Holsum has another plaque for its dairy
By Mary Matsumoto
Kenn Buelow (left) put on the milk mustache with other people following the presentation of the National Dairy Sustainabilty Award.

A beautiful bird called a cattle egret sits on the back of a cow foraging for flies, ticks, lice, even infected tissue and maggots, whatever delicacy it can find.

Why does it choose this particular spot for dining?

Studies have shown the gourmet menu on the back of such a beast has a selection 3.6 times the quantity it would have if the bird chose to dine alone. Meanwhile, the host animal is cleaned of parasites it cannot reach by itself.

This relationship is called a symbiotic relationship, meaning it benefits all parties involved.

Holsum Dairies enjoys such a relationship with its community—fellow farmers, the environment, its employees, and other industries. Recently, the farm was recognized for its contributions by receiving the National Dairy Sustainability Award.

The two dairies, Holsum Irish and Holsum Elm—each 4,000-dairy-cow operations—were created in 2001 and 2006, respectively, after much thought and collaborating.

Using knowledge, resources

Kenn Buelow, originally from the rural Chilton area, had been managing and consulting for dairies as a veterinarian consultant in New Mexico for about 10 years. In addition, he had a master’s degree in geology and geophysics, had done a three-year residency in food animal production medicine and had taught veterinary medicine at Madison and Minnesota. Meanwhile, a family in New Mexico, two brothers-in-law and their children and grandchildren, about 24 people in all, wanted to build a dairy in the Midwest. With Kenn’s expertise and the family’s capital, they set out to find the ideal location.

First, they needed a site with good groundwater, plus a thick bed of clay to protect it. The present site, with its 70 feet of clay soil and limestone aquifer, qualified in both respects.

Second, they looked at the area’s needs, how their operation could both benefit and contribute to its surroundings.

Kenn noted that between 1975 and 2000 the region had lost a third of its dairy cows and 80 percent of its hogs. In other words, the farm animal population had decreased significantly. And yet, corn production had gone up 40 percent, wheat three times, and soybeans quadrupled. With grain production up and animals down, it meant crops had to be shipped out of state. What the county needed were animals to eat the crops and in turn, supply organic fertilizer for the soil.

Enter Holsum Dairies.

From the beginning, the company was concerned about creating a better environment, good working conditions for its employees, and working together with the community so that everyone could benefit from the arrangement.

First, the dairy turned to DVO, Inc., in Chilton to provide them with an anaerobic digester. The Chilton company now sends its digesters all over the world, but Holsum Dairy was its second customer, pioneering the equipment in this area.

Holsum had two basic reasons for turning to anaerobic digesters. They wanted to provide a weed-free, nonchemical fertilizer with less odor and a source of bedding for the farmers from whom they purchased their feed, and they wanted to supply renewable energy at the same time.

Solving natural shortcomings

A cow’s natural digestive system works on its food intake for only two days. In the process, weed seeds do not get broken down—thereby causing unwanted weeds to grow on the fields on which the fertilizers are sprayed. Liquid manure is also traditionally offensive because of its smell.

The manure has 20 days to break down in the digester, however. Weed seeds are completely eaten up, and microorganisms consume and break down other elements. Meanwhile, they create a gas similar to the methane in natural gas. Trapping and burning this gas provides electrical power, which can be used on the farm as well as sent out on the grid, providing electricity to about 1,000 homes—and that’s after Holsum Dairies uses up to a half of the total for their operation.

Besides providing electricity, the system also prevents gas from escaping into the air and thereby contributing to global warming. Because of this, the dairies are able to sell $100,000 worth of carbon credits each year to companies like British Petroleum.

But besides recycling their own wastes,

Holsum Farms also collects wastes from companies like Briess Industries in Chilton (15 semi loads a week), Packerland, Kimberly-Clark, McCain Foods, various cheese plants and the grease trappings from restaurants, managing the nutrients and making more electricity. As a result, less pollutants make their way into landfills.

14 months of storage

Meanwhile, Holsum Dairy has a considerable liquid storage lagoon, able to hold 14 months or over $1 million worth of fertilizer. The benefit? They are able to hold the fertilizer until the ideal time to spread it on the fields, the season when plants can actually use the nutrients immediately. On the other hand, if it is spread in the winter, the runoff, combined with melting snow, would pollute the groundwater. Additionally, it even meets the requirements of organic farmers and can be sold at half the cost of commercial fertilizer, helping to increase the profits of area crop farmers.

Another benefit provided by the digester is its ability to mineralize the phosphorous in the fertilizer. The minerals attach to soil particles and do not merely dissolve in water and get washed away only to pollute surface waters.

And there’s more.

Holsum Dairies employs agronomists regularly to take soil samples to examine the content and provide a nutrient plan. They want to avoid a buildup and resulting runoff. The goal is to provide exactly what nutrients the crops need.

Working with UW

As far as the fertilizer solids go, Holsum dairies works with the University of Madison to find even more uses for the waste. About six years ago, they were able to make USA-approved wood products from it, which, as Kenn says, has held up ever since and has no odor, providing another possible byproduct for the future.

Besides breaking down waste into useful products crop farmers can use (Holsum Dairies does not grow its own crops), the dairy uses wastes from other industries to provide feed for their animals, things like soybean meal after the oil is extracted, corn gluten seed after the syrup is extracted for soda, hominy after the cornstarch is extracted and cotton seed after the fiber is extracted—all wastes that would otherwise be dumped into the landfill.

The 75 employees who work for the business are also taken into consideration— happy employees make for a thriving operation.

Holsum Dairies offers extensive training, a competitive wage, good health insurance, paid vacation time and a company-funded retirement plan, not to mention flexible hours so that employees can get to those soccer games in which their school-age children play.

Basically, the philosophy built around Holsum Dairies is people helping people.

“It’s not me, it’s not the dairy, it’s everybody working together,” Buelow said. “It’s important to have agriculture with cropping because otherwise they’re just growing grain and shipping it off somewhere. Then they have to ship fertilizer in. By having an animal operation right here, it’s sustainable.”

Kind of like that egret who sits on the animal’s back, feasting on what constitutes delicacies to him but are parasites to the beast. They help each other. It’s what’s called a symbiotic relationship.

“It’s so much better than just fighting things and saying, ‘No, we shouldn’t do this, we shouldn’t do that,’” Buelow said. “Instead, it’s like, how we can make it better?”