Todd Tuls sees a home for big dairies in southern Wisconsin
Big dairy on the prairie
Nebraska dairy farmer Todd Tuls plans to break ground in March for what would be the biggest dairy operation in Rock and Walworth counties. To learn more about how a 5,200-cow dairy on Highway 14 east of Janesville would operate, the Gazette sent a photographer and a reporter to tour Tuls' Nebraska operations and the communities around them.
Sunday: The land around Tuls' Nebraska farms looks a lot like southern Wisconsin. But his 10,000-cow operations look nothing like those scattered around Rock and Walworth counties, and his neighbors have mixed opinions about the business.
Today: Tuls will add 5,200 cows to Rock County. That change could bring inexpensive fertilizer and jobs. It also could bring risks for pollution and odors. Tuls searched for a year before choosing to build on the Rock Prairie. What brought Tuls to Rock County?
Tuesday: Cash cropping is more common than animal agriculture in Rock County. Still, the addition of Rock Prairie Dairy would put two local herds on the list of the 10 largest in the state. Can large and small farms exist side by side in southern Wisconsin?
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Nebraska dairy farmer Todd Tuls plans to break ground in March for what will be the biggest dairy operation in Rock and Walworth counties.
BRADFORD TOWNSHIP Farmers, soil scientists and advocates of open space tout the Rock Prairie east of Janesville as having some of the most fertile farmland in the world.
What it doesn't have are many farm animals to consume the enormous amounts of corn and soybeans produced.
Todd Tuls sees that as an opportunity.
"Look at this site in Butler County, how flat we are right here," Tuls said to a Gazette reporter on a recent tour of his Nebraska farm. "If you go out to Janesville, you'll see what I see here. You'll see really flat fields, fields that are really open and large. To me, that's where these dairies have a place."
Tuls is Nebraska's biggest dairy farmer. He operates two herds: the 6,000-cow Butler County Dairy near Surprise, Neb., and the 4,600-cow Double Dutch Dairy near Shelby, Neb.
He wants to build a 5,200-cow dairy farm at Highway 14 and Scharine Road in Bradford Township not far from the Walworth County line. Tuls hopes to break ground in March.
His 18-year-old son, T.J. Tuls, expects to move to Wisconsin and manage the operation.
The best thing about flat fields is the reduced risk of manure runoff during application, Tuls said. In addition, the fields accommodate center-pivot sprayers, which Tuls wants to use to apply manure water to crops.
Dairy farmer Tom McClellan operates on the far edge of the Rock Prairie in Darien Township. He has thought for a long time that the area's abundance of crops and few cattle make Bradford Township a great spot for a farm.
"It's a perfect place," McClellan said. "The crops can use the manure. The dairy can use the crops. It's sort of a symbiotic relationship."
McClellan milks 520 cows on Highway 11 west of Delavan. He knows Tuls and has toured his Nebraska facilities.
"It is absolutely top notch," McClellan said.
Al Sweeney didn't go so far as to say the Rock Prairie is "perfect" for such an operation. But the prairie that stretches east of Janesville is known for its world-class farmland, and Sweeney has been working hard to protect it.
Sweeney is a Rock County Board member and the chairman of a committee that is designing a local farmland-protection program. Tuls' farm site is in an area that the committee has designated as a priority for protecting from development.
Although Tuls' proposal would take acres out of crop production, it would be an agricultural operation and would support crop production on nearby farms. It also would boost the scores of nearby parcels if the county adopts a method of ranking farmland for a preservation program, Sweeney said.
"I think animal agriculture definitely has a place on the Rock Prairie," Sweeney said. "To what size is not my call."
Joyce Aldrich doesn't disagree, but she's not convinced that raising 5,200 cows in metal barns is "agriculture."
Aldrich lives on Trescher Road about a half mile southeast of the site of the proposed Rock Prairie Dairy.
"This isn't agriculture. This isn't a dairy farm. It's a factory," Aldrich said. "OK, it's an animal factory, not a car factory. But it's a factory."
Aldrich is frustrated that the place she's called her home and farm for 60 years is threatened with the smell of a commercial dairy operation.
Aldrich has written to the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources about her concerns. Her list includes:
-- The threat of nitrate contamination in local drinking water.
-- The potential for phosphorous contamination in Turtle Creek.
-- The amount of groundwater the farm will consume.
-- The town of Bradford's costs for administering the farm's permit application.
She is livid at the thought of pouring concrete over the fertile Rock Prairie.
"The good Lord only made so much farmland," Aldrich said. "He's not making us any more. You waste it, and it's gone.
"It's raping our land. That's what it is. It's raping our land."
