Machines, like the one John Rosenow is standing next to, are far from common in rural Wisconsin. It’s a compost turner that’s used by Cowsmo Compost in Buffalo County near Waumandee, Wis. Rosenow, his wife, Nettie, and neighboring farmer, Loren Wolfe, compost the manure from their 550 dairy cows and sell it locally and across the United States. PHOTO BY RON JOHNSON
Machines, like the one John Rosenow is standing next to, are far from common in rural Wisconsin. It’s a compost turner that’s used by Cowsmo Compost in Buffalo County near Waumandee, Wis. Rosenow, his wife, Nettie, and neighboring farmer, Loren Wolfe, compost the manure from their 550 dairy cows and sell it locally and across the United States.
WAUMANDEE, Wis. - Gardeners far and wide can thank John and Nettie Rosenow and Loren Wolfe for some of their success. Composted manure from the dairy cows nourishes many a melon and tons of tomatoes.
The Rosenows and Wolfe own a 550-cow farm, Rosenholm-Wolfe Dairy, just outside the small Buffalo County community of Waumandee, Wis. In 1990, when they rebuilt after a barn fire, the Rosenows began composting the farm's manure as part of their nutrient management plan.
They constructed a freestall barn whose cow alleys are flushed with recycled water from the farm's lagoons. Manure solids are separated from the liquid portion.
Back in 1990, the Rosenows simply placed the solids in a pile. "And people started coming and getting it for use in their gardens," John said.
The next year, the separated solids were being sold: $5 for a pickup load. These days, a pickup load of the nutrient rich compost sells for considerably more: $67.
The business, formed in 1997 and called Cowsmo Compost, has grown to the point that some 10,000 bags a year are sold. Cowsmo Compost has gone as far from Buffalo County as British Columbia, Canada and Mexico, according to John. In addition to the bags and pickup loads, six to eight semi loads leave daily during the busiest part of the compost year.
In all, some eight million pounds of the compost are sold annually. That eight million pounds is what's left from 20 million pounds of raw manure after aerobic bacteria have worked their digestive magic.
All the manure for the compost emanates from Rosenholm-Wolfe Dairy. Manure that's produced during colder times of the year, when the heat needed for compost to be created can't be generated by the bacteria, goes onto the farm's 1,100 acres of corn, alfalfa and nurse crops.
There's far more to making compost from cow manure than simply piling it and waiting for the bacteria to go to work. Here's a look at the process.
The Holstein cows - 90 percent of them registered - deposit the raw material on the alley floors of the farm's three freestall barns. One of the farm's 20 employees turns the round handle of a valve at one end of a barn. Recycled wastewater gushes out, creating a current that cleans the alleyway.
That mix of water and manure gets pumped to a pair of inclined separators. Much of the liquid is gathered and piped back to the lagoon. But the manure solids fall through screens and onto a concrete weeping pad that's between two barns.
Once on the pad, the solids are allowed to sit about a week. During that time, additional liquid weeps off and also goes to the lagoon.
If needed, drier manure is added to get the solids to the correct consistency for composting. Then it's in with a payloader to fill a box spreader with future compost and haul it to the composting site, about a quarter mile up the road.
The composting site covers 3.5 acres and is blacktopped, John pointed out. It was engineered and approved by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and includes a catch basin for rainwater and filtering mechanisms that protect a nearby trout stream.
Six-hundred cubic yards of material can fit on the pad. Rows of manure solids are laid out, each one 300 feet long, six feet high and 14 feet wide.
A self-propelled windrow turner shapes the rows and is then used every week for 12 weeks to mix the material to let oxygen in and promote heating. In mid-spring, the material can start heating in as few as six hours, with the internal temperature of a windrow reaching 130 to 140 degrees Fahrenheit in a few days, John said. With the right conditions, the compost can be ready in three months.
Composting kills disease organisms and weed seeds, and eliminates the manure smell.
"What you get is a product that's new-and-improved manure, basically," John said.
Besides straight compost, Wolfe and the Rosenows make four blends that contain additions such as sand, perlite, meat-and-bone meal, kelp, rock phosphate and lime. These blends are especially good for starting seeds, John said. All are made according to the National Organic Practices (NOP) standards.
Prices for the products vary, but a 50-pound bag of compost sells for $7.50, while a bag of one of the potting soils fetches $8.50. Cowsmo products are also available in 1,500-pound totes and in bulk.
Despite the income that can be generated by selling composted cow manure, John said he doesn't know of any other farms doing this. For one thing, he said, "The investment is significant."
John said the blacktopping cost for the 3.5-acre blacktopped composting site was $75,000 an acre - and that was six years ago.
Another large investment is the windrow turner. A new version of that 240-horsepower machine sells for $350,000, according to the dairyman.
Then there's the management and labor that's involved. John figured he devotes 80 percent of his time to the composting business, and an employee is half-time with the compost.
While much of the work is mechanized, bagging the compost is not. On one day, two employees were busily scraping compost off a wooden platform and into bags. Besides bagging, employees also build pallets for the bags and totes.
Cowsmo Compost generates income and helps with the farm's nutrient management, but it's the dairy herd that's at the heart of everything. The cows are milked around the clock - not quite three times every 24 hours. The rolling herd average is 28,521 pounds of milk, with a 3.72 butterfat test and a 3.01 protein test.
Last year's somatic cell count (SCC) averaged 84,000, according to John. It's been under 100,000 for 10 years.
"I Have my wife in charge of it," John said. "She's very detail oriented. My wife is probably one of the best herdspeople around. She makes all the decisions on the dairy and breeds all the cows."
And, he added, "We have very good employees. All our employees know what the heck they're doing."
Some of the farm's employees have been there 20 years or more. Calf manager Helene Moinat has been there 23 years, and mechanic Ken Schiecke has been with the farm 25 years. In addition, Wolfe's son, Craig, works at the dairy.
Rosenholm-Wolfe Dairy employs local people and Hispanics. Those who speak Spanish are encouraged to do so on the job, John said, so he can improve his linguistic skills.
Through a cultural learning program, the Rosenows and Wolfe have visited Mexico, including some of the villages that are the homes of some of their employees. John said that during one trip to Mexico, he was introduced to a young boy also named John - after him.
Good employees - people - are a vital part of the dairy and the composting business, John believes.
The fifth-generation farmer said, "The only thing we really have here of any value is the people. If you just have the land and the cows, you have nothing. You have to have the people."