"This article appeared in the March 10, 2010, issue of the Unterrified Democrat, a weekly newspaper published in Linn, Mo., since 1866. In addition to writing for the paper, Voss raises registered South Poll cattle on pathetically poor grass that he is trying desperately to improve.
Nebraska dairyman applies raw milk to pastures and watches the grass grow
An Illinois steel-company executive turned Nebraska dairyman has stumbled onto an amazingly low-cost way to grow high-quality grass – and probably even crops – on depleted soil.
Can raw milk make grass grow? More specifically, can one application of three gallons of raw milk on an acre of land produce a large amount of grass?
The answer to both questions is yes.
Call it the Nebraska Plan or call it the raw milk strategy or call it downright amazing, but the fact is Nebraska dairyman David Wetzel is producing high-quality grass by applying raw milk to his fields and a Nebraska Extension agent has confirmed the dairyman’s accomplishments.
David Wetzel is not your ordinary dairyman, nor is Terry Gompert your ordinary Extension agent. Ten years ago Wetzel was winding up a five-year stint as the vice president of an Illinois steel company and felt the need to get out of the corporate rat race. At first he and his wife thought they would purchase a resort, but he then decided on a farm because he liked to work with his hands. The Wetzels bought a 320 acre farm in Page, Neb., in the northeast part of the state, and moved to the farm on New Year’s Day in 2000.
“We had to figure out what to do with the farm,” Wetzel said, “so we took a class from Terry Gompert.” They were advised to start a grass-based dairy and that’s what they did. “There’s no money in farming unless you’re huge,” Wetzel said, or unless the farmer develops specialty products, which is what they did.
In their business, the Wetzels used the fats in the milk and the skim milk was a waste product. “We had a lot of extra skim milk and we started dumping it on our fields,” Wetzel said. “At first we had a tank and drove it up and down the fields with the spout open. Later we borrowed a neighbor’s sprayer.”
Sometime in the winter of 2002 they had arranged to have some soil samples taken by a fertilizer company and on the day company employees arrived to do the sampling, it was 15 below zero. To their astonishment they discovered the probe went right into the soil in the fields where raw milk had been applied. In other fields the probe would not penetrate at all.
“I didn’t realize what we had,” Wetzel said. “I had an inkling something was going on and I thought it was probably the right thing to do.” For a number of years he continued to apply the milk the same way he had been doing, but in recent years he has had a local fertilizer company spray a mixture that includes liquid molasses and liquid fish, as well as raw milk. In addition he spreads 100 to 200 pounds of lime each year.
Gompert, the extension agent that suggested Wetzel start a grass-based dairy, had always been nearby – literally. The two are neighbors and talk frequently. It was in 2005 that Gompert, with the help of university soils specialist Charles Shapiro and weed specialist Stevan Kenzevic, conducted a test to determine the effectiveness of what Wetzel had been doing.
That the raw milk had a big impact on the pasture was never in doubt, according to Gompert. “You could see by both the color and the volume of the grass that there was a big increase in production.” In the test the raw milk was sprayed on at four different rates – 3, 5, 10 and 20 gallons per acre – on four separate tracts of land. At the 3-gallon rate 17 gallons of water were mixed with the milk, while the 20-gallon rate was straight milk. Surprisingly the test showed no difference between the 3-, 5-, 10- and 20-gallon rates.
The test began with the spraying of the milk in mid-May, with mid-April being a reasonable target date here in central Missouri. Forty-five days later the 16 plots were clipped and an extra 1200 pounds of grass on a dry matter basis were shown to have been grown on the treated versus non-treated land. That’s phenomenal, but possibly even more amazing is the fact the porosity of the soil – that is, the ability to absorb water and air – was found to have doubled.
So what’s going on? Gompert and Wetzel are both convinced what we have here is microbial action. “When raw milk is applied to land that has been abused, it feeds what is left of the microbes, plus it introduces microbes to the soil,” Wetzel explained, adding that “In my calculations it is much more profitable (to put milk on his pastures) than to sell to any co-op for the price they are paying.”
Wetzel has been applying raw milk to his fields for 10 years, and during that time has made the following observations:
* Raw milk can be sprayed on the ground or the grass; either will work.
