A circle of benefits from Minnesota milk
State-of-the-art Waukon Dairy is producing gallons of opportunity in Wild Rice Electric Cooperative territory.
Right now, somewhere in the middle of Norman County, Minn., exactly 128 dairy cows are rotating on a large, circular milking platform, chilling to the tunes of polka as they enjoy their 8.5-minute carousel ride. This carnival spins day and night at Waukon Dairy (a subsidiary of Minnesota-based Riverview, LLP), with each of the facility’s 9,500 cows receiving a ticket to ride twice a day.
The daily price of admission? About seven or eight gallons of milk. And they’re happy to oblige.
“They’re usually excited to get on,” said Riverview’s Martha Koehl, peeking into the milking parlor from the observation deck. “If you watch long enough, it’s actually very entertaining because cows have personalities. You’ll notice who the shy ones are, because they won’t push their way on.”
Waukon Dairy, one of the newest business members of Wild Rice Electric Cooperative, began milking in June 2022. The operation sits on 160 acres of land purchased by Riverview, surrounded by local fields and farmers who have become fast partners. Waukon employs 45 people and is the latest of more than a dozen Riverview dairies spread across the Upper Midwest.
The milk produced at Waukon Dairy is hauled by tanker to a creamery in Perham, Minn., several times a day. The facility breeds a cross of Holsteins and Jerseys (lovingly called HoJos), creating a beautiful mix of black-and-white, brown-and-black, and fully brown cows.
“The reason why we prefer the Jersey genetics is that there’s a higher butterfat content in the milk. Our milk is made into cheese, so that, of course, makes good cheese,” Koehl said.
‘A good life’
If a HoJo makes good cheese, then a stress-free HoJo makes the best cheese. As visitors walk through the Waukon barn, they notice a couple of typical barn staples are missing – there are no flies, and there are no moos. An endless row of industrial fans keeps a clean breeze moving through the facility, and the pens are cleaned every time the cows are taken through their milking cycle.
“It’s a good life,” said Ron Visser, Waukon Dairy’s site manager. “You get milked once every 12 hours, then you come back and you eat and you lay down on a fresh bed, drinking water and hanging out with your friends.”
“Our cows make their own beds,” Koehl said with a giggle, pointing across the barn to a large manure vacuum that winds through the pens twice a day. “That will go empty out, and that is where the manure will go through the separators. Then we can use it. And you can see it there, the bedding those cows are laying on,” she added, referring to the dry, fluffy beds nearby.
Manure is the quiet, unsung hero of Waukon Dairy. After the waste travels through one of a dozen high-powered separators, the liquid manure flows into a holding lagoon where it can then be used by neighboring farmers as high-powered natural fertilizer. It creates a mutually beneficial economic system in which Waukon Dairy buys feed silage and haylage from regional growers and then offers fruitful, noncommercial fertilizer.
“Just coming off of silage harvest, it really reiterated what kind of economic impact this has,” Visser said. “We work with several different growers on silage. Some of them don’t have a lot of land, and this was an opportunity for them to use their tractors to help us pack the pile. They got some more value out of their equipment.”
The initial plans for the dairy project garnered an incredible amount of community support in Waukon Township. What started as a conversation between a local farming family and Riverview bloomed into a venture based on trust and relationships.
Koehl says it’s important to the company to find areas where farmers see value in working with them.
“This area was awesome because a lot of counties – especially here in northern Minnesota – haven’t seen livestock for at least a few decades,” she explained. “But there are enough people here who remember the importance and the economic impact when you have livestock in your region, and what that does. That’s been neat to see.”
Energy of the farm
An operation like Waukon also needs a strong utility partner to power the hefty electric needs of a sprawling barn, milking parlor and commodity facility. Riverview worked alongside Wild Rice Electric Cooperative to ensure they had the electricity they would need and to find ways to conserve and save.
“This end of the farm takes a lot of power, between the fans and this manure room. It’s a big load,” Visser said. “We have to have consistent power.”
With the help of Wild Rice Electric and Minnkota Power Cooperative, Waukon Dairy participates in a load shedding program which allows Minnkota to switch the dairy to a backup generator when regional electric demand or market prices are high. The program helps the cooperative balance the grid while offering Waukon Dairy a reduced electric rate. “When it’s flipping from generator back to regular power, I get a text message about it, and I didn’t even realize it happened. That is so awesome,” Visser said.
Tommy Houdek, Director of Member Services and Communications for Wild Rice Electric, explained that many of the site’s separators and fans run on variable frequency drives (VFDs). These VFDs are beneficial to the co-op because they can ramp up slowly when they’re turned on, reducing the chance of tripping a breaker or causing a blink on the power lines. The dairy can also control the speed at which they run, reducing costs.
Riverview worked with Wild Rice Electric to plan several energy conservation measures throughout the site, from VFDs to lighting with occupancy sensors. By incorporating these energy efficiency strategies, Riverview was rewarded with generous cooperative rebate incentives.
“We were very excited to see Waukon Dairy come to our region, and hope to see them continue to grow,” Houdek said. “They are one of our largest loads, and it’s great for the community and great for the economy here.”
When it comes down to it, cows and kilowatts are doing the same thing for the folks of Norman County – improving quality of life. Koehl can recite Riverview’s mission from memory: “Providing a culture of opportunity for passionate people and innovative ideas.”
“Yes, we’re passionate about agriculture and cows, but really it’s all about the people,” she said. “That is why we started.”
MAIN IMAGE: Waukon Dairy's milking carousel turns around the clock, except when it goes through a deep-cleaning process twice a day.