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Watershed Council farmers share grazing stories and plans
Tainter Creek
PIC ONE: Jim M and Rob K
Jim Munsch and Rob Klinkner smile as they remember the back and forth they went through to arrive at a final plan for Klinkner’s new farm. The two have obviously formed a valuable working relationship, and Klinkner will benefit from Munsch’s many years of experience in operating a grassfed beef operation.

TAINTER CREEK WATERSHED - Joined by researchers from the Grasslands 2.0 project and various conservation professionals, two farmer-members of the Tainter Creek Watershed Council hosted field days on their farms on Friday, July 30.

Jeff Ostrem and Rob Klinkner both operate farm businesses in the upper reaches of the Tainter Creek Watershed basin in Franklin Township, in Vernon County. Ostrem produces beef cattle on his 160 acres, and grows corn and hay in order to be self-sufficient in feed. Klinkner and his wife Gail operate a dairy on seven acres near Monument Rock, and recently purchased another 60-acre farm on Fortney Road. Like Ostrem, their goal is to become self-sufficient in feed.

nd 2.0 is a collaborative group of more than 30 scientists, educators, farmers, agencies, policymakers, processors, retailers, and consumers working to develop pathways for increased farmer profitability, yield stability and nutrient and water efficiency, while improving water quality, soil health, biodiversity, and climate resilience through grassland-based agriculture.

The Grasslands 2.0 project involves plans to convene various ‘learning hubs’ around the Upper Midwest with the goal of gathering together groups of people that “usually don’t talk.” The Driftless Area has been selected as one of these learning hubs. 

Gabe Brown inspires

Jeff Ostrem farms in partnership with his son, Josh Ostrem, who lives next door with his family. The younger Ostrem is particularly enthusiastic about the transition to managed rotational grazing on 16 acres on the farm.

“For me, the whole thing got started when Gabe Brown made his presentation to us in 2019, and explained how much more profitable this system can be,” Josh explained. “It’s really a very easy system when you’ve got it all set up, and I’m not hauling manure any more.”

Father and son seemed to have slightly different opinions about whether more cropland acres would be converted to grazing.

“My goal is to balance my acres in pasture, with the acres I have in hay and corn,” Jeff told the group. “I want to have enough feed to be self-sufficient through the winter – I don’t grow corn to sell it.”

Jeff Ostrem said that he has noticed, since they made the switch, that his cattle are in better health going into the winter. He also reports that his calves are much healthier going into the winter.

“I really like rotational grazing, but ultimately this will be a job for the next generation,” Ostrem said. “I’m retired from all my other jobs now and can farm full time, but I am 70 years old.”

The Ostrems run a 31-cow and 42-feeder operation. Josh Ostrem reports they get calves from their operation, and typically buy two or three, 200-pound feeders each year in October. Eventually, he says, he plans to transition the herd to black angus and is looking to grow his herd. When the steers are market weight, he says that he sells them in Waukon, Iowa. He says that their cows will calve in about a month, spend the winter on mom, and then pasture with a little grain through the grazing season.

Pasture Project funding

Jim Munsch is a Coon Valley grassfed beef farmer, and a grazing consultant for the Wallace Center Pasture Project. The Wallace Center is currently in the third of a three year project to invest in helping Tainter Creek Watershed farmers transition cropland acres to managed rotational grazing, and then explore the connections with surface water quality, and specifically phosphorous levels in Tainter Creek.

Munsch worked with the Ostrems, the first farm family from the Watershed Council to take advantage of the funding.

“Convincing Jeff Ostrem to convert cropland acres and continuous pasture acres to a managed rotational grazing system took some persuasion,” Munsch recalled. “But eventually we were able to use funding from the Wallace Center to install perimeter and paddock fencing, a robust watering system, and to seed their pastures.”

Josh Ostrem reports that the cost of materials to do the work was about $10,000. The family did all the work of installing the system themselves, with Josh and his daughter Olivia running all of the paddock fencing.