* Spraying milk on land causes grasshoppers to disappear. The theory is that insects do not bother healthy plants, which are defined by how much sugar is in the plants. Insects (including grasshoppers) do not have a pancreas so they cannot process sugar. Milk is a wonderful source of sugar and the grasshoppers cannot handle the sugar. They die or leave as fast as their little hoppers can take them.
* Theory why milk works. The air is 78% nitrogen. God did not put this in the air for us but rather the plants. Raw milk feeds microbes/bugs in the soil. What do microbes need for growth? Protein, sugar, water, heat. Raw milk has one of the most complete amino acid (protein) structures known in a food. Raw milk has one of the best sugar complexes known in a food, including the natural enzyme structure to utilize these sugars. For explosive microbe growth the microbes utilize vitamin B and enzymes. What do you give a cow when the cow’s rumen is not functioning on all cylinders (the microbes are not working)? Many will give a vitamin B shot (natural farmers will give a mouthful of raw milk yogurt). Vitamin B is a super duper microbe stimulant. There is not a food that is more potent in the complete vitamin B complex than raw milk (this complex is destroyed with pasteurization). Raw milk is one of the best sources for enzymes, which break down food into more usable forms for both plants and microbes. (Again, pasteurization destroys enzyme systems.)
* Sodium in the soil is reduced by half. I assume this reflects damage from chemicals is broken down/cleaned up by the microbes and or enzymes.
* If you choose to buy raw milk from a neighbor to spread on your land, consider offering the farmer double or triple what he is paid to sell to the local dairy plant. Reward the dairy farmer as this will start a conversation and stir the pot. The cost for the milk, even at double or triple the price of conventional marketing, is still a very cheap soil enhancer.
* Encourage all to use their imagination to grow the potential applications of raw milk in agriculture, horticulture and the like – even industrial uses – possibly waste water treatment.
The purpose of this story is to convince farmers and livestock producers in this area to look into the possibility of using raw milk, compost tea, earthworm castings tea, liquid fish or sea minerals or some combination thereof to boost production at an affordable cost. It’s my experience that people in the Midwest are to a great extent unaware of the benefits of microbes. If the first part of this story has caught your attention and you intend to consider the use of raw milk or any of the other methods, you need to learn about microbes and the best way I have discovered is a book co-authored by Jeff Lowenfels and Wayne Lewis, Teaming with Microbes.
In this story I cannot go into detail about microbes, the miniscule little critters that exist in abundance in good soil. There are four principal types of microbes – bacteria, fungi, protozoa and nematodes. To get an example of their size, consider that there are a billion bacteria in one teaspoon of good soil. The role of microbes is to consume carbon, along with other minerals and nutrients, and these are stored in their cells until their ultimate release for use by plants. Microbes also store water, which make them drought-fighters as well.
I realize this is an inadequate description, but you need to read the book.
Brix is another concept that is not widely understood in the middle of the country. Brix is the measure of the sugar content of a plant (that’s an oversimplification but good enough for this article) and is measured by a device called a refractometer. If your grass has a brix of 1, that’s cause for nightmares. Our grass is routinely a 1. Clover and johnsongrass might on occasion measure 4 or 5 in the middle of the afternoon on a bright, sunny day. That’s deplorable for plants that should be double or triple that figure.
It’s not just our farm that has grass that’s not fit to feed livestock. I communicate frequently with three young cattlemen from this area – Jeremia Markway, Bruce Shanks and Chris Boeckmann – and they have the same problem. Last summer we were singing the blues over lunch and decided our refractometers must be broken. Someone came up with the idea of measuring sugar water. We tried it. Boom. The refractometer measured 26. Our equipment wasn’t broken, only our grass.
About three months ago Markway discovered a short article on what Wetzel and Gompert had been doing in Nebraska with raw milk. He emailed the article to me and that’s what got me to do this story. An interesting thing is what Markway discovered about the impact of raw milk on brix levels. He has a milk cow and took some of her milk, mixed with water and sprayed on his pastures with a small hand sprayer. Where he sprayed, the brix level of the grass was raised to a level of 10. That’s a great start and was good news to Wetzel and Gompert, who had not been measuring the brix levels of Wetzel’s grass."