Charlie Crave: Long-term success in sustainable dairy

What is the best strategy for sustainable dairy farming that not only benefits the environment but is also profitable?

Charlie Crave, a founding partner in Crave Brothers Farm and Crave Brothers Farmstead Cheese, explains how his family-owned dairy operation has grown with the addition of a methane digester and cheese plant, all while keeping sustainability practices at the forefront.

David:            We’re here today with Charlie Crave of Crave Brothers Farm. How are you doing, Charlie?

Charlie:          I’m doing well today, yes.

David:            Well, thanks for joining us.

Charlie:          You’re welcome. I had a great week there in Louisville and, of course, like anything, it’s always nice to be back home, too. What an energetic, wonderful time that was at ONE: The Alltech Ideas Conference.

David:            Yeah. Thank you. It’s always a lot of fun, really.

Charlie:          Absolutely, yup — a great place to meet and connect and, certainly, reconnect with so many wonderful folks throughout the world, yes.

David:            Great! Well, I’ve been on your farm several years ago, on a tour, and I thought it was a pretty fascinating place. I wonder if you could give us a little bit of the history and describe your operation there.

Charlie:          All right. Well, we have a family farm that was founded by my brothers and I, and we’ve expanded now to the point where — we have a total of four brothers. I have two sons and a nephew, so we now have seven principals in the business. We have the agronomy portion of our business, where we crop 3,000 acres and we raise our young stock replacements. We milk 1,900 cows and have a biogas plant for capturing methane gas. Then we also have a farmstead cheese factory, which is a separate business located directly across the road from the farm. So, in a nutshell, we have a farm, a digester and a cheese factory.

David:            That sounds great.

Charlie:          Yeah, a lot of family, and a lot of employees involved, too.

David:            Yeah, that’s nice.

Charlie:          It is. The family — not only the partners I’ve mentioned, but then we have some other family members that are employees. Our dad — although he’s never been an owner of the business, he’s here every day. Even though he’s in his 90s, he helps with chores and mowing the grass and all those things that 90-year-olds do, so what a great journey it’s been for him right here in Waterloo as well.

David:            And your dad had a farm when you guys were kids growing up, right?

Charlie:          That’s right. My dad ran a farm that was owned by my grandmother, and he decided to quit farming when I was 19. And somewhat because of the times and somewhat because of his wisdom, he felt that it’d be better to get out of the way and let us farm our own business, not necessarily on his coattails, and that’s what we did. So, now, 41 years later, we started with 43 cows, and we’ve grown up into the bigger numbers I just shared with you and brought in many more family members and resources along the way.

David:            Well, that’s probably been a lot of fun and a lot of work and some serious challenges over 41 years, I would bet.

Charlie:          Yes, it has been. We’ve had, of course, the weather challenges that everyone has, and we have family challenges and relationship challenges like every relationship or family has, and we feel it’s important to lean in and really embrace (each other) the very best that we can so that we can have those wonderful, lifelong relationships. And while not every day is warm and fuzzy, we do want to make sure we’re in a point where we can share Thanksgiving dinner together without being encumbered in conversations and the like, so it’s important to have a business that works not only for the family and the community and the environment, but it must, of course, work financially, too. If it doesn’t work on all of those factors, it becomes stressful for all involved, so we really work at that.

David:            All of those things that you just mentioned — you mentioned people and the environment and the economic factors — and those are, really, all the things that go into sustainability. I know that’s a big focus for you guys, for you and your brothers. A lot of times, when people think about sustainability, they just think about the environmental aspect and trying to minimize our impact on the environment, so why don’t we start out and talk about that first, and tell me a little bit about your anaerobic digester and how it works and how you got that.

Charlie:          Well, we partnered with — another firm built it initially, and it didn’t quite pan out for them financially and with their corporate structure the way they had hoped.

In the meantime, though, it has produced a lot of power. The methane gas is captured every day in these tanks. Just to back up, if folks aren’t familiar with a methane digester, we capture the manure from the farm, from the cows and the heifers, in our situation. We do add some substrate, which is a byproduct of industry, and together, they’re warmed up to 100 degrees using excess heat off of an engine generator. So, the excess heat — just like we would capture the heat in our automobile to defrost our windows, for instance — is captured, and that’s used to warm off the manure. So, we have two tanks of three quarters of a million gallons each, so that means we have a million and a half gallons of warm manure at 100 degrees, and that’s at temperature. That’s body temperature.

