Culture of sustainability

Written by Jason Nichols

All of the manure from the operation is first used in the methane digester. The liquid manure is piped from the digester to the lagoon and is used as fertilizer on crop fields. The solid manure from the digester is run through a separator that turns the solids into bedding material for the farm’s bedded pack barns. The used bedding then goes into the farm’s newest endeavor — high-quality compost.

About five years ago, the farm was approached by Terra-Gro, a nearby composting and marketing company, about collaborating on a novel composting project. Oregon Dairy Organics, the resulting partnership between the dairy and Terra-Gro, is now in the compost business.

This isn’t the kind of compost often found in a pile next to a vegetable garden. Oregon Dairy Organic compost is a premium product most often sold as a top dressing or soil amendment for turf fields, construction projects and more.

There’s a science to making a quality compost product, Chad says.

The used manure bedding from the dairy’s bedded pack barns only makes up about half of the compost. Because it’s high in nitrogen, the cow manure is balanced with about the same amount of horse manure, which is higher in carbon. The horse manure comes from local straw and bedding suppliers, who dispose of old bedding at nearby horse farms. Food waste from the restaurant and some local refuse collectors is added to the mix, providing many of the bacteria that turn the waste into compost.

After mixing, the raw material is laid in rows in two 360-foot long buildings. Each row is turned about three times per week. If the mixture gets too dry, it is supplemented with liquid from the nearby lagoon. In about three months, the compost is a finished product and has about half the volume of the original mixture.

The finished compost is run through a machine that separates any large particles before it is loaded into trucks for transport.

The operation, now in its fourth year, didn’t start out as a way to turn large profits, Chad says.

“We were trying to break even in our first couple of years and we were able to do that,” he says. “Now we’re turning a profit, but there’s going to be more opportunity in the future.”

There’s a good market for quality compost and a growing market for it in the construction industry because of new regulations requiring amended soil for new building projects. In addition, some landfills in the area are making moves to allow less compostable material to be dumped at their facilities, putting Oregon Dairy in a strong position.

“We have a good land base now, but you never know what the future holds,” Chad says. “If something were to happen, this would allow us to sustain our cow numbers and be able to process the manure.”

Oregon Dairy is located in the Chesapeake Bay watershed and has been involved in multi-state efforts to preserve the quality of the bay. Through grants from the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, the dairy has been involved in streambank fencing projects with the goal of filtering any field run-off before it gets into creeks and streams.

In addition, they practice no-till farming and use cover crops throughout the winter to further control erosion.

Maria says the focus on sustainability is something that has been part of Oregon Dairy as long as she can remember.