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Advanced Agriculture

Technology is changing the way farmers work in northeast Wisconsin, but the essence of land and animal management remains unchanged

The land Bill Eberle’s grandfather farmed near Waukau in Winnebago County is just about 10 miles up the road from Rosendale Dairy, a megafarm near Pickett, where Eberle is operations manager. His grandfather milked fewer than a dozen cows. Eberle and his staff milk 8,000 cows three times a day.

The technology that makes a large-scale farming operation possible is a world apart from earlier generations, but the essence of farming is still the same, Eberle said.

“Agriculture in 2016 in this size and scope, to the average person, looks like night and day – the polar opposite of the way my grandfather farmed. And there are some things that are polar opposite. But at the heart of it all, we’re doing the same thing. We’re taking care of cows, we’re planting corn, we’re planting alfalfa, trying to do the best we can to take care of the land and our livestock, using whatever today’s technology is,” Eberle said.

A fourth-generation farmer, Eberle said some things never change. “We get mad when it rains too much, complain when it’s too dry, we complain when it’s too cold or too hot. Those sorts of things don’t change from generation to generation.”

Linda Hodorff of Second Look Holsteins in Eden shares a similar view. “Even though we can become more automated and scientific in how we do things, it still comes down to the basics of animal care and taking care of the land,” Hodorff said.

Like Eberle, Hodorff comes from a multi-generation farming background. She grew up in Maine, where her family had been farming since the 1700s. Her husband Doug’s family has been dairy farming in the southeast corner of Fond du Lac County since the 1870s. The Hodorffs’ farming operation is not quite as large as Rosendale Dairy, but it still dwarfs anything from their families’ past. They milk 900 cows at the Eden farm and another 800 at a farm in Nebraska.

Some people use the term “factory farms” to describe these large farming operations (technically referred to as Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations or CAFOs), distinguishing them from what many consider more traditional “family farms.”

Eberle and Hodorff take issue with that notion. The Hodorff operation includes Doug and Linda, along with their son and daughter-in-law, as well as a dozen or so employees.

As for Rosendale Dairy, despite its size, “it’s still a family farm,” Eberle said. “It’s owned by three multi-generation farming families and there are a lot of other families working here.”

Rosendale Dairy is owned by Milk Source LLC in Kaukauna, which also operates the Tidy View Dairy in Kaukauna and Omro Dairy, as well as a dairying operation in Adams County and another in Michigan. The owners are Jim Ostrom, John Vosters and Todd Willer – all from longtime farming backgrounds.

The technology boost

While the basic tenets of farming remain the same now as they were generations ago, “we’re fortunate to be able to harness 2016 technology to produce double or even triple the amount of product that my grandfather did, per animal or per acre of land,” Eberle said. “And we can use that technology to take better care of the animals and better care of the land. My grandfather knew that the best way to improve milk production is to have happier cows. We’re able to use technology to do that.”

At Rosendale Dairy, feed for the cows is custom-mixed and optimized based on nutrient analysis, and climate in the barn is kept constant. The cows, when not being milked, are free to roam within a large free-stall barn and feed at their leisure. Milking occurs in a rotary milking parlor, with two 80-cow carousels operating 22 hours a day.

It seems to pay off. Rosendale Dairy produces 15 tanker loads of milk every day – about 84,000 gallons on average.

The Hodorffs rely on computer technology to maximize their herd’s milk production. Ear tags with computer chips are attached and data from the tags is downloaded and used to monitor each cow’s production.

Featured prominently at both Rosendale and Second Look are nutrient management plans for the herds and for fertilizing the land. Lab testing reveals the nutrient content of animal feed and fertilizer. Soil testing dictates how much and what type of fertilizer to apply.

It’s all part of what is increasingly being called “smart farming” or “precision agriculture,” collecting and analyzing data about crop yields, soil testing, fertilizer applications, weather and animal health to make more informed decisions.

