Four multi-generational families run a 1,600-cow dairy, a bottling plant and composting business.
Prairieland combines cows, fluid processing and compost sales
By Shirley Chapman
In the 1990s, tough economic conditions made it difficult for small dairies to survive. It just wasn’t a sustainable business model.
"We knew we didn’t want to be another family farm statistic," says Dan Rice. In 1998, after 12 years of dairying on his own, he teamed up with Dave and Cliff Obbink of Firth, Neb. Joining forces created a broader equity base and allowed each to work in his area of expertise.
For two years, they worked side by side to check compatibility and to plan. Today, the four multi-generational families run three separate enterprises—a 1,600-cow dairy, a bottling plant and composting business.
Now, milking cows is just one job, explains Rice, who is general manager of Prairieland Dairy. Diversification has allowed everyone to focus on their passion and to develop their own area of expertise. More importantly, the business has become more family-friendly.
"You get to see your kids’ sporting events and have days off," he says. "It’s just like any other business, so the kids want to come back and people want to work here."
Sustainability on three fronts—economic, environmental and social—is what led to Prairieland’s selection for an Outstanding Dairy Farm Sustainability Award from the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy.
"Prairieland Dairy has set itself up for success for generations to come. Diversifying the operation has allowed the dairy to fully embrace its role as environmental and community stewards," says Barbara O’Brien, president, Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy.
Prairieland illustrates that successful sustainability is not about size, region or age of the operation. It’s about applying best management practices that are sustainable on all fronts, O’Brien explains.
The planning started with the cows. Prairieland partners strived for energy-efficient, low-impact facilities that would allow comfortable cows to flourish. In addition, they wanted to conserve and renew natural resources while controlling variable and overhead cost.
These goals led to the use of groundwater in the first plate cooler for quickly cooling milk and providing geothermal heating and cooling for dairy offices. They also automated the cooling, waste management and pest-control systems and utilize gravity to minimize pump use for manure management. All together, these steps add up to more than $200,000 in savings each year.
Composting manure was an easy decision. Prairieland strives to protect the environment, neutralize odors and be good neighbors. Composting allows them to do all of that, and turn a profit. The composted products—soil amendments, potting soil, growing mix and straight compost—are sold to greenhouses, landscapers and through retail outlets.
In addition, the dairy started adding food waste from the local school district to the composting mix. It started as a pilot project and has grown from there, Rice explains. Prairieland Gold now accepts biodegradable products from several local sources.
"Landfills are filling at an alarming rate," Rice says. "Whatever we can compost here helps reduce what goes into the landfill." Last year 5,000 tons of food waste and 8,000 tons of yard waste from the community was diverted from the landfill and turned into useful products.
- November 2013