Livestock Program Manager
Meghan Filbert joined Practical Farmers of Iowa in 2014 and brings a decade of experience in livestock production systems with her. Meghan oversees the livestock program, while focusing on grazing and pasture-based livestock production.
A native of Council Bluffs, Meghan studied animal science and international agriculture at Iowa State University and worked in the animal nutrition lab at the Henry Doorly Zoo in Omaha. She then attended graduate school at Cornell University in upstate New York focusing on livestock nutrition in developing countries. Meghan witnessed sustainable, low-input agriculture at work in many different parts of the world; lessons she continually applies today.
Prior to moving back to Iowa, she worked as an extension educator in the Catskill Mountains, where dairy farming is the backbone of rural communities. Meghan specialized in dairy calf health, manure management and water quality in NYC’s watershed. She’s able to apply her passion for grasslands, livestock integration and ecosystem health to her every day work at Practical Farmers.
Meghan raises a flock of hair sheep on a vegetable farm for soil fertility, vegetation management and meat. She’s a fanatic for all things dairy and foraging for wild mushrooms.
Over the span of two days, May 22 to 23, 2018, Garrin and Kristten Buttermore of Uncle G’s farm in Ogden, Iowa lost approximately 100 broiler chickens. The USDA promptly responded to this emergency and tested for bird flu since the birds were dying quickly and in large numbers. The bird flu results came back negative.
Upon further inspection, the birds had gnats in their throats and lungs. Garrin Buttermore suspects Buffalo gnats. The broilers received numerous gnat bites that resulted in an anaphylactic reaction. A veterinarian told Garrin the life cycle of gnats is about three weeks ending just about the time mosquitoes appear. This makes late May a critical time to watch for this issue. In other parts of the U.S., the gnats are killing larger livestock and deer.
Garrin shared his experience on the PFI livestock discussion list, and other members weighed in with similar stories. Terry LeDoux of Tipton experienced this years ago and says, “A strong breeze and darkness help hugely.” He recounts the birds pilling on each other as they tried to get away from the gnats. In response to the issue, Terry changed his broiler start date and doesn’t order chicks until the third week of May. By the time the chicks are done brooding, the Buffalo gnats are near the end of their cycle. “This has been a life saver for me,” said Terry.
Jim Jansen of Elkader says he has gnats every year because he’s close to the Turkey River. He’s learned a few lessons on how to protect his birds since he finds they aren’t good at avoiding gnats. Jim says, “The key is to provide indoor shelter. The smaller the opening into shelter the better. They are the worst when it is hot and humid – no wind. So will be forced to put a fan in shelter. You can also keep a fan on them where they feed and water.”
Brian Nowak-Thomson of Mount Vernon has found that using vanillin helps. Vanillin is extracted from vanilla beans or can be made synthetically. He boils about two tablespoons of vanillin crystals in water to dissolve it (noting it isn’t very soluble). He then dilutes the solution in a gallon of water and fills a small pump sprayer. About every two days, Brian sprays the chickens while they roost, and he also sprays the vents on his chicken wagon. Tom McDermott of Clinton gives his chickens access to tubs of diatomaceous earth and says the dust baths seem to help.
Our sixth field day, as part of our 2018 Cover Crop Caravan series, was hosted by Zak Kennedy on April 5 in Atlantic. Cover crops were greening up in southwest Iowa and 25 people came out to hear from Zak Kennedy talk about how he integrates cover crops into his cattle feeding operation. Zak, his wife Emily and brother Mitch, operate Kennedy Cattle Co., in Cass County, Iowa. They background cattle from all over the US and have found that using cover crops as a feed source provides profits, among other benefits. As a cattle farm first, and crop farmer second, the focus of this field day was on the livestock.
Crop crops and livestock pencil out
Zak first tried planting cover crops in 2012. Since then, he’s grazed them, chopped them and baled them. Over the years, he has grazed heifers, steers and cow-calf pairs on covers throughout the fall, winter and again in the spring. At times, he didn’t have to feed them anything other than the cover crops. This translates to money saved. Zak provided the group with numbers from grazing this last year.
