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.
Raw milk is not the only thing that will improve soil. Compost tea is a liquid made by running compost through a “brewer,” a device somewhat akin to a fish tank, in that oxygen is added to the water containing the compost and this action flushes the microbes out of the compost into the water. The resulting liquid is a “tea” that can be sprayed on pastures and crops, to their great benefit.
Two men that make extensive use of compost tea are Mark Sturges and David Herringshaw. These two have never met and until recently had not even heard of each other.
Sturges lives in western Oregon near the coast and for 10 years has had a business spraying compost tea on vineyards, cranberry bogs, fruit and nut trees and pastures. Sturges adds malt extract, kelp and seas minerals to his tea, and if he is spraying pastures, he adds molasses to build the bacteria content.
Herringshaw lives in the near-desert southeast part of Oregon at an elevation of 4,100 feet. He uses compost tea on his own land and has the brix level of his pasture and hay ground up to 22. That’s tantamount to feeding corn. Herringshaw attributes the high brix to the compost tea and also sea minerals, which he applies at the same time. He uses nothing else.
I have seen the compost Sturges produces. It is so alive it literally moves. I have not seen the compost Herringshaw makes at the other end of the state. I can only imagine how good it might be. He fortifies it with raw milk.
Think for a second what Wetzel said about using your imagination to grow the applications for raw milk. Herringshaw has already used his imagination.
Earthworm Castings Tea
This tea is identical to compost tea except that worm poop is substituted for compost. Almost everyone thinks tea from earthworm castings is great stuff, and some even think this tea is superior to compost tea. Earthworm castings are known to suppress certain diseases of grass and some people think the use of castings might suppress harmful bacteria such as staph and E. coli.
There is a story going around that a university was having problems with athletes getting staph infections from burns sustained on grass practice fields and the university stopped applying chemicals to the grass and instead turned to worm castings and solved the problem. I spent two weeks trying to track down this story and at this point I don’t believe it is true. Maybe someone will prove me wrong.
I did, however, come across an interesting situation in St. Louis County, Mo., where the Parkway school district turned to earthworm castings in lieu of commercial fertilizer. The groundskeeper there is Matt Jenne, who prior to coming to St. Louis was a golf course superintendent in Florida. While working in Florida he noticed earthworms had built up their castings on the greens. They picked up the castings as part of cutting the grass, and then piled the grass-castings mixture and let it compost, after which they used it with great success on new grass and bare spots. To feed the life they had in the soil, they applied molasses once a month with their irrigation system.
When he got to St. Louis Jenne decided to go with worm castings on two football fields, applying between half a ton and a ton per field. The castings are applied dry and work best when the field has been aerated.
Jenne may have an explanation for the staph infection story. He says that artificial turf causes staph and the only way this can be controlled is to disinfect the artificial turf.
Here in Osage County earthworm castings are available at Eisterhold Brothers on U.S. 63 between Westphalia and Freeburg. Unfortunately they have decided to close their business when their current supply runs out.
Liquid fish or fish fertilizer is another product that has been successfully applied to pastures. Teddy Gentry, the founder of South Poll cattle, has been using a fish product for years and is pleased with the results. It seems especially beneficial in fighting the effects of a drought. Gentry mixes the fish with liquid calcium and is thinking about adding sea minerals to his mixture.
Sea minerals might be the best way to improve poor or depleted soils. We all know that a large deer in Iowa will weigh 100 pounds more than a large deer from that part of Missouri south of the Missouri River. Many people ascribe the difference to the mineral level of the soils. It’s difficult – if not impossible – to produce high-quality grass on soil that is no properly mineralized. It took Herringshaw years to get his grass to the 22 brix level and he is convinced he would not have gotten there without the seal minerals. Herringshaw prefers Redmond salt, while Sturges uses Sea-90. Sturges applies his sea minerals as a spray, along with compost tea. Herringshaw makes both dry and spray applications. He estimates he has broadcast approximately 85 pounds of Redmond salt per acre since he started using that product. This is in addition to what he has sprayed on. For both Sturges and Herringshaw a foliar application is one pound or less per acre.
