Jeremy and Jessi, along with their children Jace, Jayla, and Jadence Nagel, live by the motto: “If you take care of the land, it will take care of you.” This, along with a keen eye towards soil conervation and maximizing forages, is the reason why the Nagels use rotational grazing on their cow/calf operation in Folsom, Wisconsin. The Nagels farm about 60 cows, with two breeding bulls, on 85 acres of pasture, along with their corn and soybean cash crop on 280 acres of cropland. Jeremy started farming with his father in 2001 and in 2003 purchased his own farm. In 2016, Jeremy and Jessi were able to add to their operation by purchasing Jeremy’s parents’ farm.
Nagel Farms is truly family-run; everyone has a role to play to keep the farm running. The Nagel children are tasked with daily chores, and even Jeremy’s parents pitch in. Jessi and Jeremy explain that having the whole family involved, including friends and neighbors, has been a key to their success.
After Jeremy’s first three to four years of crop farming with his father, he noticed the farm had a significant erosion problem. With some help from the Environmental Quality Incentive Program (EQIP), the Nagels were able to install fencing and purchase 25 head of cattle. These investments allowed them to mitigate the erosion issues with rotational grazing and cover crops. Jessi explains: “Putting cattle back on the land has been one of the biggest things that has helped our farm with conservation and just having a healthier ecosystem all around.”
When the Nagels were first contemplating how to resolve the soil loss issues on their farm, they relied heavily on the support of the Tainter Creek Farmer-Led Watershed Council and local Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) agents. Jessi attended meetings, field days, and seminars on roational graing and would come home filled with information and excitement. Her enthusiasm eventually brought Jeremy onboard with the idea of adding cattle to their operation.
Next, Jessi and Jeremy reached out to friends and neighbors for advice and spent time visiting farms that used grazing. Today, they use grazing plans and intend to extend the grazing season until the first snowfall. They’d eventually like to have cattle grazing on every part of the farm. The couple emphasized how they couldn’t have gotten where they are now without the help they received from friends and neighbors and support from local agricultural agencies.
The Nagels tried many experiments over the years and slowly added additional cattle and pasture to their operation. Jeremy’s mantra has been to “always try new things” but “do them small” and “embrace change.”
Jessi’s biggest advice for farmers looking to transition or add cattle to their operations is simply: “Show me your financial plan.” She stresses the imporance of talking with farm loan officers, extension agents, and even a local technical college. Having business and financial plans, Jessi explains, is just as important as the technical understanding of grazing.
Jeremy and Jessi hope they have set their farm up for success for the next generation – their three children. There is great interest from the Nagel children in continuing with the family farm. “It’s a pretty great thing we do.”
Jeremy believes the farm is on the right path for conservation and the future of farming. When asked what advice he had for farmers interested in grazing, Jeremy said: “People want to know where their food comes from. Be open.” Wiser than their years, the Nagel children offer this advice: “Give it a try,” and “don’t be afraid to change because everything is changing in the world.” Words to live by.
Stump Ridge Beef Farm
Just about the last farm in Vernon County, Wisconsin, right before the Crawford County line, is Stump Ridge Beef Farm, owned and operated by Karen and Chuck Bolstad. Purchased by Chuck’s grandfather, who immigrated from Norway in 1896, the farm was originally a small dairy operation. Chuck and Karen purchased the farm from Chuck’s family in the early 1970s and moved to the farm full-time in the early 1990s. Milking cows didn’t fit into the demanding schedule of two full-time educators, so the couple decided to raise beef cattle instead of dairy cows. Over the last seven years, the Bolstads have transitioned their 40-acre cow/calf operation to what they call a “summer beef” operation. Due to the size and ridge topography of the farm, the Bolstads were constantly having to buy winter feed to support the cow/calf operation and, along with the labor that comes with putting out bales of hay, this was unststainable for two people and was what ultimately convinced the Bolstads to transition.
Currently, the Bolstads buy feeders around 500 pounds, about a dozen steers, and put them out on pasture as early as spring will allow. The herd is kept on pasture until the first frost, or as long as there is good quality forage. Then, they sell the animals back to the same cattle dealer who sold them the cattle in the spring. Chuck says their inputs are very low, and they are commited to having a low-density operation to maintain good pasture and grow healthy soil. Chuck’s motto is, only have the number of cattle your land can support in the worst conditions. Just like his father used to advise, Chuck imagines the driest August he has ever seen and only keeps the number of animals that the drought-laden land could support.
