Sustainable farming simply means, “Doing the right things — for the environment, our family business and our community,” according to Iowa dairy farmer Marty Burken.
“We live and work here, my kids drink the water, breathe the air, and I hope they’re the third generation to tend this land and the animals it sustains.”
At age 10, Burken knew he wanted to be a dairy farmer. “I was an animal lover — from Wild Kingdom to caring for the cows.” His parents, Loran and Betty Burken, established Blue Hyll Dairy in Clinton, Iowa. “Building our family business worked out great, because my brother Mike liked tractors and crops, and I liked the cows.”
Creating “cow utopia” is Burken’s passion. Blue Hyll recently completed construction of a new bar. “It is the cow version of the Ritz Carlton. Every part is designed to make it comfortable for the cow, from the width of her bed to when the fans automatically come on to cool her,” he says.
A dairy cow is nature’s recycler. She converts plant fiber indigestible to humans, such as hay, into high quality protein in the form of milk and ultimately dairy products. She then replenishes the soil with nutrients and water from her waste, known on a farm as manure.
Blue Hyll also recycles, using water four times. First, well water cools the cows’ milk. Second, cows drink this water and it mists them when the weather’s hot. Third, it “flushes” the barn floors — similar to hosing your driveway, except that this wastewater is captured and the solids are separated from the liquid. This nutrient-rich liquid, tested and matched to each field’s needs based on soil tests, is then used a fourth time when injected into the field to reduce odor. It increases the soil’s ability to hold water by 20 percent, according to the University of Missouri.
Manure, once a nuisance on the farm, is now an asset, according to Burken. Blue Hyll composts its manure solids for use either as animal bedding, or to sell to local gardeners and landscapers. “We’ve had people from Chicago drive out to the farm to buy it.”
Burken says the farm’s compost helped turn his own garden from heavy yellow clay soil to fluffier black dirt, where he and his daughters grow vegetables, including asparagus for their family-favorite asparagus soup.
*Photos featured in this article were taken prior to March 2020 before mandatory mask/social distancing mandates were implemented.
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