’s hard on equipment. Instead, we use separated manure solids produced from the digester and have had good luck with it.”
Installed in 2011, the digester supplied power to nearly 600 homes. In 2020, the farm converted over to renewable natural gas that is injected into the pipeline, which Duane said is a more lucrative option. The digester produces 120,000 cubic feet of pipeline gas per day. Nearly all of the farm’s manure is put on a growing crop, and last year, all manure was applied with a dribble bar.
“The dribble bar brings manure down to the ground level which is a big difference versus splashing it on top of the field,” Derek said. “We’ve been able to increase our rates because of better infiltration from our improved soil structure. We were at three to four passes but are now getting down to just two passes.”
Duane said reduction in odor is one of the big pluses of the digester, especially when top applying manure. As they look toward the future, Deer Run Dairy hopes to reduce its commercial fertilizer needs.
“We’re already reducing it through the use of manure, and we want to keep focusing on that,” Derek said.
Duane agreed.
“Our goal is to reduce inputs,” he said. “We’re looking at cutting back on chemical uses. We’re not implying that everyone has to do that, but we want to show that it can be done in our area. We also want to put more emphasis on waterways – making sure they’re built right and properly maintained.”  
Sustainability practices are found not only in the fields but are also diligently practiced in the barns at Deer Run Dairy as they tie their conservation efforts back to the animal and the milk produced. Duane said minimizing antibiotic use is a continual practice on the farm, made easier through a focus on nutritious feed.
“We’re striving to get more nutritious feed into the cows,” Derek said. “More nutrients into the crops should carry through to the milk and result in a healthier animal as well.”
Deer Run Dairy is also conducting feeding trials to reduce methane gas production in the rumen of the cow by using feed additives that lower emissions.
The owners of Deer Run Dairy greet sustainable agriculture with open arms and are on the lookout for opportunities to become even more compatible with the environment. The Ducats are on the cutting edge of conservation and attend the Wisconsin cover crop conference as well as national cover crop and no-till conferences to continually gain more information and new ideas on these topics.  
“We don’t rule out anything,” Duane said. “We’re open to different ideas and trying new things. Change is constant, and we’re open to change because we have to keep this farm going for future generations.”


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