Exceptional efforts in everyday farming

Schlangens honored as 2022 sustainability award winners

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ALBANY, Minn. – Steve and Cheryl Schlangen have been humble leaders in the dairy industry, known for their forward-thinking decisions that have ensured the long-term viability of their farm for generations to come.
Such decisions have not gone unnoticed as the couple was named one of four dairy farms receiving the 2022 U.S. Dairy Sustainability Award by the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy.

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“One of the coolest parts about all of this is that we’re a small family farm,” Steve Schlangen said. “Almost everything we do can be replicated by other people.”  
The Schlangens milk 60 cows with one robot and farm 200 acres of farmland in Stearns County near Albany.
Over time, the couple has implemented more than 30 conservation practices including cover cropping, establishing buffer strips, nutrient sampling and management using a manure stacking slab and manure injecting system as well as LED lighting in the barn.
“It’s the right thing to do for our future, for us and our children and future generations,” said Schlangen referring to his young grandson. “You want the land to stay productive and the water to be safe and clean. If you can farm for good yields while making the land better year in and year out, it’s a win-win.”
This year’s group of honorees display superior management in greenhouse gas reduction and water-use efficiencies that align with the industry’s 2050 Environmental Stewardship Goals.
“It’s important as a leader in the dairy industry to show our commitment to net zero by 2050,” Schlangen said. “That goal is achievable with everyone’s help. We can do our part at the farm level from the ground up.”
The couple’s latest initiative has been establishing cover crops.
“I’ve talked to guys from California where they get multiple crops off a field in a year,” Schlangen said. “I always thought that couldn’t be done in Minnesota.”
Two years ago, they planted 70 acres of winter rye. In the springtime, they terminated a portion of the cover crop, injected manure to provide the soil with the appropriate nutrients and then planted corn for a fall harvest of silage. Another portion of the land was harvested and baled for youngstock feed, then followed by no-tilled soybeans. A third section of the acreage was harvested as seedstock and the stubble used as bedding.
This year, the Schlangens reduced their tillage a bit more and continued injecting manure before a crop of corn for silage or soybeans.
“We’ve made minor changes and are finding ways to get good crops using less fuel, inputs and time,” Schlangen said.
One of the latest changes the Schlangens applied to their farm was pattern tiling to improve soil and root structure.
The farm is made up of heavy soil. Without pattern tiling it would have been challenging to get in an extra crop in the fall and harvested by spring before the main crop.
“Having the soil where you can manage it well and be out there on a timely basis makes farming fun,” Schlangen said. “We’re always willing to try new practices for our farm.”
Schlangen has long been a proponent for sustainability in the dairy industry and has led by example to encourage others to consider more sustainable efforts on their farms.
“The best way to share what might work best for farmers is by doing it yourself, and then sharing the information with others,” Schlangen said.
When the Headwaters Agriculture Sustainability Partnership under the statewide organization, Environmental Initiative, was formed, it was a way to find solutions that benefit the environment, farming economy and vitality of rural communities. The Schlangens felt the need to be at that table.
This partnership is one example of the couple learning from others and being a trusted source for fellow farmers.
The Schlangens have been a part of HASP’s pilot project, ROI, which evaluates the return on investment of various sustainable farming practices that improve soil health, store carbon in the soils and reduce nutrient runoff.
“Sustainability has really been a trend the last 10 years, but in reality, we’ve always been going in that direction,” Schlangen said. “We’re one of the few industries that can be a part of a solution for environment, and we should embrace that.”
With each project, there are potential benefits, but also uncertainty and risk.
One of the Schlangens’ most successful efforts was improving their manure management with variable rate application. Recently, the Schlangens added a stacking slab for youngstock waste to store those nutrients before application.
“We can put almost exactly how much liquid per acre is needed based on what the nutrient levels in the field are,” Schlangen said.
Another project was establishing buffer strips along the ditches, but in doing so, some of the farm’s nicest corn acres were sacrificed, Schlangen said.
“Every project is challenging in their own ways,” he said. “At first, we weren’t sure how the buffer strips were going to work. We’ve ended up getting really good hay crops off those acres year after year without putting anything into it.”
As the Schlangens reflect on their regenerative farming practices and desire to do more, a larger purpose comes to mind. For this couple, an award of such prestige solidifies their commitment to the industry and providing consumers with a quality, sustainably-produced product.
“Together, we’re raising a standard in the industry, and consequently, we’re expected to do more,” Schlangen said. “It’s like earning a batting title in baseball. You better keep hitting.”

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