Dairy farm looks to the future
Brookside Dairy in Center Township, like many Pennsylvania farms, is situated near a creek. And when the operation involves 420 cows, the animals can easily pollute a creek and violate the ecosystem.
But brothers Keith and Kevin George, owners and operators of the dairy, have changed their practices with an eye toward protecting the environment.
The farm is one of five agricultural operations this year to receive recognition from the Pennsylvania Association of Conservation Districts. Brookside Dairy is the first farm outside of the Chesapeake Bay area to win the Clean Water Farm award. Farms are nominated through their local conservation districts.
The Indiana County Conservation district approached the Georges four years ago about improving the water quality of the creek that winds around the back of the farm.
“The cows are pretty hard on the creek,” Keith said. “They’re always tramping the edges down and making mud. Anytime it’s hot they spend all day in the creek and make a mess of it.”
Since then, high-tensile fencing has been installed along the creek that runs through pastures the cows use. There is only a crossing, and the cows will not loiter there in the summer because there is no shade over it.
Ted Kuckuck, a director of the Indiana County Conservation District, presented the award to Keith George, though it was a team effort along with his brother Kevin, their families and their farmhands. Keith mostly manages the field work and Kevin manages the herd.
“The George family has done a tremendous job over the years in doing a lot of great environmental improvements here and showing the community how you can manage a large herd and manage resources well and take care of the environment,” Kuckuck said.
The 1,400-acre farm has been in the family since 1793, having been started by Kevin and Keith’s great-great-great-great grandfather, William Hamilton. Their father, William George, passed away in 2012.
The Georges paid for the projects themselves then later received Resources Enhancement and Protection tax credits. REAP is administered through the state conservation district and rewards farms with up to $150,000 for projects that use best management practices to enhance farm production while protecting natural resources.
The Georges conducted a tour of the operation to show the regeneration of the creek banks on Friday morning. Already, they said, the creek was making a very noticeable recovery after one year of being fenced off from the cows. This was evident from the young grass growing where there was previously sediment bars.
Adam Cotchen is the district manager of the Indiana County Conservation District.
“You can see how, just by excluding the cattle, the banks are starting to reform,” Cotchen said. “The improvement is going to continue as the buffer matures.”
The Georges use the water from the stream for their dairy operation and have a personal investment in the quality of the water.
“They’re using the water and they feel they should also protect the water downstream for anyone who wants to use it,” Cotchen said.
The cattle had previously been chewing the grass short for about a third of a mile along the creek, which caused the water to speed up and move more sediment.
In addition to creek improvements, the Georges have been employing no-till cultivation which helps to prevent erosion. This means they do not use a plow or use other heavy tillage tools on the fields before planting.
Future conservation-related projects at Brookside Dairy will be two concrete waste pits 120 feet in diameter and 16 feet deep. This will allow the Georges to store manure so they don’t have to spread it on the fields in the winter when the ground is frozen just to make more space in the current waste pit, according to Dave Coulter of the United States Department of Agriculture natural resource conservation service, who was present during Friday’s tour.
One of the most notable features of the operation is the manure digester, which uses methane to generate about $4,500 worth of electricity per month through a 90-kilowatt generator. In the winter months this usually covers the cost of electricity for the operation.
But in the summer, a lot of electricity is used to power the 30 fans mounted on the ends of the farm’s free stall barn where the milk cows eat and sleep. There is a constant breeze through the barn of about 7.5 miles per hour. This keeps the flies off of the livestock and eliminates the need for pesticide spray.
From the digester the manure travels to a machine that presses the liquid out of it. It’s a loud machine that has special metal grate tubes inside that allow the liquid to escape while it’s being crushed under high pressure. This dry manure looks like loose dirt and plops down in big handfuls onto a wooden conveyer that drops it on a pile on a concrete bay inside of a shed.
This becomes bedding for the cows when mixed with sawdust. This may seem like a way to spread disease, Keith George said, but the animals do just as well with that as with pure sawdust. The Georges said they have seen no increase in health problems such as mastitis, an inflammation of the mammary glands caused by bacteria.
PHOTO: Kevin George, co-owner of Brookside Dairy, led a tour Friday of the cattle barn. (Tom Peel/Gazette)