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Conservation, innovation bring success at Whey Street Dairy

Chris Torres Phoebe, Mary Ann and Martin Young of Whey Street Dairy with Russell Martin and Amanda Barber
PARTNERS IN SUCCESS: The Young family has good partners in their local soil and water conservation district. Pictured are Phoebe (left), Mary Ann and Martin Young; Russell Smith, natural resources conservationist with the Cortland Soil and Water Conservation District; and Amanda Barber, manager of the Cortland Soil and Water Conservation District.
Whey Street Dairy is 2019’s Agricultural Environmental Management Award winner.

Even before there was an Agricultural Environmental Management Award in New York, Martin Young has always taken conservation seriously on his farm.

The soils Young farms are fragile, “so we need to farm them in a way that’s sustainable,” he says.

Young’s Whey Street Dairy is this year’s Agricultural Environmental Management Award winner. The AEM award is co-sponsored by the New York Department of Agriculture & Markets, Empire State Potato Growers and American Agriculturist. The program boosts public awareness of farm efforts in preserving the environment.

Expansion and conservation

Whey Street Dairy is in the rolling hills of Cortland County, between Binghamton and Ithaca.

Martin runs the farm with his wife, Mary Ann, and his 28-year-old daughter Phoebe. They have four other children — Dan, Ben, Abby and Lydia — who work on other farms or are involved in different careers.

Martin and Mary Ann assumed full ownership of the farm from his parents, Ernest and Janet, in 1988. They started with 140 cows, 150 owned acres and 200 rented acres.

From the beginning, the Youngs were active in resource conservation. In the late 1990s the farm participated in the Farm A Syst program, the precursor to the state’s AEM program, which allowed farms to address pollution issues through the use of confidential assessments.

Chris TorresPhoebe Young greets Holsteins at the barn

LIFE IN DAIRY: Phoebe Young says she always wanted to manage the farm’s dairy. She manages Whey Street Dairy's more than 1,000 head of Holsteins.

Some of their earliest conservation practices included a manure storage that was installed in 1991; hundreds of feet of diversions and waterways to safely convey water across fields; the installation of tile lines; and roof water controls.

Martin was also eager to expand the operation. In 1999, a new 150-stall barn was constructed.

The farm also gradually expanded its land footprint through purchases and lead leasing. Today, the farm includes more than 1,800 acres including 1,409 acres of crops. Highly erodible land is kept in grass crops while much of the flat land is in long-term corn.

They’ve also planted tree buffers in highly erodible areas. 

Zone tilling and cover crops

With the expansion of the farm’s acreage, the Youngs looked for ways to not only conserve the land but also save a little money. In 2006 they switched to a zone-till corn planter, reducing soil loss and the amount of fuel needed for tillage.

The farm has dabbled in using cover crops, planting between 250 and 300 acres of cover crops a year.

“We played with them for better than 10 years,” Martin says. “Once we got the no-till drill it facilitated us getting cover crops planted.”

Chris TorresMartin Young speaks about conservation of natural resources

CONSERVATION TRENDSETTER: Martin Young says that conservation of natural resources is a necessity given the fragile soils on the farm.

Martin believes that keeping more carbohydrates in the soil to feed microorganisms and fungi helps keep soil healthy. Using cover crops is a crucial part of his system, he says, with rye and triticale being the dominant varieties. He’s tried tillage radishes before, but the area’s short growing season makes it difficult for tillage radishes to work.

Planting green, where cash crops are planted into living cover crops in the spring, is something that he’s gradually adopting on more acreage.

“It cuts an application of Roundup beforehand,” saving money, he says. “One of the keys is you don’t want cover crop too thick.”

Treating silage leachate

Amanda Barber, manager of the Cortland Soil and Water Conservation District, says the Youngs are unique in that she doesn’t have to suggest conservation practices to them. They suggest practices to her.

One idea Martin researched on his own was treating silage leachate using vegetative treatment.

In 2001, the Youngs installed their first vegetative treatment area. The concept works by diverting runoff from bunk silos to a vegetative area, reducing the potential of nutrient-laden runoff in nearby creeks and streams.

The system has been updated four times, including in 2013 when a separation system, retention pond and flout tank were added. Runoff is collected and separated with low-flow going to the manure pit and high-flow going to a nearby flout tank, where it undergoes further treatment. From the flout tank, the runoff is piped across a road to two different vegetative strips.

“The theory is it comes in a flow and runs down, spreading over a larger area,” he says.

Barber says the system the Youngs have in place is unique. “I think it’s a pretty good option that we want to see replicated,” she says. The challenge for most farmers is having the space to do it.

One advantage the Youngs have is elevation, so everything is gravity flow.

“We do have elevation change on this farm, so we try to make use of it,” Martin says.

Manure storage and cow comfort

All the corn grown on the farm is for silage. The farm has expanded over the years to 580 milking cows, 100 dry cows and 600 heifers. Phoebe, the farm’s dairy manager, says the goal with breeding is to get medium-size cows since the parlor they are using — a double-12 parallel — is small.

She says they breed for components using all AI. Between 30% and 40% of heifer calves are also genomic tested.

A 60-stall expansion was completed in 2015. Another expansion is currently ongoing that will add an additional 190 stalls and create a new home for the dry cows.

Chris TorresThe Youngs with Holsteins at the barn

LOOKING AHEAD: Another expansion of the dairy is currently in the works. Martin Young, pictured here with his wife, Mary Ann, and daughter Phoebe, says that expansion is needed in order to compete with larger farms.

Phoebe says cow comfort is important. They use sawdust bedding, waterbeds, fans and sprinklers to keep the animals cool and productive. Rubber mats are used in the parlor holding area.

The original manure storage, an earthen pit, was installed in the 1990s. It has been expanded over the years and has a capacity of 2.8 million gallons. A second manure pit was installed just two years ago. The 4-million-gallon pit is big enough to store manure for six months, according to Martin. He says the second pit eliminates the need for constant manure spreading.

Embracing new things

Martin says he is trying more BMR hybrids this year to see what results he gets.

He’s used BMR hybrids in the past, but it was too much of an issue keeping it separated and having enough feed for his cows to really make a difference. He hopes that improvements to the hybrids will make a bigger difference this time around.

His John Deere 8260R tractor now has a GPS installed, which he hopes will lead to more straight rows in the fields. He uses a 1750 six-row planter.

Barber says the Youngs, in particular Martin, are assets in the community as they’ve hosted numerous field days and are more than willing to share their knowledge with other farmers. Barber has been a crucial part of the farm’s expansions and improvements as she’s secured numerous grants and loans for them.

“It’s nice to have someone like Marty whom we don’t have to go to, he can come to us,” she says. “He drives the conversation, he asks the questions to get the answers.”

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