The Bolstads believe rotational grazing is the best practice when it comes to raising cattle; however, they graze a little differently on their farm due to an important asset on their land: a natural spring. Rather than trenching the water from the spring into paddocks needed for rotational grazing, they keep their cattle density low and let the cattle find their own way down to the water. “They sort of rotate themselves,” explains Karen. “We believe cattle are smarter about what to eat than we are,” Chuck chimes in. The cattle know when the clover or other grasses are ready to eat and will rotate themselves to fresh pasture.
When asked to describe their roles on their farm, Chuck says he and Karen are “equals” and jokes that Karen is the “smart one,” having grown up on a beef farm herself and possessing most of the animal husbandry knowledge. Chuck leads the transactions and logistics with the cattle buyer, along with upkeep of fences and taming the cattle.
In the fall, when the Bolstads sell their cattle back to the dealer, the dealer is always amazed at the weight gain of the cattle from having been fed only grass. The Bolstads explain that “things that make cattle happy and content also make them gain weight.” They contribute this to their healthy pastures, access to fresh water, and spending time with the cattle and utilizing what they like to call “cattle psychology.” It’s a kind of cattle behaviour training where in the pasture Chuck calls the cattle over to their troughs and drops in sweet cattle feed. After about a month, the cattle begin to associate his voice with a sweet treat. This routine transitions the cattle from hesitant and tense to tame and content, which in turn creates a healthier herd. Chuck mentions this technique is used in lieu of building a permanent approach to ther cattle corral and comments that most “real farmers don’t have to resort to such tactics.”
There have been several other key decisions and experiments that have led to their success. They were conservation-minded farmers from the beginning, including wildlife habitat into farm planning and decision-making. They intentionally wait until late summer to clip the weeds in their pastures, waiting until ground-nesting birds have fledged. The Bolstads also worked with the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) to install dams to control erosion from heavy rain and flooding, which kept one of the farm’s biggest assets, the natural spring, intact. Another asset, the farm’s soil health, was also protected by the erosion control. Chuck says the entire “character” of the farm changed once the erosion was under control with the help of the dams. Upgrading fences was also a key turning point, and a controlled pasture burn released a large amount of dormant clover that Chuck says has done a tremendous job retaining nitrogen in the soil and has been a huge benefit for the grasses in their pasture.
Most recently, the Bolstads partnered with Valley Stewardship Network (VSN) to plant grazable native prairie strips on their farm. They planted along highly erodible parts of the farm, and in less then two years, Chuck has already noticed a difference. The prairie strips are stopping runoff from a neighboring row crop farm and have increased the diversity of pollinators and birds in the pasture.
Partnerships with organizations like NRCS, VSN, and the Tainter Creek Farmer-Led Watershed Council have been crucial to their success. Karen explains that beyond the technical assistance, simply socializing with these groups and participating in projects alongside people and organizations who also believe in regenerative farming has been a morale booster.
When the Bolstads think about the philosophy behind the way they farm, they think about fellow farmer Gabe Brown and his belief that every piece of farmland should have cattle. The Bolstads agree that cattle, when grazed regeneratively, can work in tune with the land, fertilizing and irrigating instead of stripping land of its nutrients. The Bolstads also model the way Karen’s father raised cattle. He too kept a lower density of cattle and made sure not to over-graze; a practice they follow closely.
When asked what they thought it would take to get more grazers in the Tainter Creek watershed, Chuck said he believes it comes down to marginal land and absentee landowners. He thinks there is an opportunity for matches to be made between responsible, conservation-minded farmers who understand they can make a profit from marginal land through grazing and absentee landowners who want to make money renting land. He emphasizes that changing the landscape is done through small, incremental steps, and this is a huge opportunity to do that. Chuck say he continues to see more farmers interested in growing native prairie strips on erodible land and sees this as a sign that things are changing for the better.
If a farmer wants to try their hand at grazing, the Bolstads point out that a person needs to be pragmatic and adaptable. Rarely in farming do things go the textbook way one might think they should. Karen’s advice is to follow your instincts and understand that you can make a living producing quality animals while also retaining the quality of the land. The two are not mutually exclusive. Chuck agrees and adds that farmers must remember that cattle are living beings and they have connection to the living microbes in the soil. Grazers need to understand that it’s not just a product they are producing, but that they are contributing to a larger ecosystem.
It is this connection that truly guides the Bolstads, the way they farm, graze, and care for the land. Chuck says buying the family farm was the best decision they ever made. Karen explains that being able to regeneratively graze beef cattle has meant “being able to maintain a sense of place on what has always been his home and our home.”
