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.
|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."
Moving cows between paddocks lets Liebaert inspect their condition. Small paddocks facilitate breeding because the bull is never more than 50 yards from a cow.
The system even protects cattle from predators. Although there are timber wolves in their area, "we have no predator losses," Liebaert says. "In small paddocks, wolves have to challenge the entire herd. And they like to watch a herd a couple days before they attack. By the time they get ready to attack our cows, the herd has moved."
Liebaert usually hays each pasture in the early spring, and then grazes it three times. With hay fields, he usually takes only one cutting. In the fall, he adds the hay fields to his pasture rotation to harvest the second crop.
But there are no hard and fast rules. "Sometimes, if pastures get ahead, we make hay," Liebaert says. "In a dry year, I may pasture a field instead of cutting it. We can pasture a hay field early and not hurt it because the forage has time to grow back."
Scissor-cut forage analyses typically range from 20% to 24% crude protein.
Hay and compost. The Liebaerts pasture cattle until about Dec. 1. Then they feed hay, in large round bales, near their farmstead.
The only exception to the Liebaerts’ all-forage ration is that calves get ¾ lb. to 1 lb. of grain per day in the winter. "They gain just as much without grain," Liebaert says. "But feeding grain gets them used to me and makes them easier to work with.
"Our one way of splurging is to let the cows waste some hay," he notes. "I feed one bale, then feed the next one in a different location, and the cows lay on the remains of the first bale. They have a dry place to rest, and we get some hay in our manure, for composting."
About 95% of the manure from the feeding area winds up in compost. "We push the manure into a pile in May, turn it one time and then spread the compost the following fall, after haying is
finished," Liebaert says. "By then, it looks like black dirt. By composting, there’s no risk of manure washing off the field, and it costs less to spread than raw manure."
The Liebaerts have direct-marketed their beef to area residents for about 20 years. Customers place reservations for quarters or halves more than a year in advance, and drive to the farm to pick up their meat. "People buy our beef because they like it and they know where it comes from," Liebaert says. "Some buy it because it is grass-finished, but others don’t even know. The butcher who processes our animals doesn’t know, either—he just says they have great fat cover."
Some of the Liebaerts’ management practices—such as applying no fertilizer or lime—go against traditional wisdom. But their success shows that every farm situation is unique.
Escaped Nutrients Threaten Water Supplies
The Liebaert family strives to prevent nutrients from their farm from reaching Lake Superior because that’s the watershed in which they farm. But their concerns about pollution, and the measures they take to prevent it, apply to farmers everywhere in the U.S.
As if the cost of fertilizer isn’t enough of a reason to keep nutrients at home where crops can use them, water pollution is equally important. Nitrogen (N) and phosphorus (P) leaving farm fields eventually make their way to water bodies, including the Gulf of Mexico.
In the Gulf, excessive nutrients stimulate the growth of algae. When algae decomposes, it creates a low-oxygen condition called hypoxia. If oxygen levels in the water fall too low, aquatic organisms can no longer live there. Hypoxic areas are often called "dead zones." The dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico is the second largest in the world.
While agriculture is not the only contributor of N and P, most experts agree that farming plays a role. Although efforts to reduce hypoxic areas so far have focused on voluntary conservation programs, calls for regulations on fertilizer use could arise down the road.