Vreba-Hoff: Doubling the dairy

Written by David Green. Posted in Feature Stories

By DAVID GREEN

Nearly four years have passed since the VanderHoff family opened its big Vreba-Hoff dairy on Dillon Highway, between Morenci and Hudson.

Now, as the family prepares to open its second dairy about 2 miles farther west, it’s easy for them to look back on the first project and develop changes for the new facility.

The dairy under construction on U.S. 127 might look bigger to a  passerby, says Cecilia (VanderHoff) Conway, but it’s actually the same size as the Dillon location. That means close to 3,000 head, with about 2,800 cows being milked.

The dairy looks larger because there’s a separate holding area and milking parlor for “fresh” cows—those that have recently calved. It’s one of the improvements they’ve incorporated into the new plan.dairy.empty-barn

“Ninety percent of the problems you have with cows is during calving,” Stephen VanderHoff said. “This allows us to fine-tune the care of those animals.”

The experience gained since the Dillon dairy opened didn’t come only from running their own operation. True, this is only the family’s second dairy, but it’s far from the first they’ve helped develop.

Vreba-Hoff Dairy Development, Inc. has brokered 40 dairies in Michigan, Ohio and Indiana. Some are still in the planning stages; others, such as their own, are still being built.

“When we first came to build near Hudson,” Conway said, “we hadn’t planned to build dairies for other families.”

However, interest among farmers in the Netherlands has remained strong. Good farm land is becoming increasingly scarce in the small country and agricultural operations are crowded out.

Manure Concerns

Interest might be strong across the ocean, but locally Vreba-Hoff has faced opposition. It’s not that way everywhere they’ve helped establish farms, but there are pockets of animosity, and that’s come as a surprise.

“We know of the local concerns and we plan to have an open house again,” Conway said. “We want to answer questions and have people take a look around. They can see how our manure system works and how animals are cared for.”

The complaints almost always focus on manure management. With each animal producing an estimated 9.9 gallons of manure a day, that’s 21 million gallons of waste per year between the two farms. By contrast, the residents of Hudson and Morenci together produce about 1.8 million gallons in a year, and each city has a sewage treatment facility.

It’s also a concern for the VanderHoff family, including Conrad, a sister and her four brothers.

“We’re very conscious of that. We live around here, too,” Conway said. “We want to maintain the environment.”

With the exception of the Department of Environmental Quality’s zero-discharge law (no discharge of waste into streams and lakes), state guidelines for manure management are strictly voluntary.

Voluntary compliance isn’t how the VanderHoff family views the issue. For them, it’s imperative. Wherever their dairy waste is transported—on their own land or on others—the state’s guidelines are the rule. All farmers that take Vreba-Hoff manure must agree to the plan.

That, she says, means soils are tested before application and after. Manure is also analyzed and records are kept to keep track of where it was applied, how much was applied, what crops were grown, etc.

“It’s an on-going record-keeping system,” Conway says.

The biggest chance for error is when it leaves the VanderHoff’s hands. Private contractors are often hired to apply manure, and sometimes they get careless.

That’s what happened to the VanderHoff’s uncle, Jan, who has a dairy south of Clayton. He accepted the responsibility for a recent manure spill there—estimated at less than 30 gallons—but it was a contractor’s error that caused the problem.

“That’s the struggle,” Conway said. “You hire contractors that you think are professional. We’re constantly debating whether we should do it ourselves.”

She understands environmentalists’ concerns, but she wants them to understand the benefits of returning manure to the land.

“It’s a great benefit to local farmers, because it makes them less reliant on chemical fertilizers.”

She also points out the economic impact of their dairies. Each farm will employee about 25 people, and the spin-off growth in local agriculture is substantial. It takes an estimated 6,900 acres of corn to feed the two dairies.

Conway said they hoped to begin milking this month at the new location, but August looks more realistic. Some animals are already on site, but none that will have to be milked.

“With all the dairies built recently, there’s a lot of competition for good cows,” Conway said. “We’ll be bringing in cows from surrounding states at 100 to 200 at a time and the herd will gradually be filled.”

John VanderHoff plans to close his dairy near Coldwater and moving that herd here, also, making one more VanderHoff family living in the area.

“It’s been our goal to have additional facilities,” Conway said. “We’ve learned from each project and we’ve incorporated those improvements here.”

Critics opposed to "mega-farms" 

Within two or three years, Stephen VanderHoff hopes the controversy over large dairy farms will be finished. With manure management techniques improving, perhaps by then, he says, people will be accustomed to farms of this size.

Not everyone accepts that outlook. Some critics believe it might take that long before the dangers of the so-called mega-farms become apparent.dairy.lagoon

Hillsdale County resident John Klein, a founder of the Environmentally Concerned Citizens of South Central Michigan, believes the new Vreba-Hoff dairy will only compound the environmental and health risks for residents of the area.

“There have already been seven verified violations of spills from area dairies into the waters we all share,” he said. “No fines were ever issued. It’s like driving as fast as you want and never getting a ticket.”

Vreba-Hoff received its first citation just last week when some waste water washed into the county’s Medina Drain #3 on Ingall Highway. Linn Duling of the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) described the spill as minor.

According to his report, operators used liquids from a manure lagoon for irrigation, and when finished, they ran well water through the irrigation equipment to clean it. That over-saturated some soil and caused a spill into the drain. The drain was dammed before it emptied into Bean Creek and the water was pumped and returned to the lagoon.

Klein cites reports from the Environmental Protection Agency in the following areas:

• Waste from industrial agriculture operations can contain more than 150 pathogens;

• Many of the antibiotics given to farm animals to promote growth are also used to treat human diseases. The antibiotics are now showing up in water and soil. A researcher at the University of Illinois has documented the transfer of antibiotic-resistant genes from large hog farms to the surrounding water and soil.

• These wastes remove oxygen from lakes and streams at a much faster level than human waste.

Duling is aware of the concern about antibiotics, but that’s not something the DEQ is looking at currently.

“It’s kind of an evolving issue world-wide,” he said. “It’s not very advanced right now. People aren’t sure of the ramifications.”

As far as pathogens are concerned, Duling said all waste water contains numerous pathogens—some harmful, some not.

“We’re generally concerned about e coli,” he said. “If that’s present, it’s an indication that other pathogens are present. It’s a concern with human waste, too.”

Human waste is also of interest to Klein and his neighbors at Lime Lake where pollution from failed septic fields has caused contamination. Construction of a sewer system is under consideration.

Careful record-keeping is at the heart of VanderHoff’s waste management system, but Klein disputes those claims.

“You can talk about nutrient management plans all you want,” Klein said, “but without record-keeping accessible to the public, I think you are being naïve if you believe that all the soil is tested prior to manure application.”

Stephen VanderHoff said the records are kept private to protect the farmers involved, so they aren’t bothered by people who are opposed to the dairies.

Klein has his doubts that testing of manure for phosphorous and nitrogen levels is made, but the VanderHoffs insist that’s part of their job.

“We have to take those samples,” John VanderHoff said.

Klein sees the owners of large dairies employing modern technology for the best milk production, but antiquated technology for disposal of waste.

With commercially-produced fertilizer, Klein says a farmer knows exactly what he’s getting. By applying manure to a field, it’s questionable what is making its way into the soil.

“They’re making money at the expense of the environment, and putting to risk the quality of life and the health of their neighbors.”

    - July 25, 2001 

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