Farmer Sees Fruits of Conservation Practices

4/13/2013 7:00 AM
By Chris Torres Staff Writer

BETHEL, Pa. — When Brian Blouch looks at the three years worth of projects done on his farm — from the new manure storage system to concrete walkways for his cows — he can’t help but look back at how things used to be.

“Before there was any barnyards, there was nothing but mud and manure. I mean they were falling, tripping, whatever,” Blouch said.

It doesn’t take long for gleaming concrete to look aged and weathered once dairy cows start doing their business. But appearances aside, Blouch is just starting to reap the benefits of his improvements, from cleaner water to healthier cows.

“The place was in pretty rough shape. To help clean up the water system — this is why we did all of this and to make it more manageable for the animals,” he said.

Blouch and his wife, Dawn, purchased their 250-acre farm in Bethel Township, Berks County, 10 years ago. They milk 70 cows, mostly Holsteins, and raise another 70 replacement heifers.

Tired of having to haul manure to the fields each day, Brian Blouch approached the Berks County office of the Natural Resources Conservation Service, or NRCS, three years ago for help with the construction of a new manure storage system.

“During crop time, I didn’t have enough land for the manure. You’d just have to pile it somewhere, which is no good, because of runoff and leaching from that,” he said.

The 500,000-gallon manure storage tank was the first in a number of improvements Blouch put in, along with new barnyards and fencing, concrete walkways, a dry-stack manure barn, and an improved stormwater management system.

The stormwater system, complete with down spouts and gutters designed to funnel water away from the heifer and tie-stall barns, was connected to the manure storage tank.

“There is no more flooding at all. The buildings used to get full of water. Now they don’t, which is a good cow health thing,” he said.

New fenced-in barnyards were put in to help keep the cows from wandering onto busy Route 501, which runs next to the farm.

“They are all fenced in. They don’t get out. They are not out there in the road,” Blouch said.

A new heifer barn, which includes a manure separation system, was also put in. The 1,000-gallon underground tank works to separate manure from water. The water is then pumped through a sprinkler onto a grass pasture, which works as natural filtration.

Blouch also made improvements in the fields, planting cover crops, installing tiling in some of the wet areas and converting his fields to no-till.

Karlyn Haas, soil conservationist with Berks NRCS, worked to secure cost-share funding for the farm through the Chesapeake Bay Watershed Initiative and the Environmental Quality Incentives Program, or EQIP.

Neither the Blouchs nor Haas would reveal how much the total cost was, but Haas said the Blouchs did contribute their own money to the project.

Getting funding, though, required the Blouchs to go above and beyond the state-required conservation and manure management plans to include what’s called a “590” plan, which Haas said is a more comprehensive manure management plan that has to be written by a certified technician and requires soil sampling.

Haas nominated the Blouchs for the Berks County Conservation District’s Farmer of the Year Award, which the couple received March 18 at a banquet at Haag’s Hotel in Shartlesville, Pa.

Haas said each improvement is making a difference on the farm, and having the ability to store manure is saving the couple money and is better for environment.

“I think the liquid manure storage and the barnyard work, along with the grass waterways, economically and conservationwise, I think they were both great impacts,” she said.

Brian Blouch said the improvements have led to better cow health and production. The rolling herd average is 22,000 pounds, while the farm’s somatic cell count is 80,000.

It wasn’t his goal to get recognized for the work he’s done, but he said it doesn’t hurt.

“We did do a lot of work. I’m happy I won. Somebody recognized we did all of this stuff,” he said.

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