Oct. 12 is National Farmer’s Day, a day to acknowledge the hard work that goes in to feeding our nation.
In this region, dairy farmers are working extra hard not only to produce the milk, butter, cheese and other dairy products Wisconsin is known for, but to do so sustainably to keep our air and waterways clean.
The Tribune toured two nearby farms, Ripp’s Dairy Valley in the Town of Dane and Endres Berryridge Farm in the Town of Springfield, to learn about conservation practices farmers employ to keep nutrient rich soils in place, prevent stormwater runoff and manage manure. Both are part of Yahara Pride Farms, a non-profit, farmer-led organization that began in 2011 focused on improving soil and water quality.
Chuck Ripp of Ripp’s Dairy Valley serves on the board of directors for Yahara Pride Farms. His grandfather bought the farm in the late 1940s, and today, Ripp, with his brothers Gary and Troy, own the farm, and brother Craig is employed full-time. Their children also work there and are among the 17 full-time employees.
Jeff Endres of Endres Berryridge Farm is the chair of Yahara Pride Farms. His family, together with brother’s Randy and Steve and their families, have owned the farmstead since the late 1800s, and it is now moving to the fifth generation in the family. The farm has 12 full-time employees and 550 cows, which he said is about the average size of a Wisconsin dairy farm.
With 700 cows, Ripp’s Dairy Valley adheres to strict manure management regulations set forth by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. It is one of the three original farms to partner with the nearby Clean Fuel Partners manure digester, where methane from manure is captured and brought to the Dane County CNG station. There, it is processed into compressed natural gas to fuel vehicles.
The farm is at the mouth of Six Mile Creek, so preventing runoff is important, Ripp said. By capturing the methane, the farm emits less CO2 into the atmosphere, as do the vehicles fueled by compressed natural gas.
At Endres Berryridge Farm, Jeff Endres also trucks some of the manure to the digester. He also has also begun a composting facility where manure from the calves and heifers is composted and used as fertilizer.
Both Ripp and Endres plant cover crops such as grasses or barley to keep soil in place and improve soil health. Ripp said he plants the crops on any “brown” areas left after harvesting, and Endres said he rotates the crops to improve soil. On one hilltop at Endres Berryridge Farm, what Endres called a “highly erodible field,” grasses have been planted to prevent the erosion. Ripp noted that when the soil is aerated, water is better able to infiltrate, improving crop growth.
Both also use low-disturbance manure injection to inject liquid manure into the soil to better fertilize the soil and prevent it from running off.
Endres noted that the injections can be applied into the crops after they are planted without wiping them out.
“Time is of the essence in fall,” he said. “We want the cover crops to get as big as we can before it freezes and shuts us down.”
Both farms also employ buffers along with other stormwater management systems to capture runoff, and at Ripp’s Dairy Valley, large lagoons hold manure until it can be piped to the nearby digester.
Some 50 farms within the Yahara Watershed located in Dane, Columbia and Rock counties are part of Yahara Pride Farms, all using innovative practices tailored to their own farms to achieve sustainability.
“It’s a compliment to the farmers in the watershed,” Endres said. “They’re always looking to improve wherever they can on their farms.”
Yahara Pride Farms and their partners are “trying to create enough tools in the toolbox so farmers have the options to achieve their conservation goals,” he added.