The land is their legacy

Noll family recognized with 2023 Wisconsin Leopold Conservation Award

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ALMA, Wis. — On top of a 500-foot bluff with spectacular views of the Mississippi River, the Noll family manages their 100-cow dairy farm. 

Farming on a bluff is an art that has been passed down for generations and has now earned the family the 2023 Wisconsin Leopold Conservation Award. The award was presented Dec. 3 at Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation’s annual meeting in Wisconsin Dells.

Scott Noll operates the dairy, while his dad, Curt, and uncle, Mark, manage the cropland. The dairy is named Five-Star Dairy Farm LLC for Scott’s five children: Axel, Finley, Nessa, Lincoln and Magnus. The farm was established in 1929 when Scott’s great-grandparents, Louis and Elizabeth, bought the first acreage near Alma. The farm is now comprised of 735 acres, of which 400 is cropland. 

Scott said their family’s conservation efforts are part of a goal to keep the legacy of the farm alive. 

“The farm itself will be 100 years in our family in 2029,” Scott said. “I’m hoping that the next generation can carry on what we’ve done since 1929.”

Contour strips were first used on the farm in 1954. The 400 acres are divided into 121 fields, with the average field measuring about 4 acres. The contour strips were considered progressive in the 1950s and have been an instrumental part of the farm’s conservation practices. 

The family raises corn, soybeans, oats and hay. Crops are rotated, and new alfalfa is established with the help of a planting of oats, which serve as a nurse crop. They started no-till farming in 1984 and only use it to establish the alfalfa.

Because of the steep elevation of their land, the Nolls have built 20 earthen dams since 1964. The dams help to hold back the water when heavy rain falls and then release it slowly into the ground to regenerate the groundwater. Mark said that without the dams, the rain would run like a river down the bluff.

“In a half a mile, the elevation drops 500 feet below our farm, and we never had a drought,” Mark said. “My dad was the one who understood the land we had.”

The soil is what Scott’s grandpa called loess soil, where it is deposited by the wind. Although it has proven productive, it can be fragile, Mark said. No-till farming has helped preserve the stability of the ground and keep the production profitable for the Nolls. 

Cover crops are also utilized to help with soil regeneration. Additionally, the field borders are seeded on less productive ground. This helps increase pollination and provides wildlife habitat. 

The conservation efforts do not stop with the cropland. The 450 acres of woodland is managed to allow oak regeneration. To achieve this, clear cuts are implemented 20 acres at a time to allow the sunlight to nurture regrowth. Mark said this improves the habitat for wildlife. 

The Nolls also orchestrate controlled burns and work closely with their land conservation department to effectively care for all the land, fields and woods alike.

The dairy has been an instrumental part of the operation since its inception. A limited liability company was formed in 2004 to include Scott, Curt and Mark. For 26 years, Scott worked as a school teacher and farmed on either end of the work day. Two years ago, he retired from teaching to farm full time and also purchased the cattle, buildings and 28 acres. The dairy purchases feed from the LLC.

Scott said that progress on the dairy took off after they started using calf huts to raise youngstock. This led to a heifer shed being built and eventually headlocks being installed to make breeding easier. The Nolls also added a freestall barn and parlor.

“The calves all started surviving, and the herd was able to grow from there,” Scott said. “Then we built the freestall barn, and the sand bedding and the parlor has been great for all of us as humans.”

With almost a century of being dairy producers behind them, Scott’s children are on their way to continuing the legacy that Scott has always hoped for. The oldest of Scott’s five children, Axel, is attending Chippewa Valley Technical College and plans to return to farm once he graduates in 2024. Scott’s two daughters are FFA officers, and the youngest child plans to become a dairy farmer when he grows up, like the four generations before him.

“I always talk about a legacy that when I’m gone I want to have, and he already gets it,” Scott said. “That right there epitomizes why I want to live here and why I want to have a farm and raise the kids in this spot.”

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