Munsch says that one advantage the Ostrems have is that the well that feeds their watering system is uphill, so they are not fighting gravity getting water to the pastures. Their system encompasses about 3,000 feet of water line, pressurized  off the home well, which has about 60 pounds of pressure. The line running to the paddocks is buried about 12 inches deep.

Grazing plan

Another consultant that works with the Wallace Center is a well-known Crawford County grazier, Dennis Rooney of rural Steuben. Rooney worked with the Ostrems in designing the paddock layout. Because the cattle no longer need to walk up to the barn for water, the family has been able to repair a couple of locations on the farm that previously had heavy traffic, and would wash. Using funding from the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), the areas have been reshaped, and seeded in perennial vegetation.

“We rotate the cows through paddocks every week, though it varies, and rotate the feeders every week-and-a-half to two weeks,” Josh Ostrem said. “At this point in the year, we are on our third rotation through our paddocks.”

Josh said the family will also graze cornfields and rye cover crops in the spring, and even uses the cattle as brush hogs in some of the harder to mow areas of the farm.

Munsch detailed that the value of the forage from the pastures is about $30 per acre per ton of dry matter. He said the true advantage of the system is that it is fed immediately, with no storage or loss, and the manure is put right back into the system without having to haul it. He said the cost savings from these advantages are profound.

“The bottom line for all of this for farmers is whether a system like this is profitable,” Watershed Council member Brian McCulloh said. “This is a great illustration that converting cropland to pasture is a profitable venture.”

Jim Munsch was able to quantify the results of the Ostrem’s switch to a managed rotational grazing system for the field day participants.

“Just by converting 16 cropland acres and permanent pasture to managed rotational grazing, they are preventing 440 pounds of phosphorous and 300 tons of topsoil per year from running off into the creek,” Munsch explained. “This is huge – that amount of topsoil is about equivalent to two dump truck loads.”

Klinkner Farm

Rob and Gail Klinkner run a dairy on their farm along Highway 27, just south of Liberty Pole. The family sells their milk to Westby Cooperative Creamery, and prior to acquiring their new farm, bought all of the feed for their operation. 

In addition, the two operate an on-farm store, the Klinkner Kountry Store. Through the store, they market beef and pork raised on the farm, as well as Westby Cooperative Creamery dairy products. With Rob busy running the farm, and Gail working two jobs off the farm, much of the labor of running the store is provided by the couple’s children.

Operating a dairy operation on only seven acres, according to Rob, is an unsustainable business model for them, given the high price of feed.

“In our operation, my wife has Holsteins, and we have Jerseys,” Klinkner joked. “It takes about 70 pounds of corn silage per heifer per day to run our operation, and in the last year, the price of corn silage has doubled, so that is why we saw the advantage of buying our second farm.”

Rob explained that he had closed on the new farm on Fortney Road in December of 2020. The home dairy is about two miles away. He said that this had given him and his wife the winter to plan for how the new acres would be used. Ultimately, he says it is their goal to relocate the dairy to the new farm.

“I had heard from Dani Heisler-Woodill, who works with Valley Stewardship Network as their regenerative agriculture coordinator, about the Wallace Center Pasture Project funding,” Klinkner explained. “I began to work with Jim Munsch and Dennis Rooney to design my grazing system for the new farm, and though we had some disagreements about how things would be laid out, we were able to reach a compromise.”

Jim Munsch helped the two with a whole farm assessment, and to identify their business assessment and goals for the farm.

“Dennis and Monique Hassman from Valley Stewardship Network were able to create preliminary maps for the farm, which we could then sit down and discuss and tweak with Gail and Rob,” Munsch explained. “We would sit around the kitchen table and look at the maps, and then go out and walk the farm and make tweaks to the plan.”

Dennis Rooney met with Rob and Gail, and spent two to three hours talking with them and walking the farm. Rooney used the web soil survey to generate the maps, and to determine where the paddocks would be placed and what stocking density they could sustain. His assessment took into account different soil types on the farm, which generated compatible seed recommendations. In all, the process took Rooney about 30-40 hours of work.