Win-win promise of biodigesters

The Rosendale operation also features one of the most promising technologies in agriculture – a biodigester capable of converting manure and other biomass materials into energy. Funded by the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh Foundation, the $7 million biogas production facility at Rosendale is able to generate 1.4 megawatts of electricity by using Rosendale Dairy’s manure to combust methane.

The Rosendale biodigester processes more than 300 tons of manure per day. The manure is delivered to the digester via underground pipes. In addition to producing electricity – which the UW Oshkosh Foundation sells back to the power grid, the digester process also results in enough dry fertilizer for 10,000 acres of land. Rosendale uses about a third of that total, selling the remainder.

Water recovered from the digester process is also recycled for use at the Rosendale facility, though it is not potable for human or animal consumption.

The Rosendale digester is the third for UW Oshkosh. The first is an on-campus system capable of producing about 10 percent of the university’s energy needs. The second was a small-scale test project located on the Allen Farm to the northwest of Oshkosh.

Biodigesters hold so much interest in the agriculture, educational and environmental worlds because of the hope that their widespread use can help produce a win-win solution – providing alternative energy while also reducing bio-waste. At Rosendale, for example, the system is estimated to remove more than 100,000 tanker loads of manure from local roads.

Learning from robot cows

The brave new world of agriculture received another technological tool last month when Fox Valley Technical College in Appleton introduced Maple Leaf Foxy, a bovine birthing simulator designed to help students learn about the calving process through hands-on experience. The $35,000 unit will be used by more than 100 students in Fox Valley Tech’s agriculture associate degree, technical diploma and farm operations programs.

Dr. Lori Nagel, a veterinarian and agriculture instructor at Fox Valley Tech, said she’s excited by the prospect of being able to teach students about the calf birthing process in all its variability.

“The time of birth is so unpredictable,” Nagel said. “Every birthing event is different and it’s very hard to train students for that in a classroom setting without this kind of tool. In the past, students have really had to learn those things on the farm, on the job.”

Maple Leaf Foxy, technically a Holstein Model Dystocia Simulator, includes a life-size and anatomically correct model of a Holstein cow, as well as a calf and various sizes of fetuses. The top of the simulator can be opened to access the inner cavity. The calf can be placed in multiple positions to simulate different birthing conditions, including breech birth. The model also includes a functional udder to simulate mastitis or other conditions.

“I’ve been on farm visits and talked to farmers about this and they’re very excited,” Nagel said. “They see it as a great tool to improve animal care.”

Best practices in land, animal management

Large farm operations like Rosendale and Second Look have had their share of criticism from the environmental community, but Eberle and Hodorff say those criticisms are misguided. Because of their size and status as CAFOs, they are much more rigidly regulated than smaller farms and thus much less likely to create environmental problems.

Even without those regulations, they say, best practices would dictate they take optimum care of their animals and the land, and technology allows them to do that far better than could be done in past generations.

“We are required by regulations to have a nutrition management plan that dictates soil testing and fertilizer application, but we would do that anyway,” Hodorff said. “We would do that because it’s the best way to take care of the land. Previous generations did that, but we have better technology and tools to do it today. We have crop and soil consultants who enable us to analyze the nutrient content of our soil and provide the right recipe for soil health. We use nutrition consultants and feed analysis to provide a balanced diet for our cows.”

Eberle agrees. “The regulations tell us when we can apply fertilizer and how much. We can’t apply fertilizer in the winter months, for example, because the spring snow melt would wash the fertilizer off the land and into the water,” Eberle said. “Well, we wouldn’t do that anyway because it would be wasteful and inefficient.

“Smart farmers, even if they aren’t subject to the regulations, wouldn’t do that either, although they’re allowed to. Some of the regulations we’re subject to might not make sense, but a lot of them are valid and they’re things we would do anyway as smart business people and stewards of the land.”  n

Rick Berg is a freelance editor and writer based in Green Bay.