Apples to apples
If it is built, Rock Prairie Dairy would bump Larson Acres in Magnolia Township out of its place as the biggest dairy herd in Rock County. The herds would be the only two in the county large enough to require DNR operating permits, and both would be among the top 10 largest herds in Wisconsin by animal units.
Tuls' Wisconsin herd would get its start with 1,000 cows from Double Dutch Dairy in Shelby, Neb., to Bradford Township. That would free up space for upgrades to the Nebraska farm he built in 2000, Tuls said.
He also would bring with him 10 employees from Nebraska to help train new hires in Wisconsin, Tuls said. The farm would employ 50.
The Larsons have been expanding their herd since December, when the DNR and the town of Magnolia approved applications for the expansion.
When they are done, the Larsons will milk between 2,400 and 2,500 cows, Sandy Larson said. They will have 5,200 animals on their two farms.
Tuls also will have 5,200 animals. But Rock Prairie Dairy will be 30 percent larger, according to DNR standards. Engineers and environmentalists use a measurement called an "animal unit" to compare farm animals on an apples-to-apples basis. That way, officials can predict the impact of a poultry farm in the same way they measure the impact of a dairy farm or a swine operation. After all, one cow produces far more waste than one chicken.
One dairy cow, or mature female, is equal to 1.4 animal units. A heifer, or immature female, is about one animal unit.
When the Larson herd expansion is complete, the herd will equal 5,580 animal units; the cows on Rock Prairie Dairy will equal 7,280 animal units.
The difference is that some animals at Larson Acres are calves, and all the animals at Rock Prairie Dairy would be adult cows.
On Larson Acres, newborn calves are raised on site in pens constructed during the expansion. As they age, they are moved into group pens on the main farm on Highway 59.
When the heifers are about 5 months old, half of them go to a second operation on County B in Magnolia Township. The others go to a custom heifer raiser, Larson said. Just before they are old enough to deliver their first calves, the heifers from both sites are moved into maternity pens on the main farm, she said.
Tuls' Wisconsin application makes no accommodations for young stock, and it's not required to, DNR wastewater engineer Mark Cain said.
Tuls has no agreements with calf or heifer raisers in Wisconsin at this time, he said, but he expects to find someone with the space and the desire to take on the project, Tuls said.
"Somebody locally, hopefully, would want to take on our calf raising," Tuls said.
The cows at Rock Prairie Dairy would produce about 5,000 calves per year, but only half would be female and therefore remain part of his herd.
While Tuls does not yet have an agreement related to the care of his young stock—or for the sale of his milk, for that matter—he does have dozens of contracts that guarantee him space for waste disposal.
It's no small issue. Between manure, feed storage leachate and storm water runoff, the facility would produce 73.8 million gallons of waste a year, according to Rock Prairie Dairy's permit applications.
For comparison, the Janesville Wastewater Utility processed 5.88 billion gallons of water in 2009, Utility Director Dan Lynch said. The village of Darien processed 80.26 million gallons in 2009, according to village data.
According to the application documents, Tuls has multi-year manure easements with 11 landowners to apply waste on 5,270 acres of farm fields in Rock and Walworth counties. That includes spreading solid waste, knifing slurry from the lagoon into the ground and spraying liquid waste through center-pivot sprayers.
The waste would be applied in specific amounts to replace commercial fertilizers. Professionals refer to such plans as nutrient management plans. Brian Mooney of The DeLong Co. in Clinton wrote the proposed plan.
All the waste created by the cows at Rock Prairie Dairy would be applied to the contracted fields, Tuls said.
When asked, Tuls said he and his employees would go over the nutrient management plan for each field with each crop producer. The plan includes testing the soil, the wastewater and plant tissues and installing monitoring wells, said environmental scientist Jen Keuning with Green Bay-based Conestoga-Rovers & Associates, the company that engineered the design for Rock Prairie Dairy.
Tuls said his plan would make fertilizing more efficient for the producers who participate. Their crop yields would improve, which in turn would benefit Tuls, who would feed locally grown corn silage to his cows.
"We come alongside the farmer, and we assist them in growing a better yielding crop," Tuls said. "I'd like to say that we are more in tune with what their soil is and what their fertilizer needs are than what they've ever been before."
Improved fertilizing efficiency would reduce the risk of over-application or nutrient runoff, Tuls said.
Local crop producers with manure easements would get free fertilizer, although they would pay for the cost of application, Tuls said.
They could save even more money if Tuls' employees harvest the corn silage.
"Their overall savings can be upwards of $200 an acre," Tuls said.
