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Milk Fertilizer – A Myth is Born

A while ago I wrote about Milk As Fertilizer and concluded that although milk would add organic matter to a garden, it was no ‘magic bullet’. Since that report I have spent more time looking at the subject of milk fertilizer and tracked down how this myth was born. It a thriller full of deception and lies. Today I will dig deep into this myth and uncover some surprising facts. Then I will review the latest research on the subject.

Milk Fertilizer - a Myth is Born

Milk Fertilizer – a Myth is Born

Milk Fertilizer – a Glimmer of Hope

Around the year 200o a steel industry executive turned dairyman by the name of Dave Wetzel started spreading his excess milk on agricultural land (ref 1). It did not take long for Mr. Wetzel to convince himself, and a local Knox County Extension Educator, Terry Gompert, that the milk fertilizer was producing superior production yields. Not only were pasture fields much more productive but soil core sampling displayed increased ‘ground porosity’, ie less compaction. Milk was having a very positive affect on soil structure.

With Terry’s connection to the University of Nebraska, they were able to convince a research team to do some scientific studies to prove what ‘they already knew’.

A number of test cases were designed that used milk and/or milk+cod liver oil. I don’t know why cod liver oil was added ?

What were the results?

  • Nothing short of amazing:
  • Two gallons of milk increased yield by 26%
  • A few ounces of cod liver oil per acre increased yield by 20%
  • Milk + cod liver oil increased yield by 31%
  • The porosity of soil treated with milk increased by 19%

Note: the above results are the ones that Mr. Wetzel has been promoting. This is his interpretation of the research study.

There are now numerous reports on the internet that report these findings. Mr. Wetzel has been very good at getting his message out.

Milk Fertilizer – Real Data

I could not find the published research on this study, so I decided to contact the original researchers. A Dr. Charles Shapiro, Professor of Agronomy and Horticulture, Soil Scientist – Crop Nutrition, Haskell Ag Lab was generous with his time, and provided me with a summary of the research project, the data from the project as well as background about the relationship with Mr. Wetzel. He has asked that the full report not be made public since the data has not been officially published. He has given me permission to write a summary of the data.

The original milk fertilizer study was planned for several years, but after seeing no positive results after one year, the research project was discontinued.

At the end of the experiment the data, with statistics, were presented to Terry and Mr. Wetzel, who used it as “they saw fit”. The researchers made their findings clear, but David Wetzel decided to ignore the real data and the researchers conclusions.

What were the ‘real’ results?

“There is no statistical evidence that the milk and oil affected any of the parameters measured. It is true that the no milk, no oil treatment had the lowest yield (4454 lbs/acre), but another no milk treatment, the one with 4 oz of cod liver oil had (5314 lbs/acre). The LSD which indicates the difference needed to be significant was almost a ton (1980 lbs/acre) indicating a large amount of variability at this site. The coefficient of variation (CV) which is a measure of variability was almost 25% for dry matter. This is about twice the level we usually find for yields.”

They measured productivity, individual nutrients, as well as soil compaction. Milk  or Milk + cod liver oil, had no effect on the outcome. Milk fertilizer did not improve yields, nor did it improve soil structure.

The Value of Statistics

I am not a big fan of statistics – they can be manipulated to prove almost anything. But when it comes to horticultural studies statistics are vital, and here is why. Plants are living things, and each plant will behave differently. Some grow faster and better than the one next to it. One acre of land is quite different than a neighboring acre. To get any meaningful data you need to do lots of replicates and comparisons.

The above study is a good example of this. Even if NO milk was added, the variability of production between acres was huge – 2000lb/acre. In order to prove milk had an effect, they would need to see the treated fields produce much more than this.

Mr. Wetzel was not happy with the results – they did not prove him right! So he cherry picked a few numbers in the study, and used them to talk to reporters. He selected the data that proved his anecdotal observations and convinced himself he was right. He then proceeded to convince a lot of writers that he had found the magic milk elixir.

Lets be clear. The study did not say that milk has no effect. What it shows is that in this study, done on certain fields and with certain crops, there was no real value in adding milk.

More Studies

I have now found a second study, Raw Waste Milk as a Pasture Amendment (ref 2), done by Dr. Sid Bosworth of the University of Vermont. They studied the impact of raw milk on pasture yield, forage quality and soil fertility on two farms in Vermont.

They concluded that “the application of raw milk onto pasture is not an economical means enhancing forage production or forage and soil quality. The meager gains recorded are neither great enough to influence milk production nor consistent enough to be a reliable solution. ” (ref 2).

In other words, the benefits of adding milk, if there are any, are not worth the effort of spreading it.

Is Milk Good For the Garden?

Milk is an organic product, and any organic material added to your garden will help – so yes, it is good for the garden.

But keep in mind that milk is mostly water – around 90% water. A gallon of milk contains very little organic matter. A handful of compost would be just as good as a gallon of milk.

There is NO scientific evidence that milk has any special powers, or that it does anything different to soil than any other organic material.

