Ag Talk 7-12-10
July 12, 2010
A discovery by a Nebraska dairy farmer could have long-reaching effects for northern Colorado dairy producers, especially when the Leprino Foods cheese plant opens in Greeley, Colo.
According to an Associated Press story, David Wetzel, a former steel executive who took up dairy farming as a second career, stumbled on another use for milk – and it has nothing to do with drinking the stuff.
Wetzel told a conference in Linn, Mo., recently that when he started farming in 2002, he used skim milk – a byproduct of his farm’s specialty butters and cheeses – to irrigate part of his 320-acre farm.
The revelation, he told the group, was that his dairy cattle preferred those fields over conventional irrigated fields.
He called in a University of Nebraska Extension specialist, who found something a bit staggering: His milk-fed land yielded 1,100 more pounds of grass per acre than his untreated land.
Bill Wailes, head of the animal science department at Colorado State University and a dairy specialist, wonders whether the practice is cost-effective and whether the whey – also a byproduct of making cheese – has more to do with the increased grass production than does the skim milk.
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“If it’s cost-effective, then it could be a great thing,” Wailes said. And, he added, it could be a way to use milk during surplus supply times.
Leprino uses its skim milk to make low-fat cheese, Wailes said. However, it still produces whey as a byproduct, and a lot of work has been done to find ways to dry whey and sell that as a product.
“But that’s very expensive,” Wailes said, so whey could be sold and used as a fertilizer.
So, he added, if it’s the whey and not the skim milk that is making grass grow better, the initial research being conducted by Nebraska Extension “might lead to research that puts whey on fields as a fertilizer and see if it’s whey and not skim milk” that is leading to the better grass production. That research, however, would require a lot of work over time.
Les Hardesty of Greeley, Colo., owns two dairies, including the Cozy Cow of Windsor, Colo., where he makes cheese curds. He also thinks it’s the whey and not skim milk that is causing the increase in grass production on the Nebraska dairy.
Whey, he said, is high in protein, and several years ago it was used as a hog feed. But advancements in technology, he said, have resulted in the larger cheese-making companies, such as Leprino, finding several uses for whey in a concentrate form, including such things as infant formula. It has become a major export for the United States, he said, but it remains a problem for smaller cheese- and butter-making operations that can’t afford the expensive extraction and drying of whey.
“There’s a lot of value there, and it probably would be good applied to grass. It has water, lactose and protein,” Hardesty said, noting if that turns out to be the case, it would be another sustainable step “in the life cycle of a dairy,” adding there’s a possibility it could be used in a methane digester to provide an additional source of power for a dairy.
Wetzel spoke at a recent conference in Linn, Mo., that attracted about 50 people, according to a story by The Columbia Daily Tribune. It was organized by Ralph Voss, a retired county judge and cattle rancher who is trying out the milk method.
Wetzel said he began making butters and cheeses that required only the fats from the milk that his cows produced, which left behind large quantities of skim milk as a waste product. To dispose of it, he would drive up and down a portion of his pasture with milk pouring out of a tank. He dumped up to 600 gallons of skim milk on the field every other day.
“I came from a background that has nothing to do with farming,” Wetzel said. “So I don’t know the do’s and don’ts. I don’t have any relatives that would say, ‘You can’t do that.’ So I just kind of did what felt right.”
At that Missouri conference, Wetzel said he noticed that his cows favored that patch of field. The grass felt more supple and looked healthier and more dense in that area. He eventually contacted Terry Gompert, a University of Nebraska Extension educator who specializes in holistic land management. Gompert arranged to have researchers test the milk hypothesis.
After 45 days, they found that the plots treated with milk grew about 1,100 more pounds of grass per acre than untreated plots, a 26 percent increase in yield. Also, the soil had a greater “porosity,” or ability to absorb water and air.
Gompert stressed that much more research needs to be done. He said the findings make sense because milk is food for the bacteria, fungi, protozoa and nematodes in healthy soil.
“Our unfair advantage is getting the microbes to work for us,” Gompert said. The milk “is just feeding the workers.”
Many of the participants at the conference in Missouri said they may give milk a try.
“When you start spraying milk on your fields, you’re going to be thought of as a fool,” said Larry Sansom, a cattle farmer from Kentucky who drove six hours to learn about the method.
“But I guess you’ve got to hold your nose and jump,” he said.