– Zak turned out 125 steers weighing 850 pounds on 45 acres of cereal rye
– He didn’t feed them for 18 days, saving $2 per head per day
– This adds up to $250 dollars a day in savings, which equals $4,500 in savings over 18 days
– Cover crop seeding cost $25 per acre on 45 acres; which equals $1,125
– $4,500 in feed savings – $1,125 in seed costs = $3,375 savings
Our fourth field day, as part of our 2018 Cover Crop Caravan series, was hosted by Bill Frederick on April 3 in Jefferson. On this snowy day, 30 people gathered in Bill’s heated shop to hear from three young farmers who’ve had success integrating cattle into their cover crop systems. Bill, and his friends Dusty Farnsworth and James Holz, all farm in west-central Iowa and each have uniquely used cover crops and cattle to add value to their operations. Each farmer shared with the audience the environmental and economic benefits they’ve experienced.
Crop diversification & livestock integration create profits
Bill Frederick is a big proponent of grazing cover crops. He and his family operate a diverse farm, that includes small grains in addition to corn and soybeans. He harvests small grains in mid-summer, which provides a large window to grow additional forage that his cattle can graze in the late summer and fall. His mixes have included oats, turnips, kale, winter wheat, triticale and cereal rye. Bill uses a rate of 1 to 1.5 bushel per acre when seeding cover crops; a higher-than-normal rate because they will be used for grazing.
“Any time you don’t have to start a tractor and feed hay is a win in my book,” said Bill, while he explained that cover crops provide him grazing opportunities at times when he would normally be feeding hay. Bill figures it costs him $1.25 per head per day to keep a cow if he’s doesn’t have cover crops to graze. That figure can add up quickly. Using this figure for his 50 cows adds up to $1,875 per month. The last two years he’s grazed cover crops for 74 days each year – between September and May – which replaced $4,625 in winter feed each year. This number does not take into consideration the cost of cover crops and application, which costs Bill $25 per acre. The discussion of hay prices came up and attendees unhappily shared that hay is selling for $120 to $160 per ton currently. This makes the prospect of saving on hay even more attractive.
“We started planting cereal rye because it was easy to calve in. Now, most all of our covers are grazed as a way to justify the costs,” said Mark Schleisman, of Lake City. Cover crops that are grazed have value, but how much value? A three-year PFI research project, initiated in 2015, helped quantify this value by putting a price tag on the forage produced by cover crops. For three cow-calf producers in northwest Iowa, the practice of grazing cover crops, combined with cost-share funding, provides positive economic returns within the same year the cover crops were planted.
Wesley Degner, of Lytton; Bill Frederick, of Jefferson; and Mark Schleisman seeded cover crops of their choosing with the intention of grazing the forage produced. Farmers kept grazing records in order estimate the amount of dry matter cattle received from the cover crop. This dry matter was then valued at $80 per ton – a conservative value considering that hay is currently selling for $130 per ton.
All revenues and costs were then considered in order to complete an economic analysis. Read the full report here: Economic Impact of Grazing Cover Crops in Cow-Calf Operations
Two years of monitoring birds on a central Iowa farm has shown that rotationally grazed pastures support threatened bird species. Properly managed pastures, grazed by a herd of grass-fed cattle, created a desirable habitat for grassland birds, which were attracted the pasture’s mix of short and tall vegetation. Some bird species, such as the bobolink and grasshopper sparrow, seemed to prefer these pastures over a nearby prairie conservation area.
Since 2016, farmer Bruce Carney of Maxwell, Iowa has been working with researchers from Drake University to conduct bird counts to better determine the effects of grazing on bird conservation.
Read the full report here: Monitoring Birds in Rotationally Grazed Pasture, 2017 Update
Dave and Meg Schmidt operate a diverse livestock farm, Troublesome Creek Cattle Co., in Exira IA; raising grass-fed and finished cattle and sheep, pigs and poultry. Feeding the 100% grass-fed cattle herd over the winter is a great expense, so they have experimented with feeding different forage sources- hay, cover crops, crop residue and stockpiled pasture to minimize costs. Hay is the most expensive forage to feed during the winter, so the Schmidt’s were curious how the could extend their grazing season and decrease the amount of hay they have to feed.
The full Practical Farmers’ Research Report is now available.
This research was conducted during the non-growing, winter seasons, from 2013 to 2017. The Schmidts recorded the movement of animals through different lots and pastures, tracked weights on a monthly basis, and noted the amount and value of feed consumed. Monitoring began when animals finished the normal summer grazing and moved to winter crop fields or stockpiled pastures – approximately November through the end of April.
