It may dwarf most dairies in the county, boast advanced technologies, and hold piles of silage that rival Lewiston city blocks in size, but the Daley Farms is still a family business. In a glamorous rubber apron, Sonja Daley washed the udders of cows on a rotating carousel parlor before milking last week. In mud-splattered muck boots, Brian Daley hopped out of the tractor cab at the base of a hill-sized silage pile. In the farm’s gravel lot, Ben Daley pulled the brim of his ball cap down as he mulled over the logistics for fall manure application.
The farm just got done with a successful silage harvest. Some of the farms’ 28 full-time employees ran choppers through 1,000 acres of corn, while Brian unloaded the shredded corn plants, pushed them into piles, and drove his tractor on top to compact the piles. “It’s scary,” Shelly (nee Daley) DePestel said of driving up the side of a hill of corn. “For me it’s not,” Brian replied. “I’ve been doing it for 25 years.”
For over a week, the farmers and their crews unloaded 200 truckloads of silage each day. When the corn in the field reaches its “sweet spot” for nutrition content, the harvest is on and it does not stop until all the corn is in — or the fields get too wet. Shelly gave thanks that it all went safely.
Now that silage is done, Brian and the tractor operators will be hauling in ear corn. After consulting with the farm’s nutritionist, the homegrown feed will be mixed with cottonseed and canola oil for cows who recently gave birth — fresh cows — or extra fiber for calving cows. The feed mixes are all calculated by computer and automatically sent out to the feed truck, which mixes and distributes the fresh feed to the barns.
Ben checked up the calving cows and the progress of growing heifers last week. He also coordinates the farm’s manure management. Cows do not only take in feed and produce milk, after all. In between each milking session, crews scoop up the sand bedding in each cow’s stall — imagine a litter box — and scrape out the barn. Most dairies throw the sand and manure in together for use as fertilizer, but the Daley Farms separates the sand out, washes it, and reuses it. The manure is held in a great, rubber-lined lagoon or basin behind the barns.
Its manure management is one area where the Daley Farms has invested in technologies that conserve resources. In addition to recycling its sand, the farm uses a gray water to wash the sand. By the time it touches, the sand the water has been used three other times. First, the clean water is cooling milk; next, that water is used to spray down the carousel milking parlor; then the same water is used to flush the floor of the milking parlor holding area; and finally, the water is used to wash the sand.
When it comes time to apply its manure as fertilizer, the Daley Farms hires a company from Red Wing that injects the manure straight into the soil. Tubes like fire hoses pump the manure up to three miles away and tractors with implements that squirt the liquid manure directly into the ground drive around the Daley fields. The unique system requires less truck traffic, causes less compaction, and gets less excrement on local roads than normal manure spreaders, and the injection system reduces nitrogen runoff.
At the manure lagoon itself, liquid manure has to be “stirred” before pumping for application. The Daley Farms previously used several pumping trucks pumping the liquid in and out of the edge of the lagoon in order to stir the whole pond. However, that system is far less efficient than its new manure boat. The manure boat is a floating pumping station that uses far less fuel to “stir” the lagoon.
“It’s just part of the business,” said Shelly, when asked about the omnipresence of manure at a dairy. “We’ve always had it and it always needs to be taken care of; it’s at a different scale [than smaller diaries]. Technology can make it easier and less labor intensive. I’m not afraid of technology.”
Shelly does have non-farmer friends who think manure is gross, but standing next to the manure lagoon, she observed, “It doesn’t smell too bad here and we’re standing right next to it.” She continued, “It’s sort of like any environment. Like Brian said, if I had stay in a cubical all day, that’s my ‘ew’ … there are unpleasantries in a lot of places. This is a valuable asset that we can use.”
Brian grew up working for his dad at the Daley Farms, but it was far from a given that he would ever come back. When he was 18 he could not get far enough away from his father, he said. He had to settle for two hours away, in Minneapolis, where he got a degree in psychology from the University of Minnesota. “[I studied psychology] just so I could figure out my dad,” he said, laughing. After school, he discovered that being around his father was strangely palatable, and Minneapolis did not steal his heart. “I knew that was not where I wanted to live — sirens, concrete,” he said. When his father expanded the dairy, Brian and his siblings returned.
Now, the Daley family wants to expand again in order to bring in the next generation. Shelly’s son Dylan wants to come back and farm. Her son Dominick is still in high school, but says he wants to farm. Sonja’s daughter Sidney wants to return, too, and so does Neil and Hally Daley’s son Gabe. The family applied for a county variance to more than double its herd of 1,400 cows, but will first need to submit an Environmental Assessment Worksheet (EAW) to the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. Winona County staff said that the results of the EAW will be important to judge whether the increased manure could affect local ground water. For the Daleys, being able to keep the young adults in their family would mean a lot.
“A lot of people sling a lot of words like ‘corporate,'” Shelly said, referring to people who criticize the Daley Farms’ size. “It’s us. It’s my family.”
She points to a picture of the farm office wall of the farm her grandfather bought in the 1930s. He died when her father was 8 years old, but the farm did not fail. “I’m not that far removed from that,” she said of the small dairy, with little technology. “They had it hard. I get it. Why would you wish that upon future generations?”
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