Ripp’s Dairy Valley centers around productive cows, healthy soil, generations of farmers working together, and a community digester that helps them reach their sustainability goals.

April 18 2024 01:38 PM

Three generations of the Ripp family are involved with the dairy today. Some of the family members working there on a daily basis are Jake, Gary, Chuck, Kailyn, and Riley Ripp.

Nestled in a valley in south central Wisconsin is the aptly named Ripp’s Dairy Valley. Within view are rolling hills and two neighboring dairies, along with an anaerobic digester that has been part of the landscape for more than a decade now.

This digester does not belong to one of the dairies; it is a community digester, with manure coming from this trio of farms plus two others in the area. These farms are located in Dane County, the Badger State’s second most populous county and home of its capital. Concerns of high phosphorus levels in local bodies of water led county leaders to pursue opportunities to reduce runoff, improve nutrient cycling, and create value-added products. One solution on the table was to build a community anaerobic digester.

Discussions ensued, and paperwork was filed by interested farms. To be successful, the digester needed multiple dairies in close proximity that could pump manure to the digester, reducing road traffic. In the end, White Gold Dairy, Endres Dairy, and Ripp’s Dairy Valley signed on the dotted line, and a partnership began to establish the first centralized or community digester in the state. Today, there are two community digesters in Dane County, and in 2022, they processed 105 million gallons of manure and removed 231,000 pounds of phosphorus.

A family affair

As they do with any big decisions made on the dairy, the Ripp family of Dane, Wis., carefully thought through this opportunity. Participating in the project made sense, though, as the Ripps have operated with a philosophy to protect the land and water where they live.

“We have always thought about sustainability; now people just found a new word and ways to explain it,” said Gary Ripp, who is equal partners in Ripp’s Dairy Valley with his brothers Chuck and Troy. Another brother, Craig, works on the farm, and their youngest sister, Jackie Wheeler, is their agronomist. Their mother, Eileen, lives in the farmhouse and remains interested in what is going on at the dairy and loves having so many family members working together.

Over time, the farm has grown, and so has their family. Each brother has a son who works on the farm: Gary’s son Jake, Troy’s son Mason, and Chuck’s son Riley. Chuck’s daughter, Kailyn, is their herdsperson. Also integral to their team are 11 full-time employees.

“We all have families that are very important to us, and some days that’s what gives us the desire to keep going,” Gary said. “It is also very rewarding seeing them grow up and work with you. It can be very challenging, but I also wouldn’t trade that experience for anything.”

Since 2000, the Ripps have milked in a double-16 parallel parlor, and today they are milking about 1,000 cows three times a day. They made upgrades to the parlor over the years, including the addition of milk meters. “That’s our way of knowing how our cows are doing daily; we watch for deviations,” Chuck explained.

The floors in the parlor and holding area are covered in rubber mats, which Chuck said keeps the cows safer and healthier. Years ago, they transitioned all stalls to sand bedding because they felt it offered the best cow comfort, and delivering top-notch care is one of their main priorities, along with incorporating environmentally-friendly practices that also help them care for their land and remain profitable.

“If you take care of your cattle and keep them as comfortable as possible, they will reward you,” noted Gary. “The same goes for your soil; apply nutrients where they are most needed, and cover crops will help keep the nutrients and rain where they are most needed.”

The Ripp family does their own manure hauling, which they feel gives them more control of the timing of application. They transport manure in tanker trucks from other industries that they update and repurpose for use in their nutrient management program.

Working with sand

The use of sand is not often correlated with a dairy using a digester, but the Ripps are able to make it work and use recycled sand as bedding, which has had a big cost benefit.

“Recycled sand saves us,” Chuck noted. The Ripps used to buy 10 or 11 loads of sand a week to fulfill their bedding needs, but now they only need about one load a week to satisfy their needs in the stalls for the cows.

To recapture the sand, two sand separators were installed in 2010, when the Ripps were expanding from 500 to 750 cows and the community digester was being built. Manure is scraped from the alleyways, travels below the barns, and then is pumped to the sand separation building that sits between the freestall barns.

The manure drops into the separator. First it goes through a screener, which sorts out foreign objects such as rocks and ear tags. Then it moves to the sand washer, which uses recycled water plus 3 gallons of clean water per minute to wash out the organic material.

They recover about 95% of the sand, which is piled in the building for a few days and then put into the stalls. The sand dries out more quickly in the summer, the brothers agree, but this system still works well in the winter. They found that if they let the sand sit too long, bacteria starts to grow, so they prefer a quick turnaround.

Gary oversees the sand separation system, along with his nephew Mason, who is their go-to person for keeping the separators operating. Gary said the first equipment they installed to separate sand didn’t work well; it was designed for municipal systems and required too much water to get the sand clean. They made adjustments and investments and are much happier with the system they now have in place.

Jake is also involved in the manure and cropping side of the dairy. He has a talent for transitioning tanker trucks into manure hauling equipment. The Ripps use these manufactured tanks for their own manure hauling needs, and other farms have requested Jake’s services in manufacturing tankers for them as well.