Cover crop grazing
Cereal rye, wheat, hairy vetch and/or oats were planted three out of the four years, for the purpose of grazing during the winter. Table 1 shows seeding records and costs. In 2013-2014 and 2014-2015, cover crops were aerially seeded by a neighbor. In 2016-2017, cover crops were drilled by Dave.
Stockpiled forage in the pastures was comprised of orchardgrass, red clover, smooth brome grass, tall fescue and Kentucky bluegrass. Generally, the Schmidts stopped grazing pastures in August in order to grow enough to stockpile for winter.
The percentage of hay consumed by the cattle herd during each non-growing season is shown in Figure 1. The remainder of the herd’s ration was fulfilled by a mix of cover crops, crop residue and stockpiled pasture, depending on the year. Herd size is listed in animal units (AU) which equate to 1,000 pounds of animal.
During the winters of 2013-2014 and 2014-2015, cover crops and crop residue provided almost half of the winter feed needs for the herd. During the winter of 2015-2016, the most hay was fed, because the farmers were not able to plant cover crops the season prior. The least hay was fed in 2016-2017, due to a combination of grazing stockpiled pastures along with cover crops and crop residue.
Growing animals were weighed approximately once a month. The weights nearest the beginning and end of the winter feeding period were used to figure average weights and average daily gains (ADG). “Last year [2016-2017] was our first time with significant stockpile grazing and the finishers are the heaviest we’ve ever had them at this point in time. We were able to dramatically reduce the amount of time the cattle were fed hay in the lot – roughly early February to mid April. Perennial stockpile really pays because we can graze it shorter to the ground when it’s dormant, so animal days per acre go way up” stated Dave.
Utilizing diverse winter forage sources allowed the Schmidts to feed less hay, increase the size of their herd and save money. The Schmidts concluded that incorporation of stockpiled pasture is necessary to decrease costs and work towards their goal of only feeding hay for one month per year. To see a detailed cost comparison and to read more about calf and feeder weight gains over each winter, read the full report here.
“We should be able to graze stockpiled annual and perennial pasture well into December. When that feed source is gone we will feed baleage; wrapped oats that were cut at flowering and wrapped alfalfa and orchardgrass. Once that’s gone we’ll have to buy dry hay.” Dave and Meg hope these research results aid other farmers when deciding how to extend their grazing season and cut winter feed costs.
A group of farmers traveled to Ohio in August to spend a day at Dave Brandt’s farm. This blog accompanies the article in the Autumn 2017 Practical Farmer “Members Reflect on Lessons Learned in Ohio.”
By Sally Hertz Gran
In this reflection, I will be highlighting some of the topics we dug into during the trip including crop rotation, seed selection (coatings and genetics), enterprise diversification, grazing cover crops, and how to engage more farmers in regenerative farming practices.
Stefan and Meghan came prepared with activities to keep us occupied on the long bus ride, including a challenging game of Ohio trivia. Many of us were surprised to learn that soybeans are Ohio’s #1 crop. Shortly after arriving at Dave’s farm on Friday morning, we learned why—soybeans are not only commonly double cropped, with two harvests in the same calendar year, but some Ohio farmers grow continuous soybeans year after year.
This was the case for the first field the hayrack stopped at on Dave’s farm, in Carroll, Ohio. It had been in continuous soybeans for 25 years until just three years ago when Dave began leasing it. Prior to European settlement when most of Iowa was an ocean of densely-rooted prairie, Ohio was part of the eastern deciduous forest, which means that their soils are naturally higher in clay and lower in organic matter than Iowa soils. In the yellow clay of the recently formerly continuous soybean field, Dave increased the organic matter from 1% to 1.7% in just three years by implementing an extended rotation, planting cover crops, and practicing no-till. The three-year framework of this rotation (corn-cover-beans-small grain-cover) is applied throughout his entire farm.
Untreated Seeds, Seed Genetics
In order to cut costs, Dave plants untreated, non-GMO seed. He says that seed coatings do not provide any benefit after a few years of building healthy soil biology. One reason the Brandt family does not need seed coatings: they plant later in the spring to “let the cover crops run”, and gain a lot of biomass ahead of planting corn or soybeans. Warmer soil temperatures favor healthy crops, and help avoid conditions that would promote fungal disease.
