Back-End Solutions

No way around it: Dairy farming means putting up with a lot of crap. But what if dairy’s biggest headache became its most reliable asset? It’s happening on one Wisconsin farm.

VISIT JOHN VRIEZE’S EMERALD DAIRY in northwestern Wisconsin and you’ll be struck by what’s missing: It doesn’t stink. That ripe, rich aroma of rotting manure that so often wafts from the barns and lagoons of dairy operations is absent. On most days the air carries only a hint of silage or fermenting fodder. And Vrieze works hard to keep it that way. “If I’m having a beer on my deck at 10 o’clock at night,” says the 56-year-old farmer, whose family has been dairying for more than 100 years, “the last thing I want is to sit out and smell my manure. So why would I expect my neighbors to want to put up with that?”

The goal is in two years to have as much net income off the back end of the farm as from the dairy.

That Vrieze can breathe in the fresh air around Emerald is no small feat. Cows are prodigious animals when it comes to poop, excreting between 85 and 120 pounds of the stuff every 24 hours. This works out to a good-sized German Shepherd of waste created by every cow, every day. So for a farm like Emerald-which houses 1,650 dairy cows-that means some 150,000 pounds of manure on any given afternoon. Seventy-five tons of dung. Fifty thousand gallons of waste. If it’s not fouling up the air, where is it all going?

The answer is that Vrieze’s manure is hard at work. It’s coursing underground through 36-inch PVC pipes, fractionating into useful components and nourishing a surprising list of living things. Through a combination of expensive technology and innovative design, Vrieze squeezes his cows’ patties for every last drop of utility. Instead of managing manure as a problem, he sees it as an opportunity.

“The goal is in two years to have as much net income off the back end of the farm as from the dairy,” says Vrieze, who also owns the nearby, 1,050-cow Baldwin Dairy.

Dairy farmers have long held a love-hate relationship with manure. On one hand, it’s full of carbon-rich fibers and nutrients, especially nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium, which act as natural fertilizers and help condition the soil for planting. On the other, manure smells awful and often contains viruses and bacteria such as E. coli that can pose serious threats to human health if ingested. In 2006, spinach tainted with manure-borne bacteria on a California farm killed three people and sickened more than 200.

Soils only accept a limited amount of manure’s nutrients before shedding them into runoff water, leading to algal blooms and other far-reaching environmental problems. Farmers can help prevent runoff by spreading manure over wider swaths of land, but that too has drawbacks. For one thing, it means owning (or renting) a hefty parcel of land. And manure is not the easiest substance to move around, either. At 75 to 92 percent water, it’s heavy and expensive to ship or store.

Farmers also have to pay attention to another part of manure they can’t see-the gases. A recent United Nations report says the livestock sector is currently responsible for a significant share of human-related greenhouse gases: 9 percent of carbon dioxide, more than 37 percent of methane and more than 65 percent of nitrous oxide. While many farmers have doubts about global climate change and their potential to affect it, most acknowledge that these data are likely to lead to new restrictions and regulations on emissions in the years to come, which is why Vrieze agreed to serve on Governor Jim Doyle’s Climate Change Task Force last year.

“I’ve been trying to tell my industry it doesn’t matter if you’re talking about believing global warming or don’t believe in global warming or whether you do or don’t think man has an impact on climate change,” says Vrieze. “I drive around my dairy almost every day thinking of another way we can reduce our carbon footprint because someday I think we’ll get regulated.”