About 50 people arrived in a small Missouri town the week of June 20th with one thing on their minds: milk. But they weren’t thinking about drinking it, they were thinking about dumping it. Call it a fad or a revolution, but cattle and dairy farmers say that spraying raw milk on their pastures might be the easiest way to grow thicker, more nutritious grass.
"When you start spraying milk on your fields, you’re going to be thought of as a fool," chuckled Larry Sansom, a cattle farmer from Kentucky who drove six hours to learn about the method. "But I guess you’ve got to hold your nose and jump."
Like many discoveries, this one happened by accident. In 2002, a former steel executive, David Wetzel, was starting out his second career as a dairy farmer on a 320-acre farm in northeast Nebraska. Admittedly, he learned his new job on the fly.
"I came from a background that has nothing to do with farming," Wetzel said. "So I don’t know the do’s and don’ts. I don’t have any relatives that would say, ‘You can’t do that.’ So I just kind of did what felt right."
Wetzel began making specialty butters and cheeses that required only the fats from the milk his cows produced. This left behind large quantities of skim milk as a waste product, and to dispose of it Wetzel drove up and down a portion of his pasture with a gusher of the white liquid flowing out of a tank. He dumped as much as 600 gallons of skim milk on the field every other day.
A funny thing happened. When Wetzel let his cows out to graze, they made a beeline for the patch of field that had been doused in milk. As the months wore on, Wetzel started to notice that the grass felt more supple, looked healthier and more dense in that area.
In the dead of winter with temperatures dipping to negative 10 degrees, Wetzel paid a fertilizer company to take soil samples of his land. Because the earth was frozen, the worker was unable to punch a hole into the soil anywhere on Wetzel’s property until he reached the soft soil of the milk field. There, Wetzel said, the testing device went into the soil like a hot knife into butter and showed soil packed with nutrients.
So Wetzel asked his neighbor, Terry Gompert, a University of Nebraska Extension educator, to come take a look. Gompert, who is not a researcher but specializes in holistic land management, called on some favors from colleagues who helped him set up test plots to put the milk hypothesis through the wringers. After 45 days, the results were startling.
The plots treated with milk grew about 1,100 more pounds of grass per acre than untreated plots, a 26 percent increase in yield. Also, the soil was 18 percent softer than untreated soil according to compaction tests — meaning it had a greater "porosity" or ability to absorb water and air.
More than that, Gompert said, the grass just looked healthier with fewer lesions or yellow discolorations.
While stressing that much more research is needed, Gompert said the findings make sense because milk is food for the invisible bacteria, fungi, protozoa and nematodes that teem inside a healthy soil.
"Our unfair advantage is getting the microbes to work for us," Gompert said. The milk "is just feeding the workers."
Raw milk is a veritable stew of protein and sugar complexes that microbes need for growth. Additionally, raw milk is one of the best sources of vitamin B found in nature and it brims with enzymes that can break down food for microbes and plants. Many farmers, Gompert said, have heedlessly scorched microbe activity in their pastures with years of tillage, chemical use and overgrazing.
So on Thursday and Friday, Ralph Voss, a retired Osage County associate circuit court judge and cattle farmer, held a conference at the Osage Community Center to help teach farmers about this unusual use for raw milk. Participants came from as far away as Montana to hear Gompert and Wetzel’s story.
After the lectures and a lunch, attendees were invited to inspect an acre of land on Voss’ farm where he had sprayed milk on one side and sea salt on another 27 days earlier. On a scorching hot day, members of the group kneeled down in shin-high grass to feel the soil and see the grass quality. Several even brought hand-held "refractometers," tiny devices that measure the sugar content of a plant. Others took turns plunging a "penetrometer" into the soft earth.
The measurable results on Voss’ land were similar to the Nebraska study. The soil on the milk-treated half of the land was significantly softer and had nearly 700 pounds more grass per acre than the side treated with sea salt. Many in attendance came away impressed and said they would spray milk on their own test plot to see the results.
"There’s only one dairy farmer in my county, and I don’t know how I’m going to ask him to buy 100 pounds of milk," Sansom said. "He’s going to ask me what I plan to do with it."
Miriam Carter who, along with husband Dale, milks about 200 dairy cows in Mountain Grove, said that if this method means they save money on fertilizer and her cows can consume more calories as they graze, she can’t afford to ignore it.
"You can’t afford to accept the way it’s always been done," Carter said, "especially when times get tough, you need to start pushing parameters."
Reach T.J. Greaney at 573-815-1719 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article was published on page A14 of the Sunday, June 27, 2010 edition of The Columbia Daily Tribune.