One intriguing juxtaposition on modern vs. older seed genetics is that while Dave appreciates the recent breeding achievements of short-season varieties, he is also working in collaboration with Spectrum Seeds to breed from 1980s-era genetics. The characteristics they are breeding for from these older genetics include bigger root systems, more flexible and larger ears, upright leaves, and nematode resistance.
Visit to Berry Family Farm, Pleasantville, Ohio
Next, we visited Berry Family Farm (est. 1811), where Brad Berry and his family have 30 head of cattle, pigs from seven sows, 100 laying hens, and each summer raise six batches of 200 meat chickens, in addition to growing non-GMO crops in an extended rotation. We learned about the operation, its marketing strategy, and challenges of managing such a diverse farm. In addition to seeing the livestock, we were excited to see the diverse cover crop mixes in the ground, which were purchased from the Brandt’s seed company, Walnut Creek Seeds. We compared the nitrogen fixing nodules on the sunn hemp vs. soybeans vs. cow peas (all of the soybeans had strong nodules, but it appeared that the sunn hemp had not been quite as easy to inoculate).
In addition to learning about Berry Family Farm, Brad’s enthusiasm for Practical Farmers of Iowa really brought home just how unique and groundbreaking our organization is. Brad explained that he has been learning from Practical Farmers publications and Farminars for several years, and was shocked and humbled when he learned we would be visiting his farm. In particular, he mentioned the PFI videos on small grains, and that PFI materials are the only place he has been able to learn about succotash—growing field peas, oats, wheat, and barley together as feed for livestock. He even furnished a 1992 issue of The New Farm Magazine of Regenerative Agriculture that featured Tom and Irene Frantzen’s pastured pig operation.
It starts with hard times, community engagement
On the last evening of the trip, we met up with Dave and Jay at the Olive Garden next to our hotel for a meal and continued conversation. I asked, “Since scientific evidence doesn’t motivate people to adopt better practices, what do you think will?” He replied, “hard times”, and shared two anecdotes from his own life.
Early in his farming career, not long after his father had been killed in a tractor roll-over accident, a landowner had decided to drop him for another tenant who offered a higher rental rate. His banker encouraged him to pare down his farming equipment to the basics—a planter, sprayer, and a combine. Hard times forced him to go no-till, and also brought about an interest in cover crops as a way to reduce nitrogen input costs.
Next, Dave shared a story of transformation that began outside of his farm, and changed the way a generation of local youth have been educated. Not long ago, tractor vandalism was a major problem for farmers in the area, and any tractor parked within 1000 feet of a road was at risk. At one point, the Brandt family had incurred $10,000 of damage when their tractor’s windows were knocked out and the stereo system was stolen.
After they had resolved the issue with the three responsible youths (by way of hard farm labor), Dave contacted the two local FFA chapters and began bringing students onto his farm for tours. In an area with so much urban development, the vast majority of FFA students did not grow up on farms. Then, Dave discovered that the school districts owned farm land, and helped the students begin farming it themselves—creating a farm plan, planting, and combining the crops, with each student taking a single pass behind the wheel of the tractor. In the subsequent years, tractor vandalism has disappeared.
For me, one of the greatest benefits of the trip was the opportunity to spend an extended time with other PFI farmers of diverse experience levels and cropping systems. It also gave some of us who don’t usually take a vacation in the summer the chance to explore a new place–sample a farmers market from the other side of the table, tour a restored wooden waterwheel mill and climb a loch of the Ohio-Erie canal.
It was intriguing to learn about unexpected region-specific market forces that differ from ours in Iowa. For example, the market for straw is strong because of mushroom production and strip mining. On the other hand, the market for hay is not good because of a lack of cows and large beef processing facilities. Another major point of fascination was that the Brandts do not experience hail, due to the firing of a locally-drilled natural gas-fueled “hail cannon” on a neighboring apple orchard when conditions are perilous.
Seeing how hard the Brandt family and their grazing neighbors have worked to invigorate their soil was a strong motivator to protect the richness that we often take for granted in Iowa. As we experienced on the visit to Gabe Brown’s farm in North Dakota, the keys to building healthy soil (minimum disturbance, living roots, diversity, and keeping the soil covered) are adapted to, rather than limited by geographic region. The Brandt family’s work to further the breeding of crops that are adapted to a low-input, regenerative system and diversify enterprises rather than expand their land base gave all of us PFI farmers quite a bit to mull over as we deliberated how to make our own farming systems more regenerative on the long bus ride home.