At that temperature, the bacteria will grow. It’s got the food, it’s got the moisture, and it’s got the temperature. The bacteria is working in there, and it gives off methane gas and other gasses. The methane is captured and used to power a large engine. That large engine turns on an electric generator, which produces electricity, which is sold to the power company. So, there are three products off the digester every day: it’s the sale of electricity to the power company; it’s the excess heat off the engine, which helps keep the digesters the proper temperature; and it also helps us out on the farm for heating our buildings, such as the office, the shop, the hot water for the nursery, and even the farmhouse.

Then, the third product, or the revenue source, would be the manure fiber. After the manure goes through this digester and it comes out, it goes through a squeezer, a press that removes the fiber, and that manure fiber is then dried again using methane gas off the digester, and then we use that fiber for bedding the cattle on the farm. It’s a very closed-loop system, but methane production is equivalent to a thousand gallons a day of diesel fuel in terms of BTUs, so it’s a substantial amount of power, substantial amount of heat that’s captured, and electricity and fiber.

The electricity, in theory, is enough power for the farm, the cheese factory and 300 homes. My little jingle that goes with this is, “The sun is shining, the river is flowing, and this produces totally renewable energy every single day,” and that it does. Unlike some systems, such as many of those in Europe, we use 100% byproduct, the manure or byproducts from other industries, to provide the tool for the digester. We do not raise any corn silage that would be fed directly to the digester or other energy sources fed directly to the digester. Everything is a byproduct. So, in a nutshell, we still have all the nutrients. We still have all the nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium, and those elements are tied to an elemental form, and they are located in the liquid manure, which we apply to the field.

For field application, we have a consistent manure product that’s got some of that manure fiber removed, so it’s much easier to agitate from the manure basin, and we can apply a good, even amount of liquid manure to our fields to meet our nutrient needs for our crops. So, we get a little better return on our manure application, as well as the other three products off the digester, and that’s where I’m going to stop for now.

Not only is the digester important for our business, but really, it’s what we do before we even get to the digester. Are we really conscious of our groundwater? How are we setting our wells, our water table? Are we conscious of our soil aggregates and what we’re doing to build soil health? Are we conscious of our grazing procedures or our harvesting and our various types of erosion and cover crops and interseeding and all those factors that go into a successful agricultural and agronomic business?

Those are discussions we have had for many, many years, and we’ve realized it’s important to really lean in on them, not just to rely on the laurels of saying, “Well, we have a lower carbon footprint.” Well, it’s just part of it. What are we really doing to be leaders? Those are topics that our family takes very seriously. What can we really do to lead, in terms of sustainability, with our agronomy, our manure digester, recycling? How do we improve? I’ve even sat in on some meetings with sustainability leaders from the likes of Harley Davidson and Miller Brewing Company, and they like the farm story, but believe me, I like their stories, too, and I think we all can learn from each other, and that’s where we want to be for our business, is really engaging with some of the very best. All right. I’ll leave it there.

David:            Okay. Well, I think it’s great that you mention (that) it’s not just the carbon footprint. If we don’t keep our soil healthy or rebuild our soils that need help, and if we don’t keep our groundwater at a good level, then it’s not going to matter if we solve our carbon footprint. We’re still going to have some serious issues, and we won’t be sustainable.

Charlie:          Absolutely. We participate in a community-based farmers’ and lake owners’ alliance, so rather than the lake owners saying, “Oh, our lakes are turning green” and the farmers saying, “We have a lower carbon footprint,” there’s a lot of unknown in that conversation. So, my son, myself and some of our other family members, we’ve engaged with some of the lake owners and the conservation groups in the area. We engage with some of the folks that might be considered, well, not quite tree-huggers, but pretty close to it, and share our story, and we learn from them what are other concerns. Are they viable concerns? Then, we, as farmers, in our case — our family, our business — what can we do to address those viable concerns? Those are topics we engage in and take action on.

Some of the action involves cover crops. It involves different forages for our livestock herd. It may involve using different hybrids so we can harvest earlier, maybe taking a bit of a reduction in yield, but then allowing us more time to get our nutrients prepped for the little crops, seeded — how do we do cover crops and handle manure? Last year, we did close to 30 million gallons of liquid manure. Well, that covers quite a few acres, so, indeed, if you’re going to incorporate manure, cover crops, forages, grains, small grains, not only is it an investment financially and in time, but management — and you’re dealing with Mother Nature, of course, too, so you really have to put on the thinking cap, leaning in on that. That’s what we’re up to, and I think that’s where a lot of our industry is heading, thankfully.

