With high levels of digestible calcium, protein, and fiber, Alfalfa is one of the most important and widely-grown feed crops in the U.S., ranking as the third most valuable crop behind only corn and soybeans. Whether they're producing it for their own livestock, or as a cash crop, it is important for farmers to maintain healthy plants and profitable yields. A typical alfalfa planting lasts for several years, making healthy, long-lived plants even more important. An Idaho dairy farmer has found that by composting his manure and dairy waste, he's able to transform it into a rich, balanced fertilizer to enhance his alfalfa crop.
A dairy farm relying on alfalfa for high quality feed is composting to cut fertilizer costs and seeing dramatically increased alfalfa yields. This is good news for dairy farms feeling the pinch of high fertilizer and feed costs.
When Gary Smith and his son Jason Smith began composting seven years ago, it was to fulfill their farm's need for organic fertilizer. They partnered with a cattle feed lot which provided them with huge volumes of manure and spent bedding as raw materials for their compost. After purchasing an Aeromaster compost turner and completing a training session with Midwest Bio Systems, the Smiths were soon producing high quality compost which boosted the yields on their farm. Neighbors began to take notice.
Today they have a booming business making and selling compost to other farmers, organic and not. Jason Smith has already hauled compost as far as 60 miles for some customers, and the demand is such that he takes orders for compost up to four months in advance. Alfalfa growers are one group of customers who keep coming back for more.
As farms get larger, and the concern over nitrates in the water supply grows, the regulations surrounding manure applications are becoming more restrictive.
Mark Webb, a dairy farmer in Idaho, runs a 1,800 cow dairy. Like many large animal operations, Mark's dairy is subject to state nutrient regulation that dictates how much manure and dairy waste he is allowed to apply to his fields annually. “We have to report all of our manure that goes onto the field and along with that you have to do soil testing to make sure you stay within the guidelines which are 40 parts per million (ppm) of nitrogen on the field,” he explained.
Because there is a limit to how much manure he can apply to any one field, these regulations are costly for Webb. He had a lot of time and capitol tied up in transporting and spreading manure, in an increasingly large radius surrounding his dairy. But that was before he discovered composting. By creating an on-farm composting program Webb found a solution to efficiently deal with his manure without exceeding the nitrate limits set by his nutrient management plan.
When dairy farmer Mark Webb, owner of an 1,800 cow dairy in Idaho, switched from a confined facility to open corrals, he found himself faced with a manure problem, namely far too much of it.
Webb's strategy to deal with his dairy waste, which consists of both manure and spent bedding, was to haul it onto portions of his 4,000 acres of cropland. After several years of these heavy manure applications, Mark noticed this practice was having a negative impact on the health of his crops, and soil. And the manure was still “piling up,” literally. Webb needed another solution to deal with his manure problem. He thought composting with a mechanical tractor-pulled compost turner might be the answer.
With rising feed and fertilizer costs and a fluctuating commodities market, 2012-2013 is shaping up to be a hard year for dairy farmers. Droughts in the Midwest have drastically increased feed prices, and forced some farmers to switch feeds, from corn to wheat. Fertilizer prices continue their upward price trend, making it difficult for dairies growing their own feed to be profitable. Yet two dairy farms in Idaho have found a way to reduce costs and become independent from buying fertilizers, by producing their own on the farm. And they're doing it through composting.