Tuls sees similarities and differences between Wisconsin's Department of Natural Resources and Nebraska's Department of Environmental Quality.
The two have similar requirements when it comes to construction and on-site operation, he said. They want to see plans for barns, feed storage and waste storage.
When it comes to nutrient management—applying animal waste onto farm fields as fertilizer—Wisconsin's regulations are "more intense," Tuls said.
In Nebraska, he's not required to have a plan or drawing that shows "each junction and each pipe." The Wisconsin DNR requires such details, as well as details on how much waste he will spread on each field and when.
"The nutrient management there (in Wisconsin) that's existing is more intense than it is here," Tuls said. "We do it here because we want to. We have a nutrient management plan. But it's just not quite as intense as Wisconsin's."
Lori Fischer wishes that was different.
Fischer owns a photography studio in her home north of Shelby, Neb. For a long time, she didn't think twice about Tuls' operations because she was too far away to smell them, she said. As time went on, she became concerned about the health of the nearby Big Blue River and the health of her community, she said.
When asked if she could change one thing about Tuls' Nebraska operations, Fisher didn't hesitate before answering "the center pivots." The smell is unbearable for some neighbors, and Fischer dislikes the fact that waste dries on corn leaves and blows in the wind, she said.
The pivots look like the wheeled irrigation booms common in Wisconsin farm fields, but instead of spraying well water, they spray manure water pumped from the top of storage lagoons. Some, but not all, of the manure solids would have settled out before pumping.
The DNR is closely reviewing the pivots, Cain said. His primary concern is repeated nutrient application through a permanent pivot, he said.
Wisconsin does not regulate odor at the site of waste application, Cain said. The state only regulates odors emitted from farm sites. Those rules are set by the department of agriculture and enforced by local municipalities—in this case the town of Bradford.
Tuls' permit would put 16 center pivots on fields in Bradford and Johnstown townships in Rock County and in Darien Township in Walworth County. The pivots would be up to 2.5 miles from the proposed farm, all on the north side of Highway 14. Many would be adjacent to the farm or between the farm and Johnstown Center.
The pivot in Darien Township would be against the county line.
Underground PVC pipes would move waste from the storage lagoon to the pivots. With one exception, the irrigators would not pump well water, Keuning said. Solid waste would be applied to the pivot fields in some years. Manure water would not be sprayed those years, Mooney said.
A pipe also would cross under Highway 14 to allow access for knifing waste into the soil with tractors on the south side of the highway, Keuning said. Most of the knifing would take place south of Highway 14 between the highway and Turtle Creek.
All 5,270 acres are within roughly five miles of the proposed farm site, Mooney said.
The system is designed to shut off if the sprayers stop moving. They would not operate in the rain, Keuning said. The goal is to apply an inch and a half of manure water during the peak of the growing season when the crops need feeding the most, she said.
"This is not a lawn sprinkler," Keuning said. "This is very targeted, precision irrigation to put that liquid where we want it to go. We're feeding the crop nutrients with a spoon instead of a bucket."
Keuning said the irrigators are designed to spray manure water below the canopy of growing crops. The method creates less odor than traditional waste application, she said.
Tuls knows the pivots are unpopular with some Nebraska neighbors.
"When they want to bunk my pivots from putting wastewater out, well, to me, I'm saying I'm going to put a quarter inch out, let it sit and allow the plant to use it. Put another quarter inch out," Tuls said. "I'm going to do this six times a year on 16 different fields to get rid of my water. How much better is that than me trying to go out and put 20,000 gallons down in one spot at one time?"
The method reduces the water in the waste, which allows Tuls to transport manure solids with less chance of a spill, he said. It also reduces the amount of liquid waste that would be transported on local roads, he said.
Tuls' employees spread the remaining solids or knife the remaining slurry into fields, Tuls said. Because the water has been pumped through pivot sprayers, the remaining waste has less potential for runoff, Tuls said. Using pivots reduces truck traffic and allows for regular application of smaller amounts of waste rather than larger amounts all at once, he said.
Tuls has had two manure spills near Double Dutch Dairy and reported both to the Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality, he said. A 2004 spill contaminated the nearby Big Blue River, according to DEQ records obtained by the Gazette. No sign of environmental impact was evident, Tuls said.
A 2005 spill killed the fish in a neighbor's pond, according to DEQ records.
Tuls pumped out the pond and restocked the fish, he said.
The DEQ did not sanction Tuls for either spill.
Tuls has reported and repaired a cracked manure pipe on two occasions, he said. The Lincoln Journal Star in 2007 reported one of those cracks as well as a spill cause by a farmer who bought manure from Tuls. Tuls was not responsible for that spill, he said.
