Owner of county's largest dairy looking to expand

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Marcia Nelesen
Thursday, February 13, 2014

JANESVILLE--The owner of Rock Prairie Dairy, Rock County's largest dairy farm, wants to expand, and one place he is looking is the town of La Prairie.

Rumors of the expansion are making the rounds in rural coffee shops and grain elevators, but Rock Prairie owner Todd Tuls said it is too early in the process to discuss specifics.

He confirmed that a site in La Prairie Township is a possibility, but he also is considering expanding in other counties, he said.

When the dairy opened in December 2011 on 160 acres, the facility's announced capacity was 4,600 milking cows. That is how many Tuls said he milks today.

The dairy is on Highway 14 between Janesville and Delavan two miles west of the Walworth County line. Tuls also runs two large dairy operations in Nebraska.

Tuls said has been meeting with farmers surrounding a site in the town of La Prairie to see if he can find enough land on which to spread the resulting manure.

“It's really very early in the process,” Tuls said. “We don't even know if the site that we have picked out is suitable from a DNR (state Department of Natural Resources) perspective.”

Site issues include topography and soil type. Other environmental elements to consider include proximity to waterways and residences, he said.

Tuls said he also is looking at sites in other counties. He declined to be more specific.

Allan Arndt, farmer and chairman of the La Prairie Town Board, said he has heard that Rock Prairie Dairy is “shopping” for land that could receive animal waste for a new operation.

“I have heard that they've been up and down the road. I am not aware of anybody who agreed to take it, but those are private conversations between two parties that I'm not privy to,” Arndt said.

Talk has been circulating about this for about 10 days, Arndt said Thursday.

Arndt said it's just his opinion, but he believes Rock Prairie Dairy would need several landowners willing to accept manure to have enough land to support its operations.

Arndt said he would not take a position for or against a large dairy operation in the town.

“It's a change in philosophy and more intensive than what we are used to,” Arndt said. “But the way the law is written, there is little a town can do to oppose it.”

The town does not have a process in place to regulate farms of that size, Arndt said.

“Today, the town is dedicated to agriculture and has been supportive of production agriculture, and we will continue to be. We will figure out what we need to do to guide this type of thing,” Arndt said.

“To be fair, it is an opportunity for people to sell corn silage and cornstalks as well as grain,” Arndt said.

It also is an avenue for farmers to get organic fertilizer, he said.

Arndt said landowners' reactions would mean a lot.

“If people up and down the road agree to take manure, then he'll probably get enough acres, and he will probably build a farm. And if landowners decide not to take his waste product, then he'll probably not get enough acres,” Arndt said.

Arndt said the town is looking into the permitting process. He believes such an operation would require manure-management permits from the county and state.

The town would be asked to issue building permits, but if the land is zoned properly, the town could not deny them, Arndt said.

Arndt noted state law takes away much of the local municipality's say-so in this situation, but he wonders how much oversight the state provides.

“I do not think this town or any other town is interested in spending a lot of money in doing the state's job of enforcement of laws they created and left us out of,” Arndt said.

Tuls said he would hope to start construction sometime in spring 2015 and that a new facility would be open within three years, but that could be optimistic considering the number of permits he must get. He said he had to secure almost 30 permits for the town of Bradford site.

“That's what I'd like to do,” he said. “It all depends on permitting.”

Tuls said business has been good in the town of Bradford.

“The farmers that we work with have been really great,” he said.

The facility incorporates design features he learned work in his other dairies.

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