“Land is like our checking account – we can’t take out more than we put in,” said Jamie Hostetler, to an audience of 165 people at his field day in September. Jamie and his family operate a grass-fed beef farm, raising Red Devon cattle and specializing in seed stock production. The cattle are rotationally grazed and managed in a way to “nurture life above the soil and below the soil” explained Jamie, who strives to produce the highest quality meat while simultaneously regenerating the soil.
Rolling Meadows Farm, located in Bellevue, is aptly named – made up of 300 acres of hilly pastures. Before the Hostetlers moved the farm in 2010, from Rock Falls, Illinois, most of the farm was planted in corn. In the fall of 2010, Jamie chisel plowed the corn. The following spring he disked, harrowed, cultivated and cultipacked before planting a pasture mix. The mix was a Newman Turner blend with a number of different grasses and forbs – including white clover, birdsfoot trefoil, ryegrass, brome, chicory, plantain, orchardgrass and tall fescue.
The cattle destined for finishing are rotated to a fresh paddock every 12 hours, fenced in with one electrified strand of high tensile fence. Jamie and his sons have perfected this routine and it only takes them five minutes to do this. By moving this frequently, the cattle are consuming the most nutritious parts of the plant and leaving lots of plant residue behind – which is beneficial for soil cover and plant regrowth. By grazing this way, Jamie is optimizing the omega-3 fatty acids in the meat, preventing parasites from becoming an issue and controlling flies. His cattle gain an average of 1.5 pounds per day. After grazing, pastures are rested for 35 to 50 days.
Cattle are supplemented with loose mineral from Wick’s Livestock Nutrition in Nebraska that’s spiked with selenium yeast, iodine (for pink eye prevention), copper and manganese. It’s fed free choice, in a three-compartment feeder that sits in a truck tire with eye bolts used to haul the feeder around pastures. Also included in the feeder is kelp, Redmond’s salt and Redmond’s conditioner, a clay-base product that pulls toxins out which Jamie uses because of chemical residues from when the farm was producing corn. Jamie’s land is certified organic.
Jamie has been experimenting with drilling annual species, such as sorghum sundangass, into perennial pastures using a Plant-O-Vator, which combines strip tillage and drilling in one pass. These annual species are grazed when his cool-season pasture species are slumping in the summer. “My limiting factor [in the cattle’s diet] is energy, and I plant sorghum sudangrass to try to introduce more energy then protein,” said Jamie. Grass fed meat can taste gamey if the protein content of the ration is too high.
Winter Forage Management
Doug Petersen, NRCS regional soil health specialist, discussed the principles of soil health and demonstrated how differently managed soils act during a rain event – showing the ability of properly grazed pastures to hold water and prevent run off. Doug also addressed winter feed management though haying versus stockpiling pastures.
Firstly, it’s necessary to do the math to figure out how many pounds of forage you’ll need standing in order to get through the non-growing season. In order to set aside enough stockpile to get through winter, you may not be able to hay everything that you’re used to haying. This means that spring pasture manipulation, such as clipping, may be needed to keep forage in a vegetative state longer into the season. When Doug ran the numbers for his own farm in northern Missouri, he figured it would cost him the same to contract graze cattle for six months as it would to purchase the hay needed to feed those cows – so letting cows harvest the grass instead of baling the grass was the obvious answer for him. Doug recommended this video, I Sell Water and Sunshine, for a closer look into his system.
Grass Fed Genetics
Jamie raises Red Devons for the breed’s ability to convert grass to meat efficiently. He says they have a good intramuscular fat score, which represents marbling in the meat. The grain in the meat is smaller than other cattle breeds, which contribute to tenderness. He selects his cattle for meat quality and meat volume.
Jamie learned linear measurement from Gerald Fry and discussed measuring a cows heart girth and topline with the group. He likes to see cattle with a deep heart girth, wide rumps and flanks, full from the shoulders all the way back, and a head even with the top of the body. Jamie says you can gain a 20% increase in feed efficiency in a cow that is built right verses a cow that’s not.
At the time Red Devons are ready for market, they weigh 1350 pounds, with an 800 pound carcass weight. This works out to a 58% live weight yield. On average, the carcass yields 64.5% meat. At slaughter, cattle average 24 months old, but this can vary between 20 and 28 months. Jamie’s cattle are finished when they have a full pocket between the hip and pin bones, there’s a roundness in the rump and the brisket is full (the brisket fills last).
