Brown gold: Farmer turning waste into sellable product

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Monday, July 27, 2009
— With the price of milk as low as it is, some farmers might joke, "You might as well give the stuff away."

If you could get a farmer to joke about such things, that is.

For years, Dave Kyle's been "giving away" another product from his dairy operations.

Cows make more than twice as much of this than they make milk. And the disposal of this product is a headache for many livestock farmers.

It's manure.

Now that Kyle has settled himself, his family and his 100 cows onto a five-acre spot in La Fayette Township east of Elkhorn, he's decided he's not giving away manure any more.

The farmette

The choice to work a five-acre farmette provided many challenges, not the least of which was where to put the manure produced by 100 cows.

The typical cow produces 18 gallons of manure per day, according to data compiled by the UW-Extension Manure and Pest Management Program.

Compare that to eight gallons of milk the average cow makes during her lactation cycle, according to United States Department of Agriculture Data.

Keep in mind, a cow only makes milk 10 or so months per year. She makes manure 365 days a year.

For two decades, Kyle and his wife, Laurie, milked their own cows in other people's barns. That meant they were spreading manure from their cows onto other people's fields.

"We were just giving it away," Kyle said.

When it was time to buy their own space, the choice boiled down to moving out of southern Wisconsin to a farm in their price range or sacrificing space to stay local.

The Kyles gave up space and started milking at their current location in December 2007.

The barn

Kyle toured lots of composting dairy barns before building his. The barns are more common in Minnesota than Wisconsin, Kyle said.

Along one long side of the barn is the feed bunk. Cows stand on a 14-foot cement slab when they eat.

A 10-inch curb separates the slab from the "sleeping area."

When they've had their fill at the bunk, cows step over the curb and nose around in the sawdust to find a spot to lie down.

Huge fans keep air moving through the barn. Water tanks and salt licks are available at either end of the barn.

Three times a day, the cows head to the parlor for milking. They follow cement paths set around the barn's edge so they don't have to walk through their resting or eating sisters.

Kyle's cows have been healthy since they moved into the compost barn, he said. Other than regular herd health checks, a veterinarian has only had to be called three times in 19 months, Kyle said.

That's unheard of, he said.

He credits the composting process with killing much of the bacteria in the bedding pack. Also, he thinks cows get a healthy workout by walking around on sawdust—similar to a person running on the beach, Kyle said.

The compost

While the cows are being milked, Kyle rototills the bedding. This pushes manure and oxygen under the surface of the bedding.

The nitrogen in the manure and the carbon in the sawdust react with the oxygen. Under the surface, the whole works get as hot as 160 degrees.

The heat breaks down the manure and carbon into sawdust. It also kills bacteria and insect eggs, Laurie said.

The barn has few flies, she said.

Heat is briefly released during tilling. But most of the time, the temperature of the bedding is the same as the rest of the barn.

A couple times a year, Kyle and his partner scoop the sawdust out of the barn and pile it in a nearby field.

That's when the fun begins.

Kyle and his partner, Dan Sojka, call the field their giant sandbox.

And while it contains no sand, it's enough to keep two grown men occupied for hours, Laurie reports.

Sojka owns C & D Landscaping and Design, N4819 Bowers Road, Elkhorn, a stone's throw from Kylecrest Holsteins.

When Kyle was mulling over building a composting barn, he talked to Sojka first.

The two agreed that it could be possible to market finished compost through Sojka's landscaping business.

When the bedding is cleaned out of the barn, it is piled in huge, numbered rows in a nearby empty field.

Kyle and Sojka regularly use a skid-steer to flip the compost piles. This forces air into the piles and keeps the process working.

Sojka is selling finished compost in bulk to his landscaping customers. The two hope someday to bag the finished compost for retail sale.

Last updated: 10:51 am Thursday, December 13, 2012

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