Air Date: Week of July 29, 1994
Host Steve Curwood visits a family farm near the shores of Lake Michigan to report on a sustainable alternative to modern dairy farming. “Rotational grazing” combines old-fashioned grazing practices with modern technology to reduce production costs, improve soil quality, prevent manure run-off and attract wildlife back to the farm.
CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.
"America's Dairyland"- those are the words on the license plates of cars from Wisconsin, and with good reason. The state is the number-one producer of dairy products in the US. A million-and-a-half cows in Wisconsin produce 16 percent of the country's milk.
(Sound of milking machine in operation)
CURWOOD: Dairying is one of Wisconsin's biggest businesses. But it's also got big problems. High operating costs and low milk prices are driving thousands of farmers out of business. Row cropping to grow feed for cows is leading to serious soil erosion. And runoff from farms, particularly from manure and farm chemicals, is contaminating local water supplies. In fact, nutrient and pesticide runoff from farms is one of the biggest sources of water pollution in the country. But here in Wisconsin there's also hope for solving these problems -hope embodied in a new approach to dairy farming that combines modern science and technology with old-fashioned grazing. It's called "rotational grazing," and it's bringing new life to some old dairy farms.
(Sound of wind through grass)
CURWOOD: You can see a bright blue wedge of Lake Michigan from the Saxon Homestead Farm in Cleveland, Wisconsin. The wind from the lake whips around the top of a ridge, and from here you can also see most of the farm - a rambling assortment of sheds, a massive wooden barn, several silos - one of them stone, and towering new ones of steel and blue enamel, and stretching to the furthest corners, luxuriant fields in many shades of green. 650 acres support 155 cows, and the cows produce more than 1,000 gallons of milk a day. This dairy farm is run by the Klessig and Himmerel families, led by Ed Klessig. In the 1850's, Ed's great-grandfather came over to this country from German Saxony to buy 160 acres of forest to clear into a farm.
KLESSIG: This is my great-grandfather and my great grandmother. He died in 1900 and he had six sons. And three of them had moved west to Minnesota and Dakotas and homesteaded land there. And this is my grandfather, Otto, about 1871 that was taken. Isn't that something? By golly. They were big, strong men.
CURWOOD: In the early years of the farm, these men and their families produced wheat, like pretty much everyone else in Wisconsin. Ed Klessig's great-grandfather grew wheat for the Union Army. His son-in-law is Jerry Himmerel.
HIMMEREL: My wife has uncovered here just recently where they were getting $2.50 a bushel of wheat in 1858, 1860, just at the war time.
CURWOOD: That's the price of wheat today!
HIMMEREL: You got that right and they were having yields, two hundred bushels per acre on this virgin timber soil. No fertilizer additives, no input cost except human labor and the extraction. And this process was very profitable.
CURWOOD: But before long the soil gave out, so the Saxon Farm turned its wheatland into pastures, for dairy cows. Dozens of Holsteins grazed the fields for decades; then, shortly after the Second World War, the Saxon Farm jumped on the trend that was sweeping farms across the country - they pulled their cows out of the pastures and kept them in barns. And they converted the pastures to fields, to grow corn and other row crops, which they fed to the cows. Milk production soared. But the machinery and chemicals needed to maintain this new kind of farming also cost a lot more. And Ed Klessig says he and other farmers have been increasingly squeezed between high costs and low prices.
KLESSIG: It's really lousy prices - low milk prices - farmers sell everything wholesale and buy retail, is sort of a short way of summarizing the plight of farmers today.
CURWOOD: The Klessig family has had to remortgage the farm again and again. Today, Ed's son-in-law Jerry Himmerel fears the numbers might never add up, that his generation might become the first never to own outright the farm and its fine brick homestead.
HIMMEREL: What's interesting is that that house was built on grass. That wasn't built on corn. Edward's father built that just in 1930, during the Depression. But he built and paid for that in three years, which is remarkable. His father bought and paid for the farm in 1870, I believe it was, again in a three-year period. But we get to this fourth and fifth generation, and we don't think we're ever finished paying for the farm. One of the things we run into with the dairy operation is, we need tractors, big horsepower tractors. We need a lot of equipment to make the crops and get 'em to the barns, into the silos, into where the cows are confined. And to quote a fellow, his name is Alan Nation, he said, "The last time I looked, I saw the grass standing still and the cows moving. Why is it we're trying to make the cows stand still and move the grass to them"? And that really puts it in a nutshell.
CURWOOD: That simple question has led the Klessigs and the Himmerels to join a sort of counter-revolution in dairy farming that's come to the States via New Zealand. The method is called pasturing, or rotational grazing. It's letting the cows out of the barns to graze on grass pastures. In a way, it's a throwback to ages-old practices, but with a couple of distinctly modern improvements, improvements that greatly improve bovine nutrition. Robert Klessig manages the grazing on the Saxon Homestead Farm.
R. KLESSIG: What we'll do now is we're going open the gate up on the paddock the heifers are contained in, and we're going to bring them onto fresh grass. It'll probably take us less than two or three minutes. Tending these heifers in the barn might take a total of two hours per day. (pause) These girls are all waiting
to be moved. They know we're coming to give them new grass so they're all standing there at attention for us.
