Conservation through collaboration

Schaefer works with fellow farmers to employ environmentally-friendly farming practices

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CHILTON, Wis. – Mitchell Schaefer is grateful he has not had to travel alone on his conservation journey. Relying on the expertise of other farmers in Calumet County who have been there and done that, Schaefer has successfully implemented cover crops and minimal tilling practices into his operation.

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“These techniques help our farm be sustainable while also helping the environment,” Schaefer said. “My goal is to be here on the land but not wreck it. I want to exist with it but not cause problems if possible.”
Schaefer milks 230 cows and farms 400 acres near Chilton. Established in 1894, Schaefer is the fifth generation to operate the farm he and his wife, Amanda, and their three kids – Allison, Clay and Levi – call home. His love for the land has led him to try new things that he believes are right for the environment and the farm’s future.
Three years ago, Schaefer began exploring with doing minimal tillage and no tillage and planting cover crops. His goal is to have 100% of his acres in cover crops someday. He is currently 75% of the way there, using winter wheat, rye and alfalfa through the off season. He joined the Calumet County Ag Stewardship Alliance – a farmer-led conservation group – two years ago to gather ideas that could help him reach his goals.
“This group is trying things people never thought of before and having a lot of success doing it,” Schaefer said.
Committed to cover crops, Schaefer started with winter rye. Last fall, he planted rye after corn, letting the rye grow 6 inches in spring before applying manure with a light disc. The crop grew back afterward, and Schaefer then worked the rye with a vertical till before planting corn into it. One struggle that Schaefer has faced is dealing with crop residue in the fields. Root masses from the rye created clumps, and Schaefer wondered if he should work it again.
“I just decided to plant into it, and it seemed to work out,” he said.
Collaboration with other farmers has meant less trial and error for Schaefer.
“CCASA shares information on the different trials they’re conducting which gives you confidence to try things yourself,” Schaefer said. “You try not to lose money doing these things because at the end of the day, this is still a business, and I don’t want to be giving money away.”
Schaefer comes from a background of reduced tillage management, growing up on a farm that tried to take it easy on the land.
“Tilling and plowing seemed useless to me,” he said. “It seemed like those practices were making everything worse.”
Schaefer does minimal tillage, making one pass over the land in the spring with a vertical till that only goes a couple inches deep. In the fall, he does not work the ground.
“Minimal tilling tolerates compaction better, and it seems we have less compaction problems now,” Schaefer said. “We do a lot of spring manure application, which is a time when fields are more vulnerable. But with the rye there, the tractor doesn’t sink in and wreck the ground as much.”
Rich in limestone and bedrock, Schaefer said his area is more susceptible to ground water contamination and that problems with water quality were occurring a couple miles away. This issue contributed to Schaefer’s decision to try new cropping techniques. Schaefer rents equipment from a neighbor, such as a no-till drill, vertical drill, and machinery for planting and chopping corn.
“I appreciate when I drive through the neighborhood and see something holding onto the field versus a barren field,” Schaefer said. “The cover crop is there to hold everything in place and reduce erosion and runoff. Alfalfa and winter wheat are cover crops that don’t get enough credit, in my opinion. They do a good job of holding the ground in place.”
Schaefer is also an advocate of rotational grazing – a practice he is familiar with since childhood and one that further amplifies his sustainability efforts. Sixty acres of permanent pasture are devoted to rotational grazing of heifers and far-off dry cows. Schaefer grazes heifers year-round using drive-by feeding in the winter. Reducing feed and labor costs are some of the benefits he likes best about pasturing heifers.
“In summer, heifers are eating 80%-90% grass, which works really well,” Schaefer said. “Pasture is super cheap, and animals stay healthy. But, you have to know what you’re doing.”
Schaefer has two groups on pasture – one containing open heifers and the other comprised of bred heifers for a total of 160 heifers and 20 dry cows occupying his pastures. He rotates between 16 paddocks that are approximately 3.75 acres in size, moving the fence within each paddock a quarter acre per day until the whole paddock is finished. Schaefer recently replaced stainless steel fence wires with poly wire which he has found to be more flexible and easier to work with.
“There is so much fertility in the pasture as long as we get rain,” Schaefer said. “It produces like crazy. I don’t plant anything; it just regrows each year. But you have to do it right by keeping ahead and managing the pastures so that the quality is there. You can’t feed brush.”
Through his involvement with CCASA, and education acquired through reading articles on cover crops and minimal tillage, Schaefer is progressing on a sustainable path to the future.
“People tend to get stuck in their ways, but you shouldn’t be afraid to try something new,” he said. “You can learn a lot from others. Just ask someone who’s doing cover crops or no till. They can help you get started.”
Innovation in cropping techniques does not scare Schaefer, who is taking action to preserve the land and ensure his farm’s longevity.
“You’re going to be around for a while, so it’s nice to not destroy your resources,” Schaefer said. “I like to team up with nature rather than go against it, which is good for the environment and for the future of this farm.”

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