September 5, 2017 at 3:32 p.m.
Jack, whose family milks 520 cows near Cashton, Wis., noticed something disturbing in that sloping cornfield on his Monroe County farm: many small ditches a few inches wide and a couple of inches deep. They were "rill" erosion.
"I thought I was doing the best I could with contour strips and chisel plowing. But it wasn't good enough. I needed to do something different or this farm was going to be washed away," Jack said.
Since then, Jack has done something different. In fact, his efforts have led to him and his wife, Pat, and their family, being nominated for the Leopold Conservation Award. Their Herricks Dairy Farm, Inc., is one of four farms in Wisconsin in the running for the honor that's named for conservationist Aldo Leopold.
Jack has an appreciation for soil conservation efforts that are rooted in the contour strips his father and grandfather put in during the 1940s. The alternating bands of alfalfa and corn that wrap around the hillsides still leap out in the many aerial photographs that adorn the walls of Jack's office.
The farm has grown to 1,200 owned and rented crop acres, and all the corn is seeded no-till, something Jack began in 1985, after noticing that menacing rill erosion. He has carried no-till over to all the farm's alfalfa seedings, too.
In addition, grass waterways and grade stabilization structures help keep soil on the farm's hills, whose steepness ranges from five to 12 percent. Jack said the place has just 20 acres that are not considered highly erodible.
The Herricks farm gained "century" status last year, but the early ancestors would hardly know the place today. A photograph from 1912 shows the way the land was once farmed - plow furrows running straight up and straight down the hills, providing convenient concourses for soil-eroding rainwater and melting snow to travel.
Jack and his family have developed what he calls "a whole method of farming" that's designed to keep the soil in place and even improve it.
They routinely plant rye as a cover crop after corn silage has been chopped. The rye protects the otherwise-bare soil from the powerful impact of raindrops.
Meanwhile, applying countless tons of semi-solid dairy manure, Jack thinks, has boosted the farm's organic matter a whole percent.
Doing that is no easy feat, according to the experts.
But as evidence, Jack said, "This soil has a darker color and more tilth than it's ever had."
And the soil is productive. Jack said the farm fed 1,150 cattle last year off 1,200 acres, and there was still enough corn silage left to be able to sell a thousand tons.
It might sound odd, but the Herrickses have just three weeks' worth of manure storage. They'd like to build more, but their buildings are quite close to bedrock, so excavating would be expensive and difficult.
They could build storage atop a hill. But Jack worries that the sand they use for bedding would eat up the pumps needed to move the manure. Instead, the family stores manure is an above-ground tank and applies some every 10 days or so.
That makes for a lot of labor over a year's time. But Jack noted an advantage: They don't apply much manure at a time. That, in turn, means there isn't all that much to run off when rain falls or snow melts.
Jack said his family's system of manure management must be working. At one time, the farm was in a priority watershed that leads to the Middle Fork of the Kickapoo River. The Herricks farm lies at the top of the Brush Creek Watershed and is home to more cattle than are on the rest of the farms in the watershed put together, according to Jack.
Nevertheless, a biologist from the University of Wisconsin-Madison walked the creek two years ago and deemed it a "Class III trout stream with active trout reproduction," Jack said. A dozen years earlier, the same biologist examined the creek and declared it "dead" as far as trout were concerned, the farmer added.
These days, Jack and Pat's children - Angie, Nathan and Daniel - carry on the conservation ethic as integral parts the family farm. All three are married and raising their own families and have given Pat and Jack six grandchildren.
Jack, 60, calls himself the "organizer" of the whole operation, while Pat dives into everything from tending wet calves to helping with fieldwork and fixing meals during the busy planting and harvesting seasons. She's a hands-on farm woman, Jack said, adding, "If you'd see her now, you'd probably see some poop on her coveralls."
Angie, the oldest of the Herricks children, is the assistant herdsman, handles the finances and fills in with lots of "behind-the-scenes work," according to her dad. Nathan takes care of the heifers after they come back to the farm at six months old, and also handles the breeding and herd health work. Daniel is the herdsman and chops most of the forage.
The farm has 10 full- and part-time employees, including two of Jack's nephews. This team of family members and nonfarm employees has Holstein and Holstein-Jersey-Brown Swiss cows with a herd average at approximately 25,900 pounds of milk on three-times-a-day milking. The fat test is 4 percent, while the protein is at 3.4 percent.
As a quality milk incentive, the farm pays each employee a $50 cash bonus every month the SCC comes in under 150,000. That bonus potential, Jack said, encourages people to do things like notify someone if a cow seems a bit ill, or if a flake or two is found in her milk.
Jack is clearly satisfied that the farm has been able to support Pat and him, along with allowing the children to become involved. But at one time, Jack did not think he was going to be able to farm. He wanted to, but planned on transferring his college credits to the University of Wisconsin-River Falls, where he would enroll in pre-veterinary courses.
Those plans changed June 3, 1971. That's when Jack's father, Leonard, was killed when the tractor he was operating rolled over.
Jack, 19 at the time and the second oldest of 12 children, came home to help his mother. Thrust into the role of farmer, Jack discovered that he had a lot to learn.
"The economy at that time seemed to be a bit more forgiving, to allow for a few mistakes," Jack said. "When I came home, I only knew about cows. I'd never plowed or planted."
Pat and Jack married two years later, and in 1974, they began renting the farm. It was 120 acres then and had approximately 30 cows.
Jack was paid 10 percent of the milk check those first years. That often amounted to $180 to $200 a month. To make ends meet, they sold pickup loads of firewood.
For a while, they also rented a small tobacco field. The cash crop required lots of hard work, But, Jack recalled, "We made more money the first couple of years than we did working on the farm all year."
In 1977, Jack and Pat purchased the farm and were milking 34 cows. A few years later, the herd was up to 52 cows. It kept on growing, and the Herrickses suffered through what has been called the "farm crisis of 1985," when interest rates soared.
When the herd reached 80, Jack and Pat began thinking that might be more cows than they could handle by themselves. Instead of stay put at that number or scale back, they chose to go all out with dairying.
"We decided we might as well cross the great divide and get more cows and employees," Jack said. "It (eventually) made room for our kids to come back and get involved in the farm."
Looking back, Jack is thankful God gave him the opportunity to farm.
"I tell my family," he said, "that only about 1.5 percent of us in this country are actually devoted full-time to production agriculture. For us to be a part of such a small group as that is really a special calling - to be able to do our work and make our living while producing food for God's people."
As for the Leopold Award, that's to be awarded to one of four Wisconsin farm families this November, Jack was philosophical and modest, saying, "I don't know if I have any great conservation ethic. But if we're going to keep this farm viable for future generations, we need to realize what little topsoil we have, and do everything we can to keep that in place."[[In-content Ad]]