The milking facilities at Kinnard Farms in Casco Wisconsin were built for the long haul.
“We've been milking at this [dairy] for four years,” says Lee Kinnard, owner and president of Kinnard Farms.“So probably 15 years ago, we sat down as a family and said, okay, where's the future of this thing going?”
That conversation ended in an operation focused on comfortable cows and respecting the sustainable legacy this family started more than 70 years ago.
“I think long ago, our parents were really good at teaching us that this is not your land,” Kinnard says. “You can have title to this land. It's not yours, you're simply the caretaker.”
Tending 13,000 acres of crops and a barn full of cows in the thumb of Wisconsin surrounded by water has plenty challenges.
“Previous generations [of the Kinnard family] were half fishermen and half were farmers,” Kinnard says. “So, we had a pretty early understanding that ‘Hey, what we do on the land can indeed impact what happens on the water.’”
Which is why their operation has been built from the ground up with the environment in mind. They started no-tilling about 30 years ago.
“We were extensively soil testing at the time, which was pretty unheard of, and we noticed that we could cut back on the number of inputs and still grow the same crop,” Kinnard says.
But as tile was installed, they found water flowed less above ground along those traditional grassed waterways.
“What is the water quality coming out of that tile line?” Kinnard asked. “We did a lot of testing and a lot of research and decided ‘Hey, okay, it's not always zero coming out of that tile line, what can we do about it?’”
What they are currently trying is a tile line filter called a bedding bark bioreactor.
“There's very little nitrogen coming in on the up-end streaming of this, but there is next to none leaving the down end streaming of this, so it's very effective,” Kinnard says.
Pulling water samples every hour, 24 hours a day, seven days a week over the past 2 years is changing the way the Kinnard’s farm for the future. They no longer terminate living crops--like alfalfa in the fall and leave it dead through the winter.
“We found out that that nitrogen sitting there dead over the winter can be a very leaky crop,” Kinnard says. “It's actually changed our farming practices, which is, you know, the more important thing. What do you do about it?”
Today that alfalfa keeps growing or a cover crop is planted instead until corn can be no-tilled in during spring planting.
“If we can learn something by monitoring and figure out a way to keep those nutrients there, it's you know, it's a big step in the right direction,” Kinnard says.
Learning is also why Kinnard help start Peninsula Pride Farms, a sustainability and water quality focused group of farmers. Learning from each other and experts about new ways to responsibly care for the land.
“The low disturbance manure applicator applies the manure and the nutrients to the soil without heavily disturbing the soil profile, says neighbor and fellow dairyman, Tony Brey. “We value water, we live here, we drink the water it's important to us for sure.
We want we want to continue to improve our best management practices and research and have demos like this where we can learn new practices to implement on our farms, to be better with the environment and improve water quality as well.”
Now some 50 members strong, representing half of the area's cows and tillable acres, the learning is non-stop.
“Let's see what's working for this guy, what's not working for this guy? And I think more importantly, what's not working, because we all learn as much from the things that don't work as we do from the things that do,” Kinnard says.
Back at the barn, a lot of learning went into this farm of the future. From the ventilation, to the lighting control to the system that separates, cleans and recycles the bedding sand.
“We haven't purchased sand in about seven years,” Kinnard says. “It goes round and round and round.”
A significant savings for both the environment and the bottom line.
The farm is also recycling manure into a new partnership with DTE Energy. Soon new digesters will be converting methane into compressed natural gas which will be trucked out and put into a nearby pipeline rather than trying to create electricity on the farm and feed it into the grid.
“There's a lot less moving parts, which allows you to spend a little more, a lot more actually, on the upfront,” Kinnard says. “The digesters themselves really up the design and really make them efficient.”
Efficiency, whether it’s the systems, the farms or the cows, Kinnard Farms is building on its conservation legacy. Working with the land, the water and the people from one generation to the next.
“Our goal as a family has been to always leave the land in a condition better than it was in which we found it,” Kinnard says.
For more on sustainability, read: