Holsum Dairies is not your typical operation.
“It is not a traditional family farm where it's a single family doing the work," explains Bob Nagel, who recently took over management of Holsum, which is based in Hilbert, Wis. "We are much larger-scale. It's a farm made up of a lot of families."
Those families are involved in two dairy operations, with 8,200 cows and 2,600 heifer calves. Both Holsum Elm Dairy and Holsum's Irish Dairy are now producing 190 million pounds of milk annually.
At its beginning, Holsum's partners vowed to live by the words 'reduce, reuse, and recycle," and took those concepts to heart. “We need to be good to our cows but also good to our community," said Nagel, whose operation was named Innovative Dairy Producer of the Year by the International Dairy Foods Association and Dairy Herd Management.
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They did that by building a methane digester at both locations, which produces energy and reclaims heat.
The manure comes into the digester, releasing methane that rises through a series of chambers.
The plug-flow digestion tanks move roughly 2 million gallons on each dairy, accepting manure from the cow and calf barns, the parlor and holding pens and milk house waste. The only farm wastewater that doesn't go through the digester is from the footbaths.
Clearly, the digesters accomplish a number of things at Holsom Dairies. But first, the digester technology reduces, if not eliminates, manure odors. “People comment all of the time when we are out applying manure, they don't notice any odor coming from it," Nagel said. "That makes it much more of a user-friendly process."
That good neighbor relation extends to community service. Holsum Dairies also takes food-grade waste from other food manufacturers, and over the past three years, has accepted an average of 12 million gallons of wastewater per year. “It eliminates some discharge to the environment by those treatment plants when they become overwhelmed,” Nagel said.
All of the electricity, even that used on the dairy, is sold to the power grid, providing electricity for between 400 to 600 homes. Holsum then re-purchases what the dairy needs off the grid. "The grid is more reliable than digester engines,” Nagel said.
But that digester-produced electricity more than offsets diesel, gas, propane, and fuel oil use on the operation.“It's an income stream for us, definitely," Nagel said.
Taking Care of Calves
While the digester is the heart of the operation, the calf nursery barn is also state-of-the-art.
Modeled after a hog barn, the heat from the digester engines keep the barns climate controlled and eliminates the need for straw.
“The way this is structured, we have in floor heat in the back two-thirds. The front is cold," Nagel explains. "They can choose where they would like to lay.”
And if you thought Holsum was environmentally conscious before, wait until you hear this: The dairy feeds its calves non-saleable milk, instead of wasting it.
The average rate of gain is 1.8 to 1.85 pounds.
“We treat that milk with foamic acid to lower the pH to a 4.2. The milk sits in those tanks for 48 hours, then we use that milk for feed for newborns," Nagel said.