CURWOOD: This looks like an ad for Merrill Lynch. (laughter)
R. KLESSIG: What we're going to do is open up this polywire, this portable fence here, and let them come through here into the new paddock.
CURWOOD: The lightweight electric fencing is a key to rotational grazing. Made in New Zealand, it allows Robert Klessig to quickly change the size and location of his pastures, depending on the condition of the grasses and the size of the herd. The paddocks run between two and four acres and sometimes the cows have to be moved twice in a single day. The trick is to closely monitor the growth of the different grasses and legumes in each field, and move the cows onto a section just as the forage is hitting its nutritional peak.
CURWOOD: They're pretty good size for youngsters.
R. KLESSIG: Yeah. We've found that we're putting an average daily gain of about two pounds per head per day on these animals. And we find that the only input cost that we have is the minerals that they consume out here and we figure that to be about six cents per day per animal. All right. We'll open the gate. Why don't we all stand - well, everybody just follow me here, ok? (Robert calls to the cows; sound of herd mooing ) There's no chasing involved. It's just like the pied piper, follow the leader. Wherever I go, these animals will go. Now I'll close the gate and the move is made. What we are going to do, though, is we're going to put 'em on a different paddock from here. And you'll see how that'll take place. It's really a low input system that requires very little labor. All you really need to have to make milk or meat is animals and grass.
CURWOOD: And, perhaps, a little water, which is pumped to each paddock.
The Klessigs are gradually converting to rotational grazing, so some of the herd is still in conventional confinement barns. But for the areas where they've returned to grazing, gone is the need for tractors to till the soil and harvest corn and other feed crops from these fields, and the fuel to power all these machines. Gone in large part also is the need for chemicals to keep the soil productive. Some of the forage in the rotating pastures fixes its own nitrogen into the soil. Other nutrients are provided by manure, spread naturally by the cows themselves. And when the cows leave their waste in the fields, where it's an asset, it's kept out of the barnyard, where it can be a real problem. Each Holstein produces 85 pounds of manure a day. When it piles up, rain can turn it into raw sewage, flowing into nearby streams and Lake Michigan. And hauling it from the barnyard back to the fields uses a lot of equipment and gasoline. And, according to Jerry Himmerel's brother-in-law Robert Klessig, getting the cows out of confined pens and away from piles of their own manure has other benefits as well.
R. KLESSIG: How do your feet feel when you stand on concrete for 12 hours after a hard day of work? Your joints hurt. Your knees hurt. Your ankles hurt. Now put 1500 pounds on the same surface area as your two feet, and then tell me how you'd feel.
CURWOOD: If I had to stand in poop.
KLESSIG: That's right. Their feet are always moist with urine and manure, and consequently, we run into a tremendous amount of hoof problems, sore joints. That's probably one of the leading causes of ending a cow's career on our farm is foot problems, foot and leg problems.
CURWOOD: Three years is the average life of a cow on a conventional, confinement dairy farm. Under the rotational grazing system the Klessig and Himmerel families expect cows to live twice as long, or more.
(Sound of footsteps in high grass)
CURWOOD : In a nearby pasture, some other bovines are also grazing, a herd of American bison, or buffalo.
R. KLESSIG: This is where the buffalo were. Everything is removed, looks like you went over it with a lawnmower. They were in this pasture for five days, okay, now I rotated them on another pasture across the creek over here. This pasture to the east of us here, they were also on for five days but it's been resting now for ten days, okay. You can see how it's re-growing.
CURWOOD: It's twice as high, and it's completely lush.
R. KLESSIG: That's right and that's what we're after. As the seasons go on and as the years go on, the pastures actually get better and better and better and better, and we know that on a productive pasture we can produce more forage than any cultivated crop, or any alfalfa crop and we never have to worry about it all dying out or freezing out in the wintertime, it's always there, it's the multispecies thing - something might have problems during the winter but there's going to be 6 or 8 other grasses that are gonna come through anyway. So I just wanted to point that out to you. What we can do now is go take a look at the buffalo.
(Sound of pickup truck, fade under)
CURWOOD: Even with the lower costs of rotational grazing, the economics of dairy farming are uncertain. So the Klessigs and Himmerels are diversifying their farm. They're looking to turn some of their milk into gourmet cheese, from which they hope they can make more money, and they've developed a small maple sugaring operation. And they're trying their hand at raising bison because their meat can be much more profitable to family farmers than cow's milk. Like the Holsteins, the buffalo, too, seem to thrive by munching on grass in the open air.
KLESSIG: Kind of interesting, in a natural environment, a buffalo will reproduce up into their 30's and early 40's. Sounds kind of strange for a farmer to hear of an animal that can give you a calf every year for thirty years. We're used to shipping them out when they're three and four. See they don't break down physically like a dairy cow does. I don't think we put the demands on them that we do. They just kinda eat and relax, eat and relax.
CURWOOD: But it's not just the domesticated animals which seem to like the Saxon Farm's new approach. With the turn to rotational grazing, the cows and buffalo have attracted flies and other insects to the fields, and the insects have brought birds. Lots of birds.