Pine Knob Organic Farm
Bonnie Wideman has farmed most of her life, but wasn’t full-time on the farm until 2012, after retiring from careers in teaching and organic certification. She and her husband Jeff, who died in 2005, bought the land that became Pine Knob Organic Farm in the late 1980s, when all the tillable acres were in corn and tobacco. The farm is tucked into a bowl at the end of a ridge just south of Viroqua, Wisconsin. Bonnie has invested significantly in the property, installing fence and watering systems for a rotational-grazing system and establishing an off-grid solar setup that powers the farm. Soil and forage quality have inproved over the years through careful management without off-farm inputs.
Bonnie and her partner Craig Scott raise wool sheep and goats, and in 2020 custom-grazed 26 cow/calf pairs. The open acres of the farm are 35 acres of steep permanent pasture and 65 acres of tillable land that is hayed and pastured. They rotationally graze, and all feed for the livestock is produced on the farm. Before the fence and water infrastructure was set up, rotational grazing was not possible. Nor was it possible to raise sheep organically, which was the goal. Now, forage yields are good, and the critters are healthy. Sheep graze from early April through Thanksgiving, and even though no formal stockpiling occurs, sheep often graze through the snow much of the winter. Craig unrolls round bales for them in the fields. Whole lambs are sold to individuals and restuarants, and lambskins and yarns are sold through a local suppplier.
Bonnie has been raising livestock since she was 26, so she’s had years to experiment and refine her operation. She describes the early days of her grazing management:
My original grazing plan said the farm would support year-round forage for 36 cows, selling calves as feeders. I couldn’t believe it, but we got there in about 10 years, building fertility through grazing management. I have done a bit of seeding over the years, but mostly to get some legumes in the hay. We grew a few acres of corn in order to plow and re-seed, but since we no longer feed corn, we don’t do that anymore. Did frost-seeding and no-till. No off-farm inputs in terms of fertility. I’ve often thought lime would be a good idea, but we did fine without it.
Over time, her farm has become self-sufficient and significantly less labor-intensive. She’s observed steady improvements in the health of her flock, given intentional and natural selection of animals that perform well under her management regime and the specific environmental conditions of her farm. In order to break up parasite cycles in her sheep, she ensures long rest periods for her pastures and no longer needs wormers for sheep or goats.
She participated in the Conservation Stewardship Program and throught the program implemented long rest periods for pastures that coincided with bird-nesting season. Based on her observations, there seemed to be little difference between bird-nesting success in the ungrazed pastures and in the pastures where sheep were actively grazing. Her view is that if one is creating optimal conditions for livestock, wildlife benefit as well.
Bonnie emphasized that success is measured by the goals of the farmer: “Success is relative to needs. Our small flock and custom beef grazing meet our needs and are appropriate for good pasture management.” Her current operation is well-suited to her retirement lifestyle and needs. She plans to increase the size of her flock by about 20 ewes once she can make improvements to fencing infrastructure. The farm could support more animals, but she feels thet 70 ewes is plenty. “At my age, what matters most is that it’s still fun.”
Bonnie’s recommendations for anyone looking to start or transition to a managed-grazing operation are to keep things realistic and learn from producers who are more established.
Give a lot of thought to how much time you want to spend in management and to your water system, for it is essential if you are going to rotate pastures or paddocks. Go see what others have done and ask them what they would do differently if they had it to do over.
Livestock production is not for everyone, and Bonnie emphasized that “you have to know you want to farm livestock and to farm livestock successfully you have to love livestock.”
Located among the rolling hills and valleys of Vernon County, Woodhill Farms is an award-winning, performance-based, seed-stock Angus operation owend by Dan and Anne Borgen that operates with teamwork by Joe Monson, Ryan Wodill, and Brian McCulloh – another owner and longtime managing partner involved in daily activities.
Approximately 430 acres of the farm are in rotationally managed permanent pasture, and about 185 acres are in crop ground to grow hay and corn for the operation. This purebred cattle operation makes use of technology, genetics, and regenerative agriculture practices to produce high quality bulls and bred cows sold privately at their annual sale.
Woodhill Farms herdsman, Ryan Wodill, explains that from May to October the cow herd gets its nutrition from grass and from November to February the cattle stay out on pasture and are fed hay. The management of animals and land involves “anything and everything” from fencing and moving cattle to welding and staying on top of office work. To keep the operation going, Wodill says it takes three people doing different activities, sometimes independently and other times together, and to do this work successfully is the result of a few factors.
Learning to See Things (Differently)
First, Woodhill Farms toils to do one thing well – produce problem-free, profitable Angus cattle, and this has required years of exeprimenting and acquiring new types of knowledge along the way. Fortunately, opportunities to learn from a wide range of formats seem more accessible than ever.
