September 5, 2017 at 3:32 p.m.

Otter Creek Organic Farm focuses on efficiency

Midwestern BioAg field days aimed at helping others improve
Gary Zimmer, Otter Creek Organic Farm
Gary Zimmer, Otter Creek Organic Farm

By By Ron Johnson- | Comments: 0 | Leave a comment

AVOCA, Wis. - Efficiency is the name of the game at Otter Creek Organic Farm, Avoca, Wis.
The 280-cow operation of Gary Zimmer and his family is more than a farm. It's also the site of Midwestern BioAg's annual field day.
Zimmer, president of the company, noted that the field day has been held every summer for 21 years on the Iowa County farm that's just a few miles south of the Wisconsin River. Until this year, it was a one-day event that drew several hundred people from Wisconsin and surrounding states, plus other countries.
But this year the field day format was changed. It went from one day to two, with soils topics dominating the first day, and livestock and forages the focus the second day.
The change in format was all about improving efficiency. Said Zimmer, "We wanted more of a personal connection with the farmers - not just a big tent with lectures going on."
Zimmer said cost was also a factor. The one-day event began in the morning and ran well into the afternoon, so Midwestern BioAg provided a free lunch for the several hundred guests. This year's Aug. 23 soils field day drew a couple of hundred, while the Aug. 24 livestock session attracted fewer, according to Zimmer.
The drought last year was ugly, Zimmer said. Nevertheless, the farm managed to grow most of the feed it needed. Corn yields ranged between 116 and 170 bushels per acre. "For this half of the county, that was exceptionally good," Zimmer said.
A move aimed at boosting crop production efficiency was the addition of a center-pivot irrigation system earlier this year. Zimmer said the farm has been pumping out of Otter Creek, which cuts through the farm.
The rig can irrigate 80 acres. By the time of the field days, the farm had been applying 1.25 inches of water per week. Zimmer said the irrigated corn had grown so tall that the center pivot was bending the tops of the stalks when it turned.
Zimmer, a dairy nutritionist by education, said he has been surprises by some of the things he has learned from a irrigating. For example, pastures need twice the water that corn does. "I thought corn took the most moisture," Zimmer said.
Too much water - not a lack of it - was a problem this past spring. Otter Creek Farm has 1,000 acres of cropland and pasture. About 335 acres are devoted to corn for grain, with 80 more designated for corn silage.
As on many other farms, corn planting was delayed. "Oh, gosh. It was a struggle. We were panicking," Zimmer said.
The farm operates under the philosophy that any condition less than ideal at planting is not acceptable until June 1, Zimmer said. "Well, we started planting about June 2 around here, and it was pretty hectic. Rush, rush. Go, go."
After corn planting wrapped up, more rain fell. That prompted a move to loosen the packed soil.
"We had really good weed control, but the ground was tight," Zimmer said. "Our cultivator aerated that ground, or we wouldn't have corn that looks like it does today."
Zimmer is especially pleased with the corn that's in a field on slightly higher ground. This is the third year in a row that field has been in corn. It was supposed to be in barley, but the barley winterkilled.
"I'm dumbfounded by this corn on an organic farm," Zimmer said. "It's a green as grass and 10 feet tall. It's gorgeous, gorgeous corn."
One reason that corn is doing so well is Otter Creek Farm's use of what Zimmer calls biological farming. Biological farming is what Midwestern BioAg is all about.
Zimmer defines the concept thusly: "Biological farming is managing to maximize the life in the soil and make sure everything is mineralized." Agronomic crops, according to Zimmer, need some 20 minerals if they are to grow and yield to their potential.
That gorgeous corn he spoke so highly of is partly a result of the farm's heavy use of cover crops and manure. "That corn," he said, "didn't run out of gas. It didn't run out of nitrogen."
Thanks to the drought last year, Otter Creek's corn silage ranged from 12 to 18 tons per acre. This year Zimmer expects an average of 30 tons.
Otter Creek Dairy's quest for efficiency doesn't end in the fields. It continues in the barn.
The 280 milking cows are averaging approximately 16,000 to 18,000 pounds each, with the fat test at 3.5 percent and protein at 2.9 percent.
But Zimmer thinks he can make the herd more efficient. To that end, he is bringing into the Holstein herd New Zealand Friesian genetics. Zimmer said he has a friend who's an organic dairyman in Indiana, and his New Zealand Friesians are carrying a rolling herd average of 19,000 pounds.
"They're easier calving and smaller," Zimmerman said, of New Zealand Friesians. "I won't have to feed those big Holsteins, and I won't have all this different crossbreeding going on. But they'll still look like Holsteins."
For feeding and management efficiency, the farm has the milking herd divided into two groups. The top-producing 150 are fed a bit differently, but they all get a total-mixed ration plus pasture when it's available.
All the farm's milk is made into cheese at Cedar Grove Cheese, Plain, Wis. Some organic cheeses are produced, along with spring, summer, fall and winter cheddars and a bit of basil pesto cheese.
Zimmer bought the place that's used at Midwestern BioAg's research farm in 1991. In 1994, he purchased the place that's just across Highway 130. He took that farm, where the cows are milked, organic right away. He waited until 1999 to go organic with the research farm.
Asked about the toughest thing involved in transitioning a conventionally run farm to organic, Zimmer said, "I think it's getting your mind wrapped around a rotation and a system for success. See, one of my biggest fears about organic was, 'What about dry cow treatment? What about dry cow treatment?'"
Now, nearly 20 years later, he realizes that his concerns about dry cow treatment were largely unfounded. Fresh air for the cows, and good management help, Zimmer said, noting that the herd's somatic cell count (SCC) hangs around 100,000 in the winter and is about 170,000 at this time of year.
Zimmer believes in organic farming, but he said that method might not fit every farm. However, he said, "Biological farming is for everybody."
He said, "I don't ever claim that organic farming can feed the world and is for everybody. It's really hard and takes intensive management."
Biological farming, according to Zimmer, is somewhat flexible. It can fit on a conventional operation or one that is strictly organic.
"If you're an organic farmer and all you do is keep putting manure on, you're not biological," Zimmer said. "You're a low-input guy that takes what he gets."
Zimmer intends to keep aiming for more efficiency. He told his field day guests that the cost of running his farm - and just about any farm - keeps rising. He said Otter Creek Organic Farm once needed to generate $50,000 a month just to cash flow. Now that's risen to $85,000 per month and he sees it closing in on $90,000 a month.
There are two options, Zimmer said: "Milk more cows or get more efficient." Otter Creek Organic Farm is embracing the second choice.
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