Another individual that makes extensive use of sea minerals is Doug Gunnink of Gaylord, Minn. Gunnink produces high-brix grass for his grass-fed beef operation by the foliar application of liquid fish and sea minerals. He also tests his grass and adds those minerals that are in short supply in his pastures, whether boron, sulfur, copper or some other mineral.
Fish hydrolysate, Gunnink explained, is the entire fish ground up and then preserved with phosphoric or sulfuric acid. If the preservative is phosphoric acid, the phosphorus “bumps up the Brix,” he said, adding that “phosphorus gives grass power.” High-brix grass produces more organic matter, which in turn holds more water, Gunnink explained, stating that a 1% increase in organic matter will hold an additional 53,000 gallons of water per acre. “Organic matter is the sponge that holds water for dry spells.”
The organic matter also holds the nutrients that plants need.
This story is not meant to be a war on conventional fertilizers. The late Dr. Maynard Murray, the pioneer that first advocated use of sea minerals, said there is a place for conventional N, P and K. We do, however, need to come up with better ways to use them. Bill Totemeier, a friend in southeast Iowa that is a commercial hay producer, uses ammonium sulfate rather than ammonium nitrate because the former is much more earthworm-friendly. He applies fertilizer two or three times per year in smaller amounts rather one large application in the spring. This reduces the shock to the microbes.
Houston-area rancher Tom McGrady spread ammonium sulfate on his ryegrass pasture in early March. In his area ammonium nitrate is no longer available. That may be a good thing.
For Row Crop Farmers
Row crop farmers can also benefit greatly from some of these practices. Lowenfels, who co-authored the book on microbes, urges anyone who uses herbicides or insecticides to soon thereafter apply compost tea to increase the microbe population that was probably greatly reduced by the chemical spray. Fish would also work in this situation.
For the busy grain guy, there are companies that make products ready to go into the sprayer. One such firm is AgriEnergy Resources. Mike Wyatt, an independent consultant that works with AgriEnergy, has helped me gain some insight into world of microbes.
If you want bigger deer like you read about in Iowa and Illinois, the methods set out in this article should be used on your hunting land, especially the food plots. Animals are clearly attracted to plants that have been treated with sea salt. And they also choose high-brix plants over those with low brix levels.
I know Terry Gompert personally. He’s the real deal. In 2007 he organized a high-stock-density grazing seminar in as remote an area of northeast Nebraska as you can find and attracted over 200 people. Included among that crew were Jeremia Markway and me. Based on my knowledge of and respect for Gompert and the results Markway experiences just down the road from us, why wouldn’t I be willing to try this? To me it’s a no-brainer. I’ve made arrangements to buy milk from Alfred Brandt, who lives just south of Linn, and Chamois MFA has agreed to spray 50 or 100 acres in mid-April. A 1,000 gallon tank containing 150 gallons of raw milk and 850 gallons of water will provide the perfect ratio of three gallons of milk and 17 gallons of water, which applied at the rate of 20 gallons per acre will cover 50 acres. I hope to get over at least 100 acres. Whether we include something with the milk – such as fish, molasses or earthworm casting tea – is a decision we haven’t made at this time.
We are also going to broadcast one ton of sea salt at a rate of 20 pounds per acre.
For years I’ve been a dung beetle fanatic, thinking that I needed dung beetles to build my soil. I’ve probably been wrong in this regard. I now think I need to build my soil and the dung beetles will come. Dr. James Nardi, in his classic work Life in the Soil, describes dung beetles as picky eaters. That may seem strange, but my experience convinces me his assessment is totally accurate. I hope – and I do believe this will happen – dung beetles will choose to come to our farm because we have upgraded the food supply.
This article originally appeared in the Unterrified Democrat.