References:

  1. Milk Works As Fertilizer, Says Preliminary Study: http://www.minnesotafarmguide.com/news/regional/milk-works-as-fertilizer-says-preliminary-study/article_028652ea-849c-11e0-9dcc-001cc4c03286.html
  2. Raw Waste Milk as a Pasture Amendment: http://mysare.sare.org/mySARE/ProjectReport.aspx?do=viewRept&pn=ONE12-155&y=2013&t=0
  3. Photo Source: Patrick Franzis
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Robert Pavlis
Editor of GardenMyths.com
I live in southern Ontario, Canada, zone 5 and have been gardening a long time. Besides writing and speaking about gardening, I own and operate a 6 acre private garden called Aspen Grove Gardens which now has over 3,000 perennials, grasses, shrubs and trees. Yes--I am a plantaholic!

I hope you find Garden Myths an educational site that helps you understand your garden better.

17 Responses to 'Milk Fertilizer – A Myth is Born'

  1. Dara Tarolli says:

    I live alone and sometimes have milk sour, so I add it to my tomato beds for calcium and other nutrients. I also have sour cream or cottage cheese go bad sometimes. In future, I will add this also.

  2. Interesting thoughts. Have you ever tried raw milk on the soil yourself?

  3. Inga Bach says:

    Thanks for digging into myths. Here in Denmark some people say that pouring buttermilk in the garden will make the soil acid enough for Rhododendrons – and so you don’t need peat. Taking pH of buttermilk into consideration, it doesn’t make sense to me. I think that adding pine needles is what making Rhododendrons in their gardens grow well. However, there may be effects of buttermilk that I don’t know about. A myth or not?

    • It is very hard to change the pH of most soils. It really depends on the soil. A sandy soil is easily changes since there are few chemicals in it. Clays and silts are harder to change. If the soil has native limestone in it – buttermilk will have no effect.

  4. Samia L. says:

    If a farmer has too much milk for whatever reason, he might as well add it to his compost heap. The sugar in the milk will feed microbes and break down coarse matter in the pile. But no, it does not make sense to go out and buy milk for fertilizer or composting.

  5. Richard P Thomas says:

    Interesting read, as always!

  6. Collin says:

    Another great article, thanks so much Robert!

  7. Thanks Robert. Another great article . . .

  8. This is new myth for me! I wonder how many more are out there?!
    Even if proven true it would have been too expensive of a fertilizer to make sense. Looking at it the other way, throwing precious ‘food’ on the fields wouldn’t make sense either.

    • When I started this journey I was concerned that I would run out of material. But I collect 2-3 new topics for everyone I write about. I have a big back log of stories.

      In some parts of North America – we have too much milk and no markets for it. It is sad to think we can’t make better use of it.

  9. rogerbrook says:

    You could not make it up that anyone could be so stupid or irresponsible to pour milk on the ground.
    Clearly from your excellent detective work somebody did make it up!
    You seem to have a journalist’s nose for a good story and debunking myths

    • That was my initial reaction as well – why would anyone pour good milk on the ground. It turns out the with milk boards, farms do produce too much. They can’t sell it so they need to do something with it.

      Thanks for the compliment.

      • Holly Rexroat says:

        I agree, do not pour milk on the ground that YOU BUY. As someone who is working hard to produce more and more of what we consume, I can guarantee you that in the olden days they put milk on the garden. I do. I know milk is mostly water but I need lots of water for my large food gardens. In the winter my indoor garden needs water and so why not add a bit of excess milk? Yes, we have more milk at times than we can consume. For instance today I am making butter and need cooking oil so it will become ghee. It is May and at this time, the beginning of our dairy animals lactation, the cream will not churn into nearly as much butter as in a few months from now. Therefore, I have LOTS of buttermilk. Keep in mind that milking time is hours away with more milk on its way. This buttermilk will be offered to the chickens and that which is not consumed will be put on the gardens. Yes, I’m sure in the olden days milk WAS put on the garden as was a variety of manures- like our garden. I also use the water left over when I cook vegetables on the stove, grown in our gard
        en. ‘Waste not want not.’

  10. Lavesh Agrawal says:

    Hi Bob,
    I am a big fan of all your articles. The way you scientifically clarify the myths is superb. I also do not think that spreading raw milk in huge quantities will change any thing in the soil but in India people use a mixture of milk + curd + clarified butter + Cow dung + Cow urine and some more items and leave it for 15 days in a drum to cure then use it in their fields after diluting it to 10 times, some thing. This is called “Panchgavya – basically mixture of 5 items given by Cow”. Its a common belief that it make soil more fertile. I think this mix is providing some kind of bacteria to soil structure and improves the population of worms in soil.
    This link provides little more information but they have added more components in the mix https://nimaigarden.wordpress.com/tag/panchagavya-application/

    Keep doing the god work.

    Thanks – Lavesh

    • Thanks for posting. I was not aware of Panchgavya. Since it is a fermentation process it reminds me of Bokashi. But it also sounds like compost tea.

      It certainly would add some nutrients to soil. However, when people look at the bacteria added by other products like compost tea, the benefits of adding bacteria never pan out. I think the reason is that soil already has so many bacteria, both in quantity and in variety. Adding a few more will not make much difference.

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