Brian Stevens manages Rick Langland’s organic dairy herd near Waukon, Iowa. A step-up parlor and variable speed milk and vacuum pumps help decrease the farm’s energy use.
Brian Stevens manages Rick Langland’s organic dairy herd near Waukon, Iowa. A step-up parlor and variable speed milk and vacuum pumps help decrease the farm’s energy use. PHOTO BY SHERRY NEWELL
    WAUKON, Iowa – Rick Langland was organic before he knew it was an option for selling milk at a higher price.
    In the early ‘90s, the Waukon dairyman had high nitrates in his well and felt ill after exposure to rootworm insecticide while planting corn.
    “I knew I needed to get away from using all these chemicals,” Langland said. “So, I started a different crop rotation. I didn’t realize that decision was sending me down the road to organic farming.”
    But in 1993, Langland was contacted by Organic Valley management who heard of his changing farming methods and invited him to a meeting. Langland had not considered how his cows’ milk could meet a growing demand from the consumer market.
    “After the meeting, I was just trying to figure out how I could farm organically and keep the somatic cell count down,” Langland said. “I worried it might go sky high. That day (of the meeting), there were 28 farmers selling to Organic Valley.”
    It took Langland a few months to make the decision to fully transition to organic production, which then took three years.
    “When Organic Valley took me on in 1996, it was for a month at a time,” Langland said. “The last guy signed on was the first guy to let go if the milk wasn’t needed. I was the 56th producer for Organic Valley.”
    Since then, Langland’s 60-cow Holstein herd has been bred with Norwegian Red and Jersey in a search for smaller cows with better feet, higher butterfat, lower somatic cell and improved health.
    His herdsman, Brian Stevens, manages the cows while Langland oversees the operation, does a large portion of the fieldwork and works with Stevens to keeps up with intensive rotational grazing on the farm’s 500 acres.
    And, Langland’s farming practices garnered Organic Valley’s Leadership in Sustainability national award in 2016.  
    Langland installed solar panels on the roof of a new building with a feed alley in 2012. The 75-by-112 monoslope structure was designed to generate energy and house the milking herd on a bedded pack.
    The idea of solar panels surfaced when Langland’s son, Beau, who farmed with him at the time, became interested in wind energy. After looking into the maintenance and moving parts with windmills, Langland opted instead to capture solar energy, obtaining funds with help from a grant writer serving Organic Valley.
    The barn has 96 240-watt solar modules attached at a 35-degree angle facing south for exposure to the day’s best sun. But it was not simple to make it work.
    “We had to find out the weight-bearing capability because of snow load,” Langland said. “Snow can get hung up on the panels, so we needed extra reinforcement. It needed to be well planned out.”
    The solar array was designed to generate 23 kilowatts of energy. In many past years, it has produced more than that, Langland said.
    The energy travels through two inverters for collection on the power pole. It is used first by the farm, then Alliant Energy banks any overrun to offset the farm’s future power bills.
    “There are some months we don’t have an energy bill at all,” Langland said.
    The same building also saves energy through LED lighting with dusk-to-dawn sensors.
    In the farm’s step-up parlor, Langland installed a plate cooler to save energy. But the savings increased when he needed to replace the original. He found a used one from a nearby dairy quitting the business. When his dairy supply serviceman was installing it, Langland realized it was a double bypass plate cooler.
    “I didn’t even know they had those,” Langland said. “I stumbled on it by accident, and it was a better deal than I thought. Usually that goes the other way.”
    Milk passes through the system twice, taking out more heat than a single unit.
    The parlor also uses a variable speed vacuum pump and a variable speed milk pump through which milk trickles at a low speed to the plate cooler. It pumps faster only when it needs to catch up to milk volume. Milk spends more time in the plate cooler, reaching the bulk tank at 53 to 55 degrees.
    Water from the plate cooler is saved in two 800-gallon tanks, becoming drinking water for the cows.
    Langland believes his organic and energy-conscious approach to dairying leaves him with fewer problems to address.
    “I guess the biggest challenge is always double checking to make sure anything we use here is on the approved organic list,” he said. “And there is labor, but that’s (a problem) for everyone.”
    Langland finds satisfaction in not using chemicals or antibiotics to produce his crops, meat and milk. He has also found farmers like him are a close-knit group who share ideas, thoughts and respect with each other.
    He also credits his co-op with the flexibility to handle the recent novel coronavirus challenges and keeping products on the shelf.
    Langland is proud of what he has accomplished.
    “In the spring, my farm is surrounded by black ground,” Langland said. “I’m in a sea of green with alfalfa and pastures. It’s kind of a good feeling.”