It’s not easy to say, “Yeah, we have lost perhaps more of our topsoil than we want to recognize.” Even though I’m a dairy farmer, yes, I totally have a fair amount of erosion compared to being just a crop farmer. I may not understand my soil bacteria to the level that I should. I may not understand the history of my soils the way I should. These are all topics that go on for years and years, but they do require rigor to make some headway in management and understanding — but it’s a great place to be, though. It really is. It’s a conversation we relish, so that covers part of the environment and the family that can pull that off. It involves being active in the community, whether it’s in your local town or with the lake owners, so we’ve covered the sustainability portion there.

You’ve got to make a little money on it or you’re going to disappear in a very painful manner, but we’ve been doing that for 41 years. We’ve been working at it, and we have a plan to continue on for more, so that’s good news. That’s what makes me excited about even speaking at the conference or sharing that news with this podcast. As an old guy, I’m still excited.

David:            It is exciting. I think it’s good that you’re excited about talking to all the environmental groups and trying to understand their concerns because, in the process, when you’re having a conversation with them, they’re understanding what you guys do, and a lot of times, people don’t understand what farmers are doing, and that’s a dangerous thing.

Charlie:          It is. It really is. We’ve seen a lot of misperception in terms of where our food comes from and what’s healthy for my family or my children or my community, and really, most of the fear is based upon ignorance, which has been very well-proven. Some of the concerns are definitely based upon lack of knowledge on the consumer side, but some of it is based upon lack of knowledge on our producer side as well. So, I think we, as producers, really need to learn to lean in, perhaps, more than we have. It would be one of my take-home messages as a producer: really step up to lean in with all the environmental actions that can be taken, not just one or two, but really lean in.

David:            Yeah, and in the long run, it’s going to keep your farm profitable as well, so it’s not just a matter of jumping through a hoop. I know that, probably, there are plenty of environmental regulations that might feel like just jumping through a hoop, but the things you’re talking about — really looking at your soil health closely — that’s so important for your long-term survival and all of our long-term survival. Talk a little bit about some of the conservation techniques that you use. You guys grow all your own forages, right? So, you really are crop farmers as well. What are some of the things you do to protect the soil and build up the microbial health of it?

Charlie:          Well, we really try to keep something green out there, growing, year-round. I long remember someone’s quote that “if your soil is exposed, it’s like having a hole in your fertilizer tank, and it’s just leaking out, never to be recovered.” So, we think it’s really important to keep some green growth out there. Learn to do a little better every year, whether it’s with the cover crop blends, the seeding procedures, the manure applications onto the cover crops, the manure applications onto the fields, taking proper credits for all manure harvesting, yields, nitrogen efficiency ratios — all of those things all enter into our conversations.

At the harvest’s end, it’s important that you don’t feel losses. Preserve that feed well in the bunker silos. We’ve got a whole system of wrapping our silo walls in drain tile to remove any rainwater and keep our feed just at the very best quality that we can, keep down that feed shrink, and keep feeding to the cattle preservation there in the bunks — even the use of propionic acid so you have better feed conversion. For instance, in the summer, when the weather is hot and muggy, we apply propionic acid to our total mixed ration, and even though it would keep for a day in the mangers, by using propionic acid, 3% of the feed that the cows don’t eat is still good for the next day, and we’re able to feed that back to the heifers and capture more of that feed value in our livestock. It’s been working very well. Now, all of this is not revolutionary, but it does take commitment. It takes a feeding system. It takes training of employees. It takes monitoring of your feed and going into the storage, coming out where it’s being fed. The amounts of feeds shrink every day, but you’re in and you’re out.

We’ve been proving that it works. Well, we might think of conservation as being all water waste, or grass and some fields. It’s a whole variety of interaction, all the way from the soil microbes through the fields, through the harvest, through the preservation, the feeding, the financial management of all that. That’s all part of the system we embrace here at the Crave Brothers; granted, we’re not alone in the industry (in) doing that, but we need to be a leader at it, not just another producer doing the same old thing. That’s where we’re at, and it’s a great place to be, too.

David:            That’s awesome. Tell me a little bit about the — let’s talk a little bit about the people aspect of sustainability, or the social part. What do you guys do to make sure that everybody has a good quality of life and they’re not just working 90 hours a week, and they have time for their families?

Charlie:          Yeah, that’s a great point. Well, we really try to give each of the partners an area where they can take a certain amount of responsibility and to provide them, too, with a budget, so they can have the help they need so they can get done at a decent time. For instance, we all know that a dairy farm such as ours, we milk three times a day, around the clock. Well, that means you need a good parlor manager. You need good training for the people that might be bedding the cows. They need good machinery. They need a place to store that machinery so it works every day. They need an opportunity to talk with the mechanic — and a mechanic that can respond. For instance, if their bedding wagon is not working, they (should be able to) get it fixed in short order so the cows can be bedded, and then the fellow doing that work can put in a decent day and go home at a respectable hour.

