U.S. Sustainability Awards: Better Before Bigger

October 29, 2013 08:03 PM
U.S. Sustainability Awards: Better Before Bigger

Brothers resolve neighbor concerns before expansion

By Shirley Chapman

When brothers Mark and John Jacobs III decided to add a dairy operation with their crop farm, they did their research first. They also developed three core principles to guide them: "Create the best possible environment for the animals; be good stewards of the land; and produce the safest, most wholesome milk possible."

In 2000, they started Green Valley Dairy near Krakow, Wis., with 1,500 cows. Neighbors were mildly supportive but also cautious of the problems that might arise. By the end of the first year, they had expanded to 2,500 cows with a target of 3,500 cows.

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Bonus Content

Sustainability awards, video of John Jacobs speaking about recycling at dairy

Not everything, however, was going as planned. The cows were telling them the mattresses were not that comfortable, and neighbors were telling them they didn’t like the odor and traffic.

"We promised the town we would solve the manure problem before we grew," says John Jacobs III. The brothers added two additional guiding principles: "A greener tomorrow today" and "Better before bigger."

From 2005 to 2008, a lot of research and difficult deci­sions were made to put the dairy back on the right track. The brothers were among the first to invest in an anaerobic manure digester. Many other dairies experienced difficulties with digesters, and Green Valley was no different. But again, they did their research. They conducted efficiency studies on farm and worked with experts to achieve 95% reliability of the system.

The brothers also decided to redesign the cow beds. The dairy started with mattresses top-dressed with sawdust. Next, they added a retainer wall to hold 2" to 3" of sand on top of the mattresses instead of sawdust. It was a bit more comfortable for the cows, but the sand-laden manure created another problem.

Today, the cows have 12"-deep fluffy beds made of biosolids. The alternative bedding source from the digesters also goes through a composting process to produce the best possible bedding product.

"Knocking out concrete to create new larger stalls was not the most popular decision," says John III. "But it is one I am most proud of."

The cows are healthy, comfortable and more productive—milk production immediately jumped 8 lb. per cow per day. The switch from sand to biosolids also saves about $245,000 per year in bedding costs, plus it limits traffic, emissions and fuel.

The digester also contains the odors and creates a nutrient-rich, pathogen-free stream that is piped underground to the fields where it is injected to fertilize crops. In addition, the dairy produces about 1,200 kwh of electricity each day. That’s enough to power itself, plus supply some energy to the local power grid. 

Fast forward to today. The business has grown to 3,500 cows, 3,500 heifers at another site, 8,300 acres of cropland, and three sons have joined the business.

The dairy is known for its green practices of recycling water, repurposing manure nutrients, conserving energy and producing electricity for the local community with three anaerobic manure digesters. In addition, they have great neighbor relations.

That’s what led to the dairy’s selection for Outstanding Achievement in Renewable Energy from the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy. "Green Valley’s ‘waste not’ philosophy has them constantly evaluating opportunities to reclaim energy, recycle water and repurpose manure nutrients," says Barbara O’Brien, president of the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy.

"Every day they demonstrate how manure digesters can help the dairy industry contribute to a sustainable food system that benefits producers, cows and the community," she adds.

"We opened the doors to technology and we share what we learn," says John III. "That helps keep our business healthy and competitive.

Innovation and efficiency gives us the opportunity to bring the next generation into the business."

The Jacobs share what they have learned
in order to help others and welcome researchers from nearby universities to study their tools and practices. What they find may help them improve, as well as other producers. 

"My dad and uncle took all of the risks," says John Jacobs IV. "We do everything we can to provide a great environment for the cows, the people and take care of the land."

This closed-loop system can be replicated, John IV says, but you have to believe and commit to the idea that the farm is a complete, sustainable system.

"None of this is possible without great employees," he adds. "Together, we are taking care of the cows and the land the best way that we know how."

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