By allowing ads to appear on this site, you support the local businesses who, in turn, support great journalism.
Leopold Conservation Award winner tells his story
At Tainter Creek Watershed Council meeting
Jack Herricks and wife

TAINTER CREEK WATERSHED - Jack Herricks family began farming their rural Cashton farm in 1912. The farm sits at the headwaters of Brush Creek, a Kickapoo River tributary that joins with the river near Ontario. Originally, the family farmed 124 acres and milked 34 cows. Today, Herricks farms 1,120 acres, rents another 470 acres, and milks 600 cows.

“I started farming in 1971 when I was 19-years-old, and had already had a fair bit of experience,” Herricks said. “Farming as a career is a real blessing for myself, and I still enjoy it. It’s great to be able to go through life that way.”

Herricks was one of 12 children born to his parents. He returned to the farm from college when his father passed away, and was suddenly the farmer and a father-figure in his family. Now, he says, he and his wife are the older generation in a multi-generation farm family operation. His son and daughter, and their spouses, are part-owners of the farm, and even his grandchildren work on the farm.

“We are a family workforce, combined with eight full-time and four part-time employees,” Herricks explained. “In addition, for the last 36 years we have partnered with another farm family in raising our crops.”

Herricks said that, basically, conservation was just a natural part of his family’s culture.

“We wanted to keep our topsoil from eroding, so we have always planted on the contour and used grassed waterways,” Herricks explained. “One of the first farming tasks I remember being involved in, when I was six-years-old, was following the hay cart to use straw and bedding pack to fill in the ditches.”

He said that conservation and farming just naturally go together, and that making positive changes is a long-time, generational experience. He remembered the change in thinking that went along with his family’s switch to no-till farming, which he said seemed pretty weird when he was first exposed to the idea.

“My decision to switch to no-till came about as a result of a watershed moment,” Herricks explained. “One day when I was out in the field helping to round up my neighbor’s cows, I looked around and saw all the ditches that were forming, and realized that we can’t keep going like this.”

Herricks remembered that in the days before RoundUp, no-till was a much more difficult practice to implement. He said that managing weeds in a no-till system back then involved a lot of calibration of equipment. By the 1990s, Herricks said that all of the crops on his farm were raised in a no-till system.

“We started using cover crops 12 or 15 years ago, with winter rye after corn silage harvest,” Herricks said. “At first, we were pretty conservative with the practice, but then we really started to see the benefits, and now we plant rye on all of our fields.”

Manure management

Herricks reported that as he only has enough manure storage for two weeks, he applies manure to his fields year-round. He reports that he keeps the alfalfa in his rotation in order to be able to spread manure on it.

Farmers are always interested in how other farmers manage their manure and their rotations – especially with cover crops. The Tainter Creek Watershed Council was no exception, and Herricks provided details on his crop rotation and manure management.

“At corn silage time, we grow rye into alfalfa, and by late May we are harvesting and chopping the rye, which we use as a filler in the heifer ration,” Herricks explained. “After harvest, we take the rye off and plant corn into it, which we grow for either silage or grain, and we get 150-160 bushel corn off those acres. After harvest, we plant rye again right away.”

Herricks said that his family will plant corn right into growing rye, or sometimes they terminate the rye before planting.

“Rye is a great weed suppressant as it mats and makes a nice cover,” Herricks said. “Those acres usually need less RoundUp, but the one thing you have to watch for in rye that is foot-high or more is that it can provide habitat for army worms.”

Herricks says that most of the manure he applies on his fields comes from his free-stall barn. He said that his first priority for manure application will be for the acres he plans to plant into alfalfa in the next growing season. He said he also spreads on fields with living cover crops through the winter and into the spring. In the summer, he spreads manure on growing rye because the rye “keeps it in place.”

Profitable conservation

Herricks emphasized to the group that conservation and profitability need to go hand-in-hand. He talked about some of the things he has seen over the years on his farm.

He said that his family had always worked hard to keep their debt under control, and to take baby steps when making changes on the farm. He reported that since 2016, 83 percent of the feed used on his farm comes from homegrown rations, and he has been able to discontinue use of other nutritional additives. This, he says, has been helpful for the farm’s bottom line by controlling one of their costs of production.

“Using cover crops and other conservation measures, over the years we’ve improved our soil organic matter from two percent to more than four percent,” Herricks said. “Soil with higher organic matter holds more water, keeping it for the dryer times, draining it faster in the wet times, and helping to prevent runoff in storm events.”

He said that after the switch to no-till, it had taken him about a dozen years to really start to see the changes. After about six or eight years, he had really started to be able to see increases in the earthworms and soil microbiota, which he says are his main strategy to fight compaction.

Discovery Farms

Herricks remembers when the researchers from UW-Discovery Farms first approached him. Their research was stimulated by a fish kill in Jersey Valley Lake that had resulted from a flash snowmelt that spring. The watershed draining into Jersey Valley Lake is 2,400 acres, and includes 18-20 landowners.

“When Discovery Farms folk first came into our community, they were met with hostility. After the fish kill, dairy farmers felt like they were viewed as the bad guys,” Herricks remembered. “But those folks had a gentle demeanor, and eventually they got the farm community to buy into it.”

Herricks said the Discovery Farms team had walked over every acre of his farm and made suggestions about how he could do things better. He said they had instilled consciousness in the farming community about the time of year and the potential for manure runoff, and helped to promote use of cover crops. He said that they had provided science to help farmers tweak existing practices.

“They held two meetings about the results of their research – one for the farmers and one for the community,” Herricks said. “Overall, what they found was good conservation and good soil health. They said that because of the legacy levels of phosphorous in the lake bed, the levels would always be high, even with the best farm management.”