Manure digester, cropping practices, animal care stand out at Deer Run Dairy
A Wisconsin dairy farm, Deer Run Dairy, has won national recognition for a comprehensive approach to sustainability.
The farm’s Outstanding Dairy Farm Sustainability award comes from the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy as part of the center’s 11th annual U.S. Dairy Sustainability Awards.
Deer Run, owned by partners Duane and Derek Ducat (father and son) and Dale Bogart, milks about 1,650 cows with an additional 250 dry cows on site. The 2,500 acres of farmland is in an area with fractured bedrock and in some places very shallow soil, posing unique challenges to water quality.
“We really take a whole-farm approach to sustainability ― from our animals’ health, to being stewards of the land and using our manure digester to reduce pathogen levels,” Duane Ducat said. “We have a culture that’s developed at Deer Run to embrace the challenges that come with introducing new practices and methods that make it possible to be sustainable for the future.”
The sustainability awards, announced last month, recognize dairy farms, businesses and collaborative partnerships for practices that demonstrate outstanding economic, environmental and social benefits; a longstanding commitment to continuous improvement; and a replicable model to inform and inspire others in advancing dairy sustainability leadership.
“Deer Run is always willing to step up and take on new challenges by accelerating the adoption of practices that lead to continuous improvement in conservation,” said Tim Trotter, CEO of Edge Dairy Farmer Cooperative, who nominated the farm. “This farm takes great pride in the commitment they’ve made to be a leading advocate for sustainability in the dairy community, and we could not be prouder to be associated with such an extraordinary representative.”
Learning and adapting are ongoing processes at Deer Run. The farm is part of the Door-Kewaunee Watershed Demonstration Farms Network with guidance from the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service. Duane Ducat is also a founding member of Peninsula Pride Farms (PPF), a farmer-led conservation group whose members work together to protect the local watershed and encourage other farmers to try conservation practices such as cover crops, buffer strips and no-tillage.
Through PPF and the network, Deer Run hosts field days to show practices in action and share the benefits. Among the many people who have toured the farm to see the conservation up close is Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers.
The farm’s sustainability efforts are wide-ranging.
“We are very deliberate with our manure applications to the land as well as our cropping practices,” Duane Ducat said. “We are planting cover crops in the late summer and fall, as well as no-till planting green into these cover crops in the spring to help protect and enhance soil health.”
With the use of an anaerobic digester, Deer Run is reducing pathogens in manure by a thousandfold, leaving just one-tenth of 1% of the pathogens found in untreated manure. In 2020, the digester was converted to produce renewable natural gas, a clean, low-carbon fuel for the transportation market. Byproducts from the digester include animal bedding and nutrient-rich fertilizer that can be either used by the farm for cost savings or sold for profit.
In 2021, a partner company began the engineering process to expand the digester system’s capacity and impact by installing a mixing tank that will enable other local farms to bring animal waste to Deer Run.
The farm also focuses on cow comfort and energy efficiency. Antibiotic use is minimal, and feeding trials are being conducted to reduce methane gas production in the rumen of the cows. The barns are cross-ventilated by fans that conserve energy while keeping the animals cool.
“All of these practices help paint a complete sustainability picture at Deer Run,” Duane Ducat said.
The advancements at Deer Run Dairy to constantly improve cow care and the health of the soil and water are championed in Wisconsin. There are more than 40 farmer-driven watershed protection groups in the state, all striving to improve the land and water for future generations.
“Consumers continue to look for and make purchase decisions based on sustainable messaging on labels,” said Patrick Geoghegan, executive vice president of industry relations for Dairy Farmers of Wisconsin. “Deer Run Dairy, and many other Wisconsin dairy farms, have great stories to share about how they care for their cows, their community and the environment. Awards such as this affirm the efforts of the state’s dairy farmers but also our rich heritage in conservation efforts.”
Judges in the Innovation Center awards program evaluated dozens of nominations based on economic, environmental and community impact. The independent panel — including experts working with and throughout the dairy community — also considered learning, innovation, scalability and replicability.