Brandon Mann, Easement Stewardship Manager, interviews John Meyer about farming and soil health as a part of our Soil Health Initiative.
1. Why did you enter farming?
I got a degree in Agricultural Engineering with a soil and water conservation emphasis from UW Platteville in 1977. I worked for a public utility in farmstead electrification in SW Wis from 1977 to 1981. I grew up on a diverse farm and saw what successful farmers were doing and I thought I could do that. It’s a good place to raise a family and my in-laws were interested in selling out. The opportunity was there.
a. What is your evolution as a farmer?
We started out moldboard plowing and working the soil many times to prepare a seedbed. The second year we went to a chisel plow and offset disk and eliminated a lot of trips and saved soil and moisture by doing so. We ran a small dairy herd on shares at the start. From 1981 to 1996 we milked 45 to 50 cows annually. In ‘96 we acquired a 70-cow barn, and we eventually expanded our cow numbers to 110 on the 2 farms. We had strict crop rotations and 50% of our crops were alfalfa/grass mixes. We alternated strips of row crops with hay. We were among the first to officially adopt a nutrient management plan. Most of that plan we were already doing. Managing nutrients saves money and makes you more efficient. It also prevents runoff of valuable nutrients.
b. You seem to be adaptable and like a challenge.
I am able to put a pencil to decisions. Do a cost benefit analysis with a payback. Consider the soil too. Leave a good farm for the grandchildren.
c. How has that influenced how you farm?
An economic analysis allows me to put concrete values on most decisions. Some things are not measurable, so I take that into account too. Leaving the land better than you found it has value. My father-in-law told me that.
2. What management practices related to soil health/conservation are you using on your farm and why?
We always kept hay in our rotation, and we included grass for 30 years. The contour strips and hay strips conserves soil. Our son Jered has taken over the farm and the conservation practices also. He converted to 100% no till. The no till enhances soil conservation and greatly reduces carbon needs also. He reads and talks to others.
a. What changes have you observed in your soil since adopting those practices?
I believe the topsoil depth has improved, especially on the north farm which we purchased in 1996 (original farm was 1988). The north farm saves and holds water better and the topsoil is deeper.
3. Do you speak with other farmers who’ve adopted things like cover cropping, no-till, diversifying their crop rotations, or rotational grazing?
We did a fair amount of rotational grazing in 2015 when our son took a more active role, and it helps with the forage quality on maintains the stands of grass too. We consulted other farmers. We have since downsized the beef cow herd. Our son researched the no till practices with neighbors. We are considering cover crops. It will be especially needed if we move away from hay crops. In the past, we used winter wheat as an alternative crop. It works much the same as a fall planted cover crop. But it provides summer grain and straw while controlling erosion.
a. What do they have to say about it?
Most farmers are aware of the told in the toolbox. May will ask how it works for you, just as we have asked others the same question.
4. What are your thoughts on the intersection of weather extremes and farming?
I have witnessed the longer growing seasons and I adjusted the maturity of my chosen hybrids to take advantage of the longer growing season. We get better yields. We are not the hottest place in the US but we definitely see the changes in temps. There is no debate of the increase of degree days of heat. I will not debate the causes, but I accept the facts. I see the corn belt moving north. The problem with that is the rolling hills of the SW Wisconsin is not conducive to continuous row crops without adjustments in practices. Those adjustments are no till, cover crops, and staying on the contour.
5. What positive trends have you seen develop in agriculture?
I think economics dictates good conservation practices. What I have witnessed in 40+ years of farming is better conservation, and even larger farms embracing conservation. Large farms are doing cover crops, and no till. Farmers are using nutrient management plans and rotations of crops. Farmers hire professional services and scouting for pests. And even though GMO’s get a bad rap, GMOs have greatly reduced the reliance on chemicals and pesticides. I used to plant conventional seeds and used chemical protections. Then I wore a rubber suit in order to safely plant and apply chemicals. I do not need to do this anymore. Three grains of sand sized particles of pesticide could kill a person almost instantly. I am glad to see that need is gone.
To learn more about the Soil Health Initiative, click here to read an update from Brandon Mann.