R. KLESSIG: In the morning I'll have 40 or 50 swallows hovering in and about these animals. And they'll eat two times their body weight in insects every day. Here in Wisconsin, we have 26 species of songbirds that are critically short of habitat. Primarily nesting habitat. With an intense row crop type of farming that most of us practice, we destroy that habitat. In the 50's and early 60's when we pulled our cows off of pasture, we began to use a lot of chemicals on our row crops, which pollutes the soil, the insects that the birds eat, the plant matter that the birds eat. And consequently, what happens is, they have unsuccessful nests and we wonder why we don't have any songbirds left. With a rotational grazing system, there's more wild areas that are allowed to stay wild on a farm operation and consequently, the bird numbers increase. And on our grazing operation, I'm dumbfounded as to the amount of wildlife that I see.
(Sound of footsteps through high grass)
CURWOOD: The birds attracted by the cows and buffalo; the cows and buffalo attracted by the grasses in the fields - it all comes back down to the soil, and what it's able to provide. And the Klessigs and Himmerels look at the soil as an integral part of their new approach to dairy farming. Jerry Himmerel says he doesn't want to repeat the mistakes of his family's ancestors on this farm, whose profitable wheat operation succumbed to poor land management.
HIMMEREL: It was a shortlived phenomenon because they took the nutrients that were there in the soil and they used them up and led into the dairy operations because they depleted the soils and allowed the insects and the diseases to come in behind it and ruin that fabulous money-making scheme.
CURWOOD: By growing grasses instead of row crops, and by letting the manure drop into the fields, the farm is constantly returning nutrients to the soil. And they're rotating the crops that they still do have to grow to be sure they don't deplete the soil. And there's always something growing on every inch of land. Everywhere you look here on the Saxon Farm, there's row upon row of grasses or crops, all waving in the wind, a sea of green. Jerry Himmerel intends to keep it that way: no plowed or open land is exposed and left to erode.
HIMMEREL: When that rain came last night, we got a half inch in about 30 minutes, nothing washed down. It didn't wash in from our soil. It didn't wash into Lake Michigan. It stayed here. The topsoil is what produces crops. And if we lose that it's gone. We can lose an inch in a short period of time, but they say it takes about 10,000 years of active sod to produce an inch of topsoil.
CURWOOD: Do you think farmers who stick with the conventional way of running a dairy farm, lots of chemical inputs, can they survive, both ecologically and economically in the years ahead or are they doomed?
HIMMEREL: In the short run they're not doomed, and I don't know that I would say that in the long run they're doomed. And in Wisconsin, we're losing about, if I'm not mistaken, it's one to two thousand farmers a year, dairy farmers that is, from not having a profitable operation, mostly. To start a farm, like a 50-cow operation, which would be a single-family operation, 200 acres, would take in this area, and it would take roughly a half million dollars of land and equipment to start that system. Which may return $20,000 to $25,000 income, if run well, to that family. Nobody's, few, few people want to start farming right now. But I think, and I sincerely believe, that grazing is going to show that this is an opportunity for young farmers to get into a system that's not going to tax their lifestyle completely and be tied to a cow's tail and all of the other things that come with it. And it'll show 'em, that hey, that agriculture does have some hope.
CURWOOD: For Jerry Himmerel and his family, agriculture here in Wisconsin does have new hope. Seven years ago, his father-in-law, Ed Klessig wanted to sell off the herds of cows and give up dairy farming for good. But a tearful wife and daughter reminded him that their souls were invested in this farm. And how could they sell what's taken so long to create? Ed decided to stick with it. Now, with the move to rotational grazing, Ed says that family members who had shown little interest in the farm five years ago are also deciding to stick around. Today, they feel they are doing what farming is all about: working with nature and the earth positively instead of just making payments. Jerry Himmerel thinks that satisfaction is immense and profound to all the members of the Klessig family.
HIMMEREL: We have to go out and manage in a different system and that management is challenging and that's fun. That new challenge is fun. The other thing is that you get out and you walk your soil. You walk your land. The other day I was down there with Robert. And here's a kingfisher. Boy, I haven't seen a kingfisher in a couple of years on this farm and earlier we saw a couple of blue herons. These are things that are very important to me. We see those things as very beneficial to our mental attitude towards life, our psychological well-being, I think.
(Sound of birds calling)
CURWOOD: For Jerry Himmerel, it's the soil, the wildlife, the challenge of making the farm work that keeps him here. For his father-in-law, it's insuring that the farm survives for the coming generations. Ed Klessig has a glimmer in his eyes as he talks about having his grown children back home, farming the land, raising what he hopes will be the sixth generation to take over the Saxon Homestead Farm he's fighting so hard to preserve and to protect.
KLESSIG: That land, all this land that's lost, isn't just our land, it's everybody's land and to lose, needlessly lose good farm land, which is probably the world's most valuable resource, we'll realize that as food becomes scarcer and the population continues to explode. Yah, it is. Farmlands are the most valuable resource the world has and we treat it like dirt, that's the tragedy, yah.
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