LINN — A Nebraska dairy farmer is drawing some attention in Missouri after stumbling upon what he thinks might be the secret not only to strong bones but to great grazing land: milk.
David Wetzel, a former steel executive, told a conference of farmers in Linn that when he started a second career as a dairy farmer in 2002, he doused parts of his 320-acre farm with skim milk, which was a byproduct of his farm's specialty butters and cheeses.
He soon discovered that his cattle preferred those fields. He called in an expert to figure out what was going on, and the result was a bit staggering: His milk-fed land yielded 1,100 more pounds of grass per acre than untreated land.
Wetzel spoke during a recent conference at the Osage Community center in Linn that attracted about 50 people. It was organized by retired Osage County judge and cattle farmer Ralph Voss, who is trying out the milk method.
Wetzel said he began making butters and cheeses that required only the fats from the milk that his cows produced, which left behind large quantities of skim milk as a waste product. To dispose of it, he would drive up and down a portion of his pasture with milk pouring out of a tank. He dumped up to 600 gallons of skim milk on the field every other day.
"I came from a background that has nothing to do with farming," Wetzel said. "So I don't know the do's and don'ts. I don't have any relatives that would say, 'You can't do that.' So I just kind of did what felt right."
One day, he noticed that his cows favored that patch of field. The grass felt more supple and looked healthier and more dense in that area.
He eventually contacted Terry Gompert, a University of Nebraska Extension educator who specializes in holistic land management. Gompert arranged to have researchers test the milk hypothesis.
After 45 days, they found that the plots treated with milk grew about 1,100 more pounds of grass per acre than untreated plots, a 26 percent increase in yield. Also, the soil had a greater "porosity" or ability to absorb water and air.
Gompert stressed that much more research needs to be done. He said the findings make sense because milk is food for the bacteria, fungi, protozoa and nematodes in healthy soil.
"Our unfair advantage is getting the microbes to work for us," Gompert said. The milk "is just feeding the workers."
Many of the participants at the conference on Thursday and Friday said they may give milk a try.
"When you start spraying milk on your fields, you're going to be thought of as a fool," said Larry Sansom, a cattle farmer from Kentucky who drove six hours to learn about the method. "But I guess you've got to hold your nose and jump."