Klinkner’s inspiration

Rob Klinkner shared that his inspiration for pursuing a managed rotation grazing system has been Dick Cates. A few years prior, Klinkner had taken a short course with Cates at his farm in rural Spring Green.

“Over the years, Dick Cates has become more than a friend to me,” Klinkner explained. “One thing Dick gave me was a strong profit goal.”

In 2013, the Cates were awarded the Leopold Conservation award by the Sand County Foundation and the Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation. The award honors Wisconsin landowner achievement in voluntary stewardship and management of natural resources.

Dick and Kim Cates operate Cates Family Farm, a grass-fed beef enterprise near Spring Green in Iowa County. The farm includes 700 acres of managed grazing land and 200 acres of managed forest. They direct market their pasture-raised steers to grocery stores, restaurants, cafeterias and households around southern Wisconsin and the Chicago area.

Since 1987, the Cates have worked to make the family farm more environmentally sound and profitable. They adopted rotational grazing practices and created a managed grazing system included subdivision fencing and stream crossings for livestock. They encouraged the revitalization of a native oak savannah and care for Lowery Creek, a trout stream that runs through the grazing acreage.

“Managing in this manner allows us to protect the trout stream,” Cates said at a field day on the farm in 2018. “And we understand that the water quality issues important to fishers in our area are directly connected to the issues facing fishers downriver in the Gulf of Mexico. Farmers have a role in protecting our waters, and our family is proud to be doing our part.”

Klinkner said that he has had an ongoing relationship with Cates, and had been able to use him as a sounding board for starting their on-farm store. In addition, the Klinkners have sold steers to Cates.

Getting started

Klinkner said that the weed pressure on the farm when they purchased it was very intense. This, he said, is because it had been a long time since the acres on the farm had been in active row crop production. In addition, the fields on the farm are very rocky due to an old rock quarry having been operated nearby for many years.

“This spring, the first thing that I did was to coat the whole farm in dairy manure to begin to build soil health,” Rob explained. “I tried to control weeds by planting an oat and pea cover crop, but the ragweed was still eight feet tall, so I sprayed the whole farm and planted row crops. On one area, I worked it up again and planted sorghum.”

Klinkner said that he had been doing some grazing on the farm this season, but mostly close to the barn so the cattle would have access to water. This year, he has had red heifers and dry cows on the pastures.

“I plan to continue to use the acres on the farm to produce my own feed for the dairy, but all of the fields on the farm will be fenced,” Klinkner explained. “What this means is that I will be able to use almost the entire farm for grazing at one time or another throughout the season.”

Jim Munsch said that on the fields that are flat, Klinkner will grow row crops. The fields where there begins to be a six-to-eight percent slope will be dedicated to managed rotational grazing. He said that Dennis Rooney had designed all of the pastures with water.

“With the 29-30 grazeable acres of pasture on this farm, the practices that Rob will put in place will save 265 tons of soil and 370 pounds of phosphorous per year from running off into the creek,” Munsch said.

Munsch said that an earthworks repair project on the farm had driven the costs of the project up slightly. Klinkner had repaired a ditch on the farm, which will then be able to be used as a pasture. Next year, he said, Klinkner would work with Vernon County Conservation Technician Matt Albright to install a dry dam on the property. Installing the dry dam will allow Klinkner’s cattle to graze straight across the area instead of having to go around the gully, which runs all the way down to the creek.

Five year plan

Klinkner explained that his and Gail’s ultimate goal is to relocate their dairy to the new farm. He said that the two are also exploring on-farm processing of dairy for ice cream. The two also plan to continue to run, and perhaps expand their on-farm store operation.

“Basically our choices as dairy farms are to become niche or to get big,” Klinkner said. “I’d rather be unique than big.”

Hornby Hollow farmer and member of the Watershed Council Brad Robson thanked the people from Valley Stewardship Network, the Wallace Center, and Vernon County Land and Water Conservation Department for all of the assistance they are offering to farmers.

“Producers want to do the right thing, but we also need to be profitable, and so we need all the help we can get to move in that direction,” Robson said. “The funding and the technical assistance being provided is what is needed to help producers get over the hump, and we are very appreciative of it.”