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Illinois dairy farmers were digging into soil health week

By Tim Alexander
Illinois Correspondent

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. – With a renewed focus on environmental concerns associated with agriculture, Midwest Dairy Association sustainable nutrition manager Christine Cliff wants the public to know that only an estimated 2 percent of greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) can be attributed to the U.S. dairy industry.
“Dairy farmers are striving to keep it that way,” Cliff said, launching an hour-long webinar that wrapped up five days of online and in-person events celebrating Soil Health Week in Illinois.
The dairy industry, in particular, is leading the way in employing innovative solutions to the climate crisis, according to the Midwest Dairy Association. “The U.S. dairy industry was the first in the food agricultural sector to conduct a full life cycle assessment (LCA) on a national scale. This assessment looked at dairy from ‘cradle to grave,’ meaning that dairy was evaluated all the way from fertilizer production to the home where milk is consumed, and finally when the milk packaging is discarded. The LCA found that U.S. dairy accounts for approximately 2 percent of total GHG emissions, 5.1 percent of water use and 3.7 percent of U.S. farmland,” said Cliff, whose Midwest Dairy Association represents over 4,400 dairy producers in a ten-state region.
The Soil Health Week webinar, “Digging into Soil Health on Illinois Dairy Farms,” included moderator Jim Eisermann, a soil health expert with the Illinois Sustainable Agriculture Partnership. Also participating were dairy producers Nathan Dinderman, co-owner of Hunter Haven Farms near Pearl City, and Andy Lenkaitis, of Lenkaitis Holsteins near St. Charles.
“Dairy farmers work very hard every day to provide us with delicious and nutritious dairy food as well as to take care of the environment and be good stewards to the land,” Cliff said while introducing the webinar panel. “By the year 2050 they are striving to reduce their GHG emissions to net zero.”
Lenkaitis operates his family Holstein operation with his wife, Sarah, who takes care of around 80 dairy cows among the 185 animals on their farm. Their farm in St. Charles, a western suburb of Chicago, is somewhat unique in that it is surrounded by urban sprawl.
“What’s important to us is that we make the best use of the resources we have available,” Lenkaitis said. “In our area land is not easy to come by, so we want to make sure we can utilize it to its fullest extent by treating it the best that we can. We currently produce about twice the amount of milk that we had previously on the same amount of land, and we do that by taking better care of the cows and better care of the crops that we feed them with. Part of that is healthy soil.”
The Lenkaitises planted Italian ryegrass as a cover crop after corn on their farm last fall. Along with the crops they grow, the family supplements their cattle feed with co-products such as corn gluten and whole cottonseed. Manure from their dairy cow herd is recycled and run through a separator to mechanically separate fiber from liquid. The liquid is retained as a fertilizer to be applied to the Lenkaitis crop fields, while the fiber is used as bedding.
Along with regular soil testing, Lenkaitis identified cover crops among the most important things producers could do to establish good soil health. He also encouraged farmers new to the cover crop world to have patience when attempting to establish a reliable cover crop stand. “It’s not going to work perfectly every time, but that doesn’t mean you have to give up on it. Try it on your own acres first,” he said.
Dinderman has owned his farm, home to around 1,000 cows on 2,500 acres, for the past six years along with Scott Brenner. As part of the farm’s soil health practices, the partners utilize alfalfa for a winter cover crop to help control soil erosion.
Dinderman said that the partners’ commitment to sustainable soil health practices is a continuation of the philosophies of past owners Doug and Tom Block.
“We’re trying to keep (the farm’s) reputation going for being stewards of the land. We neighbor a 650-acre private lake on our northern border, so there are a lot of things we do in order to do the right thing at the right time,” Dinderman said.
As done at Lenkaitis Holsteins, Hunter Haven Farms’ soil health practices include recycling and separating manure for use as a spring and fall fertilizer, replacing synthetic fertilizers almost entirely. Around 500 acres of alfalfa are incorporated into the farm’s crop rotation as a cover crop that can be used as a feedstuff for cows, while also helping to maintain soil integrity on many of the farm’s sloped sectors.
In addition, Dinderman and Brenner plant around 100-150 acres of wheat to utilize the straw and break up crop rotations. The co-owners also employ no-till or minimum tillage on their row crop acreage.
“We try to keep a good rotation, try to break up the farm the best we can with contour strips in some spots. We try not to put a whole hillside into one crop at a time just for erosion (control),” Dinderman said. “All of our liquid manure is custom applied at an agronomic rate according to what the crop is going to be needing. When we put our liquid manure on a corn-on-corn crop, we don’t put any additional fertilizers out there. It is the main fertilizer for growing our crops.”
Dinderman echoed Lenkaitis in urging dairy producers to look into cover crops for their operations whenever feasible. “There are a lot of people that are doing this all across the country, and they are doing it well. There are resources and people out there to help you that can be found pretty easily, way more than even five years ago,” he said.
Soil tests conducted over the past three years have proven that the soil of Hunter Haven Farms has increased in organic matter, according to Dinderman. “We’re bringing the soil back to life, and probably one of the biggest benefits is the erosion control. I can sleep at night too, knowing that I may not be doing everything exactly perfect, but at least I’m trying. I think a lot of people get scared away with cover crops, but I think they’re wrong. It’s only going to be better for the industry looking down the road, and there are some really exciting things going on in the sustainability side of agriculture.”