He thinks his method improves on methods already common in Rock County.
"What I'm bringing there is innovation," he said.
BY THE NUMBERS
Todd Tuls expects to build a $35 million dairy farm in Rock County. However, assessor Ron Jacobson said the property wouldn't likely be assessed at $35 million.
Here's how some of the big items would break down, according to Jacobson. The list of property and projected prices comes from Tuls' applications for operating permits.
Cattle, $7 million—Cattle are not taxable. Tuls has not said where he would buy the cattle, although he would bring 1,000 head from his Nebraska herd, he said.
Buildings, $15 million—The milking parlor, the freestall barns and some other buildings are taxable. Some equipment is exempt.
Manure system, $4 million—Not taxable.
Land, $1 million—Taxable.
Feed storage, $2.2 million—Taxable.
Machinery, $1.5 million—Not taxable.
Personal property, $4.3 million—Most of it would not be taxable.
Nebraska dairy farmer Todd Tuls in spring plans to start construction of a 160-acre dairy farm on Highway 14 in Bradford Township. The farm would require numerous local, county and state permits to operate.
The mix adds redundancy to the process, said Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources wastewater engineer Mark Cain. This allows a variety of professionals to review the applications from several angles, he said.
Here's the list of permits required for the project, compiled by Jen Keuning, an environmental scientist with Conestoga-Rovers & Associates. All currently are under review:
-- Rock County waste storage permit—Would allow the farm to store manure in lagoons.
-- Rock County erosion control and storm water control permit—Prohibits erosion during construction and prohibits the facility from discharging more water after construction than it did before.
-- Town of Bradford building permit
-- Town of Bradford conditional-use permit—While farming is allowed on the site of the proposed dairy, a permit is required to allow the number of cows Tuls proposes. The town has adopted the state's livestock siting law as the town ordinance for permitting such facilities.
-- Town of Bradford driveway permit
-- Wastewater Pollutant Discharge Elimination System Permit for concentrated animal feeding operations—Administered by the DNR, this is the permit necessary to operate a facility with more than 1,000 animal units (about 700 cows).
-- WPDES storm water permit—Also administered by the DNR.
-- DNR high-capacity well permit
-- Wisconsin Department of Transportation permit for Highway 14 right-of-way access.
-- DOT utility permit to run an irrigation pipe under Highway 14
-- Right-of-way permits from the town of Bradford and Rock County to run pipes under town and county roads.
Plans still are not finalized. But, tentatively, the finished Rock Prairie Dairy would include:
-- Six sand-bedded freestall barns. Five of the barns would be 1,056 feet long and house about 900 cows. A slightly smaller maternity barn would house 700 cows. Heartland Construction of Columbus, Neb., has designed the facility.
Inside the barns, cows would have constant access to feed, water and sand bedding. Computers would monitor the temperature and humidity inside the barns. As conditions change, the computers would switch fans on and off or raise and lower the barn walls to keep the cows comfortable.
-- Two 70-cow milking parlors and holding areas. Three times a day, the cows would walk from their beds to stand in line to be milked. Milkers would work in a pit below the cows. The cows would be identified by radio ear tags, and computers would record data about the cows' health and production.
Cows would live in groups of 245. They would be cared for as a unit and deliver calves at about the same time in maternity pens.
-- Three manure lagoons. The lagoons would be lined with concrete or high-density plastic and covered with high-density plastic. Tuls' Nebraska lagoons are not covered.
The covers would reduce odor by as much as 90 percent, said Steve Struss, a conservation engineer with the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection. The covers also would keep rainwater out of the wastewater, said Jen Keuning, an environmental scientist with engineering firm Conestoga-Rovers. The goal on all parts of the facility would be to keep "clean" water such as storm water out of the waste stream, she said.
The lagoons would be 13 to 15 feet deep and 127,400 to 350,000 square feet at the top. Together, they would hold 80.18 million gallons of waste, according to DNR permit application documents. The cows and the operation will generate 73.75 million gallons of waste each year.
-- A concrete sand-settling lane and manure separation building. Waste would be scraped from the barns with heavy equipment or flushed with water. The watery waste would flow through underground pipes and onto a concrete settling lane. As the water trickled over the lane, the heavy sand would drop out while the water and waste would continue to the lagoon.
The sand would be pushed out of the lane, air dried and reused. Clean sand harbors fewer bacteria than other types of bedding and is comfortable for the animals, Tuls said.
-- The dairy will use 64 million gallons of water per year, which equates to 175,000 gallons per day or 128 gallons per minute.
Source: Rock Prairie Dairy permit applications with the town of Bradford and the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.