One of the things that separates our farm from many others is (that) we try and have most of the folks that work here — other than milkers or the nighttime crew — they would start between 5:00 a.m. and 7:00 a.m. and go home in the afternoon, between 3:00 p.m. and 5:00 p.m. or 6:00 p.m. Well, for a farm, for a dairy farm, those aren’t paid hours. If we can go home at 5:00 p.m. and maybe have supper or get our lawn mowed and then have time in the evening to go to a ball game for our kids or a meeting at church or school board, that’s not bad, especially when we think of when we were younger; you’d do well to be in the house by 7:30 or 8:00 at night and you still hadn’t eaten supper.

So, it’s been very much a focus on how to have the right people in the right places so we can all be successful. Try and take a day or a day and a half off or two days off every week, depending on the time of the year and the weather. That works. We take time and a half for about seven holidays a year. It helps to write a little incentive for folks to do a little extra work or sign up to do chores on those days. And, of course, it’s only fair to them; their families have to make some sacrifices, too, so we want to be fair.

Has it been easy in the last few years, with lower milk prices? Absolutely not. We have some of the same conversations others do, but in the meantime, we’re still getting our cows bred and producing good-quality milk and a lot other — having manure applied, all those things that go into every day without having the wheel fall off — and still get home at a decent hour at night, and that’s been a real focus. So, a sustainable workforce that can stick around, maybe work here for a generation — or two, even — that’s important, and that’s who we really want to be. We want to be a preferred employer, not just a default employer, and that can be said for many industries, but do you have a plan to be that preferred employer? Well, we do, using a lot of those things that I just described, and it’s been working, thankfully.

David:            Yeah. That’s great. That brings us, maybe, to the third part of sustainability, which is the economic aspect.

You can’t do any of this if you’re not profitable, and you mentioned some of the challenges, certainly, in the dairy industry. It can be really rough, and prices go up and down. You guys have insulated yourselves from that, to an extent, by having your own cheese factory, right?

Charlie:          Yes, we have. About 21 years ago, we undertook starting to spend time and money on investigating how to add more value to our farm, and we looked into doing more with what we had, such as: do we do more machinery work? Do we do more forage harvesting? Do we buy more land and raise corn and soybeans in addition to dairy cows? All those things, I think, enter into many, many conversations throughout the world and, of course, at the career.

Finally, we took a deep breath and decided to build a cheese factory here on our farm, not knowing much about it. We consulted with some folks throughout the industry and decided to build a cheese factory a hundred yards away from our milking parlor. So, we pump the fresh milk underground from the farm to the cheese factory and, from there, it’s stored and pasteurized and used to manufacture award-winning cheeses. So, we really have a whole system of procedures and investments, financially and human-wise, in place that has allowed us to become a real leader in quality cheese production. We have primary products of fresh mozzarella and mascarpone. We do some other cheese curds and Oaxaca products, and we’d market those nationwide. We work with brokers and distributors in the food industry to get our product out and try to capture enough value to make it worthwhile of all our investment. So far, after 20 years, I’d like to say yes, it’s been working.

One of the things I often point out is (that) I would hope that, for many of us, if we bought a farm 20 years ago, we would’ve had it paid off by now or made some pretty good headway on land improvements and such, and it’s the same thing with the cheese factory. A lot of folks say, “Wow, I really like your cheese factory,” but I just ask them to pause and reflect that, indeed, we have been at it for 20 years, and I would hope that, for 20 years, they would have some success with it, too, but now, it’s been a great part of our family story: the farm, the digester and the cheese factory.

David:            Yeah. Do you think that’s also helped keep the next generation involved in your operation?

Charlie:          I would think it has, yes, especially — I have a niece that probably would not be too interested in milking cows. While many families kind of enjoy some of the show cows or the registered portion of your business, it takes some real income to support the land purchases or building a cheese factory or a biogas plant, and the cheese factory has helped provide some solid financial returns, especially as the milk price has been soft. Yeah, it’s been better than taking some of those wholesale prices that we’ve been receiving otherwise, so yeah, it has provided a lot of energy for the next generation, no doubt.

David:            All right. Well, thank you so much, Charlie. That was a great conversation. We’ve covered a lot of ground here. I really appreciate your time.

Charlie:          Well, you’re welcome, David. If you’re out this way again, get a hold of the Alltech folks, and I’d love to spend some more time with you.

David:            All right. I definitely will.

by Cameron Ewert | Feb 17, 2020