“Get in front of an economic bubble and cater to niche markets,” said Jamie. That economic bubble is grass fed beef. All of the grass fed and finished meat produced at Rolling Meadows Farm is direct marketed. Word of mouth is their greatest marketing tool, “Our customer is our best source of new customers,” explained Jamie.
He charges $3.50 per pound hanging weight and the customer pays the processing fees. They’ve maintained this price for over five years. The Hostetlers process their cattle at Andover Meat Inc. “We believe it’s the healthiest beef we know how to raise and to feed our own families,” concluded Jamie.
Thank you to the Hostetler family for opening up their farm and preparing an outstanding lunch! Thanks to Lori Schnoor from Jackson County NRCS and Doug Peterson, regional NRCS soil health specialist for the soil demonstrations. Thanks to our field day sponsors: Iowa Farmers Union, Prairie Creek Seed and Welter Seed & Honey Co.
“Give ’em some grass, water, and salt,” says Russ Wischover, “And cash the check at the end of the year. That’s my kind of livestock!” Russ, who farms in in Bedford, just north of the Missouri border, has converted his farm into pastureland over the last six years. He’s a proponent of using very little infrastructure and raises livestock best suited to his extensive farming management.
Russ purchased his farm in 2007 and at that time it was partly cropped by a tenant farmer and partly in the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP). When Russ permanently moved to the farm, the fields weren’t planted back to corn or soybeans and he started seeing grasses come up in the bare areas. Feeding purchased hay and bale-grazing “really woke the ground up” to the extent that desirable perennial species became prevalent. Grazing the former CRP ground helped also helped revive his land, and now fifty species of native prairie plants can be identified on his farm.
Russ raises lesser known breeds of livestock, known for their ability to perform well on grass and low-maintenance traits. Russ raises Murray Grey Cattle which are genetically Black Angus with two dilution genes, resulting in a grey cow with black skin. The dark skin lessens the risk of skin cancer. Russ noted that Murray Grey cattle are non-aggresive animals. Russ’s bull is a Murray Grey crossed with a Mashona Beefmaster. His sheep herd is comprised of 95 St. Croix ewes, which are hair sheep. They naturally shed their hair coat, therefore don’t need shearing and are known for their resistance to internal parasites.
“Anything that’s eating grass is run together – except the intact males,” said Russ when explaining his grazing system. Cattle and sheep graze in the same group, rotating through all 120 acres of his farm. He strives for a 45 to 60 day rest period after grazing. Both his cattle and sheep predominantly eat forage year-round, with the exception being some supplemental soybean meal if their hay tests less than 6% crude protein. Russ made the decision to cut out grain after becoming an avid reader of The Stockman Grass Farmer magazine.
Russ doesn’t vaccinate or de-worm his livestock, nor did he have to treat for pink eye this year. Generally, ram lambs and bull calves are not castrated and are sold intact. If he does decide to castrate select males, he uses a Burdizzo clamp. He notches ears instead of using ear tags. He quite forcing youngstock to wean a couple years ago – letting cows wean their calves, “Raising calves is the cow’s job, and that includes weaning.”
For Russ, sheep have proven to be more profitable than cattle. He’s been able to add one ewe per cow without adding any acres to his existing pastures and says sheep can be raised on 25% less land than is needed for cattle. “I think sheep are underrated as far as livestock startup,” said Russ, “They’re so much more efficient cost-wise for beginners.” For more on Russ’s thoughts on sheep as an entry way into farming, listen to his On-Farm Podcast. A field day attendee asked why he has cows, “Cows have some pasture management advantages since they’re non-selective graziers and have a big foot,” answered Russ. Both cattle and sheep provide different ecological benefits and Russ said, “I don’t have any weeds because it’s all feed!”
Russ generally sells his livestock at the auction in Maryville, Missouri. He doesn’t finish his cattle – they are sold at 10 to 11 months old at 550 pounds. His lambs are sold the first week of December to the ethnic holiday market for $2/pound. Considering his only input is forage, marketing at the auction is profitable for Russ.