The Ripps have found that doing their own manure application works best for them because they have many small fields. This way, Gary said, they are not waiting on someone else to come to get this important job done and have more control on application timing.

Manure is collected in a reception lagoon, and from there, more than 30,000 gallons of manure are pumped to the community digester daily. The manure returns from the digester to the farm and is then stored in their 14-million-gallon lagoon, which has enough capacity to give them some flexibility if they are not able to get all their manure applied in the spring or fall.

Valuing the returns

The digester is on its third owner, a California company named Brightmark. Brightmark took over ownership of the digester a few years ago and transitioned to renewable gas production, which the Ripps said has been a positive change. Semitrucks pick up the gas daily and deliver it to a pipeline in the area.

The participating farms provide the electricity to run the pump that moves the manure to the digester; the pump, the line, and everything else is managed by the operators of the digester. The farms do not receive payment for the gas that is generated and sold, but there are other benefits that go beyond this gas production.

Gary said a big positive for their farm is the removal of phosphorus from the manure. The digester takes out 60% of the phosphorus, which allows them to apply manure with a nutrient content that is closer to what their fields need. They have also noticed less odor when manure is applied.

Removal of the phosphorus does mean that their manure has higher moisture content, returning to the farm with about 6% solids, so they needed to switch to low disturbance injection. To get manure applied, they tried different equipment before having an 18-foot tool bar built, with 24-inch spacing and 12-inch sweeps.

They appreciate that low disturbance application minimizes soil disturbance. As the years go on, they have moved toward more minimal tillage unless a field requires them to do deeper tillage. In that case, they use an inline subsoiler.

They have also expanded their use of cover crops over time. They started using them as part of their nutrient management plan, and Gary admits that they went through a bit of a learning curve. They started out broadcast seeding oats but did not get much growth and thought it was not worth it. However, as they began experimenting more and learning from other farmers, they found what works best for them.

For example, they learned that spring barley was a good fit for their farm. It is more aggressive and grows better than oats, and it tolerates manure application well. It doesn’t overwinter, so the Ripps don’t have to worry about terminating it in the spring when they are busy trying to apply manure and get corn planted. Gary said they are happy with their current system, but they are always open to learning more and making changes when needed.

The cows are bedded with recycled sand. Once separated, the sand is washed, piled, and then put back into the stalls after a few days.

Striving for excellence

“We try to be perfectionists,” explained Gary. “We keep trying to get better at what we are doing.”

This is true out in the fields and back in the barns. The Ripps have been genomic testing their animals since it was first commercially available, and they have realized there is a very big difference in the performance of their animals depending on their genetic makeup. Animals with higher potential are bred to sexed semen to produce future members of the herd. The 15% lowest genomic-tested animals are sold or fed out for beef. The middle group of cows are bred to beef semen. Their reproductive program has earned them silver level honors in the Dairy Cattle Reproduction Council’s awards program, and every year they sell some extra young cows to other dairies.

Feed and nutrition is another priority area on the farm. “I take it seriously how we feed the cows, so I don’t get so much waste,” said Chuck. “My worst days are windy days when it comes to commodities. I would love to build a bigger commodity shed someday to load the mixer inside.”

Heifers are custom raised by a cousin who lives just a few miles away. That location has its own land for feed production, a bunker for feed storage, and manure storage, so it is a very sustainable set up, Chuck noted.

The beef crossbred calves they produce are fed milk for five to 10 days and then are either raised as beef animals or sold to another farm. Jake, Mason, and Riley raise about 50 to 60 steers a year on another site, and this group of animals is fed feed refusals from the lactating herd. “Nothing is wasted at the farm,” Chuck reiterated.

This “no waste” mentality also applies to water on the dairy. They collect dirty water in two leachate containment centers. This water goes into a pit and is used to wash down the parlor’s holding area where the cows wait to be milked. It is then pumped to the sand separation building to be reused again. It takes a lot of water to recycle sand, Chuck and Gary noted, so it is beneficial to be able to use some recycled water to help with that process.

“Stewardship has always been a focus,” Gary said thoughtfully. “It’s a win-win. We want to see nature beautiful, too.”

Of course, this family dairy is also a business, and the Ripps have found success by making decisions that also make financial sense.

“We are always trying to find things that make us more efficient and environmentally friendly,” Gary noted. “To do this, it also has to be profitable, though, or we won’t be in business very long.”

As for the future, the Ripps will continue to make changes that benefit the dairy and their family. They were early adopters in terms of the community digester and sand separation, and Gary acknowledged that some aspects of farming require you to live and learn. He said their long-term philosophy has been to put a lot of thought into decisions before making major moves, and that has served them well, but he also noted the value in being ready for change.

“We don’t take care of our cows the same way we did in the 1980s, and we don’t handle our crops the same way either,” said Gary. They are excited about the future and are looking for ways to incorporate the next generation of Ripps into the dairy. In their quest for success, that will include additions and updates that help them best care for their cows, the land, and their people.

This article appeared in the February 2024 issue of Journal of Nutrient Management on pages 14-17. Not a subscriber? Click to get the print magazine.