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Low-Tech Management Equals Big Benefits

September 29, 2012
By: Darrell Smith, Farm Journal Conservation and Machinery Editor
p46 Low Tech, High Reward 1
Rotational grazing is key to Mark and Cora Liebaert’s farm management system. Using electric fences, Mark creates about 45 paddocks for 50 purebred Angus cows and calves.  

Wisconsin producer's back-to-basics approach pays off for the farm and the environment

You don’t need all of the latest tools to be a good farm manager. Mark and Cora Liebaert’s beef operation in South Range, Wis., proves that point.

"We’re pretty low-tech," he describes. Low-tech is putting it modestly—the Liebaerts follow a well thought-out, back-to-basics management system that minimizes outside inputs and keeps nutrients from washing into water sources.

Two rivers that pass through the Liebaerts’ farm flow into Lake Superior. "Our goal is to have no nutrients leaving our farm," Liebaert says. "We know we’ll always have an impact on the environment, but we want to make it as small as possible."

The Liebaerts question whether each input is really needed and use forage efficiently through rotational grazing. As a result, they were named state Conservation Farmers of the Year in 2008. Recently, they were recognized as Upstream Heroes by the Conservation Technology Information Center (CTIC).

Our Upstream Heroes series salutes efficient nutrient managers who keep nutrients from leaving their farms. Nitrogen and phosphorus can travel into lakes and reservoirs, and even all the way down the Mississippi River to the Gulf of Mexico.

The Liebaerts raise about 50 purebred Angus cows, selling their offspring as yearlings for beef or as breeding stock. They feed almost exclusively forage—230 acres are devoted to hay and 133 acres to pasture. The same grasses and legumes grow in every field.

When the Liebaerts’ forage was analyzed as part of their state conservation award entry, eight species of grass were found. But the makeup of each field changes yearly, depending on rainfall and temperature. "In any given year, a field may contain birdsfoot trefoil, timothy, brome or red

clover. Canarygrass grows in the wet areas," Liebaert says.

p47 Low Tech, High Reward 2
To protect the scenic river that flows past Mark Liebaert’s farm, "Our goal is to have no nutrients leaving our farm," he says.

"Years ago, we tried to manipulate things more," he says. "Now we accept what’s out there."

Liebaert stopped reseeding fields after he realized seed was present in the soil and just waiting for the right weather conditions to germinate. Sometimes he lets his cows do some reseeding for him—if he sees a good crop of trefoil coming on, he modifies his grazing schedule, so there will be viable seed when cows graze it the second time. "After I move the cows, they reseed another area," he explains.

One study found the Liebaerts were producing hay for less than $30 per ton, including all costs.

Intensive grazing. Rotational grazing is the key to the Liebaerts’ system. Confining cattle in small paddocks for a short time forces them to eat all the forage that’s present before they move to a new area. Using single-strand electric fencing, Liebaert divides his land into about 45 paddocks, with portable water tanks in each paddock.

Moving cattle to a fresh paddock takes less than half an hour. "It’s as simple as opening a gate," Liebaert says. "The electric fences around each paddock remain in place year-round. I check the fence for deer damage, fix any problems and the fence is ready to go.

"We typically move cattle two times a day in the spring, and every two days when the forage is taller," Liebaert explains. "It depends what’s growing."

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FEATURED IN: Farm Journal - October 2012

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