Watering and Fence System
The Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) installed an electric water pump that pulls from a pond on Russ’s property. Russ used a publication titled Watering Systems for Grazing Livestock to design a system that would pump water 60 feet uphill to different paddocks, figuring he needed 2.1 pounds of pressure per foot of water pipe. His has a four foot deep hydrant that doesn’t freeze, but he has to break ice in individual water tanks when it’s cold out. “Low- tech systems mean low-investments, but low-input means high-labor,” explained Russ.
As for fencing, Russ uses four strands of Polybraid electric fence made by Powerflex. He’s still using the same fence and Stafix energizer he purchased in 2011, noting the high quality of both products. He also retrofitted a two-wheeled dolly to transport his energizer and solar panel from pasture to pasture. He recommends replacing the original dolly wheels with 12 to 26 inch wheels in order to wheel through tall vegetation and over bumps.
Mary Damm, a prairie ecologist, spent the days leading up to the field day walking Russ’s land and identifying plants. She created a list of at least fifty species growing in what was CRP ground for thirty years. Russ took the land out of CRP so he could graze it, and has seen more diverse species start to come back, many of which are Iowa natives. Mary told the crowd about prairie plants impressive root systems – 2/3 of the plant grows below the ground, while 1/3 can be seen above ground. As she spoke, attendees picked plants and asked her to identify them. While we stood around, we found prairie cord grass, native Iowa thistles (which can be identified by leaves with white undersides), asters, needle grass, partridge pea, heal-all, dodder, agrimony and others. While we stood in the wild pasture, we could hear bobwhite quail singing.
Fred Provenza and his research on grazing behavior was mentioned as farmers discussed what livestock have preferences for. Mary said cows don’t like needle grass. Mary referenced literature from the early 1900’s that mentions grazing of native Iowa prairie.
An added bonus of the field day was witnessing the solar eclipse! The skies darkened and the crickets came out mid-day, while we viewed a partial eclipse between clouds.
Thank you to Russ Wischover for opening up his farm and to Mary Damm for traveling to join us. Thanks to the field day sponsors: Taylor County Soil and Water Conservation District, Premier One Fence, and Welter Seed & Honey Co.
In mid-August, 60 people visited Lost Lake Farm to learn about one of Iowa’s newest dairies. Kevin and Ranae Dietzel built a milking parlor and cheesery in 2016 – where 21 cows are milked and where that milk is turned into artisan cheese. “We make cheese to add value to milk on the farm,” said Kevin, who explained that adding value is necessary to make this small-scale, grass-fed operation profitable.
Kevin got his start making cheese when he and Ranae raised one dairy cow that produced far too much milk than they could drink. Kevin experimented at home, which lead him to take cheese-making courses in Vermont and Wisconsin, fueling his dream of becoming a dairy farmer. Eventually, Kevin and Ranae found a farm outside of Jewell, IA to establish their dairy.
Lost Lake Farm is named after Lake Cairo, which was a 1,500 acre lake that was drained at the turn of the century to turn into agriculture land. The farm is situated around the ancient lake bed, which is comprised of Blue Earth soil and contains high amounts of carbon. This land once was a reed-collecting route and campground for the Meskwaki Indians.
The dairy herd is comprised of several breeds – Brown Swiss, New Zealand Friesian, Normandy and Jersey crossbreds. Kevin is happy with the performance of his cows and plans on narrowing down his genetic diversity over the next 20 years. In early August the herd was milking, on average, 17 pounds per cow. Since the milk is turned into cheese, the protein content of the milk is what matters, not the amount of fluid milk produced. Cows are milked once per day, as a result of labor constraints, but eventually Kevin would like to milk twice a day. Calves are left on their mothers for three months, which makes once a day milking possible, since some of that milk is going straight into the calves when cows are making the most milk.
Cattle are forage-fed year round; they graze a mix of perennial and annual forages and eat hay and baleage over winter. Kevin has experimented with annuals such as sorghum-sudan grass and cowpeas and has seeded strips of festulolium, meadow brome, orchard grass, meadow fescue, white and red clover, alfalfa, forage chicory and birdsfoot trefoil – all which are grazed and made into baleage, depending on growth. Kevin practices what he calls “management intensive flex grazing,” moving cattle every 12 hours, and resting pastures for 21 to 42 days. With only 21 cows, “we’re not exactly mob grazing because we don’t have the number of cows needed,” explained Kevin. Watch the clip below to see cows moved from an alfalfa field to a sorghum-sundan grass field.
