Nothing makes peaceful news headlines quite as dramatically as pictures of tanker-loads of milk being dumped into a manure lagoon — particularly when such news clips follow pictures of nearly empty dairy cases in the supermarket. A serious imbalance of raw milk supply and demand has become collateral damage brought on by the coronavirus pandemic. A shortage of truckers — some of whom are themselves sick with this virus — has intensified the logistical nightmare. Handlers are telling producers to cut back because not all the milk being produced will find a home. The word “panic” best describes the practice of jettisoning raw milk anywhere that’s quick and easy — usually involving the nearest liquid manure storage.
About 10 years ago I became familiar with the practice of applying excess raw milk to cropland in a manner which is agronomically, ecologically and economically very wise. I first read about this practice a decade ago. The article headlined: “Finally… a non-controversial use for raw milk… as fertilizer for crops!” appeared (in April 2010) in the Unterrified Democrat, a weekly newspaper published in Linn, MO. That article dealt with field research conducted by Nebraska Cooperative Extension agronomy agent Terry Gompert. In 2005, Gompert, with the help of University of Nebraska soils specialist Charles Shapiro, conducted tests to determine the effectiveness of land-spread raw milk as a crop input.
According to these workers, “You could see by both the color and the volume of the grass that there was a big increase in production.” In that test the raw milk was sprayed 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 university-conducted test showed no difference between the 3-, 5-, 10- and 20-gallon rates. The test began with spraying milk mid-May 2005. Forty-five days later, the 16 plots were clipped and an extra 1,200 pounds of grass dry matter (DM) per acre were harvested on the treated versus non-treated land (5815# DM from treated ground, compared to 4615# DM from milk-less meadows). Quite a return on milk investment!
As impressive as the yield data just cited was, the greatly increased soil porosity was doubled by the milk application. Gompert and cooperating dairyman Bob Bernt were convinced that microbial action is the cornerstone of the milk fertilizer success. Quoting Bernt, “When milk is applied to land that has been abused, it feeds what is left of the microbes, plus it introduces microbes to the soil.” Agent Terry Gompert believed in applying raw milk as a crop input so much that he made that recommendation to other Nebraska dairymen. Readers must understand such advice was not officially approved by that state’s land grant college. I talked to Bob about his practice of applying raw milk to crop land.
For years, Bernts had been organically farming at Clear Creek Organic Farms in Spalding, NE (www.clearcreekorganicfarm.com). But they only got certified organic in 2006, when they began shipping milk to the nation’s largest non-co-op organic milk buyer, based in Colorado. But in 2009 that buyer dropped Clear Creek and 10 other nearby organic family farms. Adding insult to injury, the largest dairy cooperative in the U.S. refused to pick up the milk of any of those 11 farms. In 2012, of those 11 farms, only Clear Creek remained in dairying in any form. Shortly after being dropped by their milk’s buyer, Bernts began processing their unwanted milk into several varieties of raw milk cheese, and selling raw milk by the gallon, and making cream into butter. There still was plenty of raw whole milk — as well as skim milk — left over. So Bob started applying perfectly good “waste” milk to his cropland in 2009.
Working with Gompert, Bob became very aware of the potential fertilizer benefit inherent in modest quantities of raw milk — particularly during periods of spring surplus. Some of this less valuable raw milk can sensibly be used as a soil amendment (fertilizer). Bernt settled on the three gallon per acre application rate for raw milk — skim or whole. As shown earlier, his crop responses have been quite impressive. One facet of raw milk’s soil agronomic benefits is its probiotic nature: raw milk — whole or skim — appears to greatly favor soil microbial activity. Raw milk’s beneficial probiotic properties are at least as important as the classic soil nutrients common in milk. Those nutrients are calcium (Ca), nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P), potassium (K), and magnesium (Mg).
Fast forward to April of 2020. The Bernt family in Nebraska are still managing their diverse farm, selling raw milk dairy products, and land-spreading raw milk as a cropping input. They have learned that pasteurized milk, with no active probiotics, does not support crop yield increases nearly as well as raw milk. Apart from milk’s friendly, lactic acid-forming bacteria helping beneficial soil microbes perform better, Bob firmly believes that lactose (milk sugar) gives energy to those microbes. He also believes that this source of milk energy ultimately shows up as higher sugar levels in his crops. (Proof of these higher sugar amounts is quantified with the term “brix”; brix readings come from an instrument called a refractometer.)
Bernt believes that due to these tiny milk doses, soil pH actually increases much more than what’s accounted for by the positively charged cations present in the milk, namely, Ca, K, and Mg. An application rate of three gallons of milk per acre means that less than one-ten-thousandth of an ounce of milk solids is deposited on each square foot of soil! (When lab-analyzed, raw milk typically only shows N at 0.5-0.6%, Ca at 0.12%, P at 0.10%, and K at 0.56%.) So the microbial activity is almost certainly the miracle-working factor in the raw milk land-spreading practice. These days, news about beneficial microbes is certainly a pleasant change of pace.