To keep grass in a vegetative state, Kevin thinks, “In the future I will make hay on about 1/3 of the pastures in the first rotation or use custom grazing for 1 to 2 months in early spring, if there are animals in the area to be custom grazed.” Kevin adds, “I have read and heard many people talk about “grazing tall”, where the animals graze through quickly, just biting off the tops of the grass, then the grass re-grows from that point. In my experience, this just makes the grass head out faster, and leaves more of the less desirable grasses ungrazed. I think grazing tall can work, if the pasture is clipped or there is a second herd following the lactating herd that can graze or trample it down further.” Next year he wants to implement a leader-follower system when milkers graze first, followed by youngstock, heifers and dry cows. This would eliminate the need for clipping and save fuel and time. Kevin prefers to use cows over tractors.
Cheese is made two to three times per week, and each time it’s a 23 hour process that starts at 3:30 in the morning. The high quality grass-fed milk and hard work that’s put into it can be tasted in their cheese – a provolone style called Ingrid’s Price, and fresh mozzarella and curds. Kevin is currently perfecting his recipe for alpine style cheeses and camembert, which will be available for purchase later this year. For a detailed description of the cheese making process, listen to Kevin’s interview with PFI staffer Nick Ohde in an On-Farm podcast.
Part of what imparts flavor in their cheeses are the biodynamic farming principles Kevin and Ranae follow. These principles guide farmer’s thinking to focus on the farm as one organism and Kevin says that following these principles helps capture the quality and complexity of the flavor of the milk. Through artisan cheese, Kevin is able to create a product that embodies terroir – “the taste of place.”
The four hour field day gave attendees a chance to see cattle moved to a new pasture, the milk parlor, the cheesery and share a delicious potluck lunch. After we left, Kevin realized he didn’t have enough time to talk about important aspects of their journey to becoming a certified dairy and cheesery. Here he shares those thoughts:
Business and marketing
Kevin and Ranae took a non-traditional angle in securing money to make this dream come true. They took loans from individuals, as well as from two different business development organizations. “We organized our company as an LLC so that we could take on investors. This took time and lawyer fees to accomplish. The advantage is that we got startup funds without a requirement to pay back debt. The disadvantage is that, should we become profitable, we must share those profits. We will have to buy out the investors in the future if we want to own 100% of the company – but presumably their shares will be worth more in the future than they initially bought in at, so the tradeoff is in profit sharing and having to pay for the capital gains we have created. Without it we would not have been able to get the cheese business off the ground,” explained Kevin.
In regards to their marketing plan, Kevin said “Our plan was to start with mostly direct marketing, but as the timing worked out, we started having cheese to sell in the fall when most of the direct marketing options were slowing down. This meant that we moved toward selling in retail stores more quickly than initially planned, which is good for having fairly stable sales numbers and being able to move product, but not great for margins since we get a wholesale price when we sell to stores. We are continuing to work every day to increase sales on all fronts. Most of our direct market sales are through farmers’ markets, which are great but time-consuming.”
Profitability and cash flow
Kevin offered insight to other beginning farmers. “We made a very thoroughly-researched and -calculated business plan and had many people review it. Most said it was the best, most thorough plan they had ever seen. Despite that, our first year has been a real eye-opener: production and sales have been more time-consuming and lower than projected, and expenses have been consistently quite a bit higher than projected. This is discouraging, to say the least. Let this be a warning to other beginning farmers still in the planning phase.“
Working with custom operators
“We are short on both time and capital, so spending money on farm equipment and time on operating (and repairing) that equipment is not feasible at this point in our business startup. We are lucky to have neighbors who are willing to help out when needed. Usually the prices we pay are based on the Iowa Farm Custom Rate Survey. A few times we have exchanged for helping out with something they needed help on.”
Kevin continued, “The advantage is this saves us time and the need to come up with the money to purchase equipment. The disadvantages are: we have less control over how things are done and when they get done. Despite paying market rates for the service, our small scale means it is still mostly a favor from them, and they have a lot of other work to do for their own field operations. Sometimes hay doesn’t get done in a timely manner because they are doing hay elsewhere, and the next good haying weather window is several weeks later, so our quality ends up not great.”
Thank you to the Dietzel family for opening up their farm and also thanks to Organic Valley and the field day sponsors: Hamilton County Soil and Water Conservation District, Iowa Farmers Union, Welter Seed & Honey Co., Wheatsfield Co-op, and Town & Country Insurance.