Wodill adivses: “Look through the information available – at what you think you can work into your operation. If you don’t feel like it’s going to work for you or you’re not comfortable with it, then it’s probably not the right path.” Taking advantage of educational resources is helpful; however, so is a simple converstation. Wodill recommends paying attention to and talking with producers that have years of experience to gain insight from them and deepen understandings.
You can start at a couple steps down the road compared to where that person started so you don’t have to make the same mistakes or have the same struggles. A lot of these people can explain to you your options; they can walk you through it, so you have a better idea of what you’re getting into.”
Another factor concerns getting into the habit of writing things down – a task Wodill practices and would prefer more producers use, given the multiple benefits this easy effort generates. Jotting down a quick memo or snapping a photo of an invoice with a smartphone, even using a pen and spiral notebook to document treatments, are just a few ways he keeps track of (and backs up) vital information.
Despite sincere claims of “too busy juggling several farm duties,” prioritizing recordkeeping throught the day-to-day actually saves time and can reveal many unknowns. For instance, keeping account of purchases helps realize actual financial expenditures, and recording vaccinations dates assists with future scheduling. Recordkeeping draws attention to matters requiring care, facilitates comparisons to be measured, and enables reflection otherwise not likely possible. This comes to light in Wodill’s work collecting soil samples and writing Woodhill Farms’ nutrient management plan. Through that detailed accounting, they have identified where adjustments are needed, for example, with applications rates of phsphorus and nitrogen that have since been reduced and become more efficient and effective on their fields.
We’re moving cattle more often with less effort and getting the nutrients distrubted more even… The more organic matter you have, the more nturients and water you can hold… and that speaks to the resiliency of what organic matter does. I’m going to be curious where some of those productive pastures are in four years when I re-sample. What I want to see is how fast are things changing? How fast are things creeping up? I know that our pastures are going to continue to get better, and I don’t think our crop ground is running at the same rate… We don’t sell corn. We don’t sell soybeans. We grow enough to feed our cattle and buy enough feed when needed. It’s value-added through a non-retail type of approach… That’s probably one of the things we want to look at addressing is how can we, basically, still produce winter feed to develop our bulls, which is our bread and butter from an economic standpoint, but do that while trying to improve our ground and hold our soil… Making a whole system change is always the hard part, and that’s what we’re trying to work on and show.
This broad, all-encompanssing focus Wodill mentions highlights another influential factor at Woodhill Farms. Taking a holistic perspective of any operation challenges producers to acknowledge the “true” costs of making it work and, perhaps as important, consider the worth of things on a farm, which are too often overlooked. “When everyone figures the values on their row crops,” are they remembering to calculate their labor hours into the equation? “We’re always very good at forgetting that.” What about the hours of wear and tear on equipment. “It takes money to run a tractor across ground… We have a tendencey to just kind of lump that all together.”
Although it may be common knowledge for those in agriculture to know going rates for bushel corn or the current price of hay, the same cannot be said for soil, and this too is problematic for Wodill. “Soil loss is probably one of the least talked about things in production ag,” but there is a startk disconnect that “soil loss is not an immediate cost because you don’t have to write a check for it out of your checkbook.”
Wodill trusts emphasizing soil loss as an economic expense will “help get people’s attention” and recognizes the compounded advantages of “learning to plant into green covers and rolling down” to minimize soil loss and erosion while cultivating soil health. He is interested in learning more about double cropping experiments and even though “we’re still buiding, we’re still improving,” Wodill believes “it just works better when you’ve got cattle on these hills. Just keeping them grazed and doing things right, you keep your soil.”
Wodill recommends anyone interested in grazing establish a baseline understanding of their operation before increasing acreage and cattle to ensure folks have a handle on what they already have and to prevent biting off more than one can chew. That causes furstration and a sense that something does not work – and it just might be what is needed.
Deer Run Farm
Atop a narrow bluff overlooking Coon Valley, Wisconsin, sits Jim Munsch’s 86-acre grass-fed beef farm. In a typical year, Jim and his grandson farm about 30 head of heifers and grass-finish 20-25 head of cattle. Jim is well-known in the Driftless as an agriculture consultant and for his successful conservation-minded farming. Since 1980, Jim has consulted with countless vegetable and beef farmers, providing techincal assistance on their finances as well as grazing planning. He’s worked with many non-profits, universities, and other organizations to create data-driven tools to help farmers make well-informed business decisions.
Jim spent his childhood hog farming with his family in Indiana, but after a stint in the army, he got a degree in agricultural economics and a master’s degree in business administration. Jim purchased his farm in 1976 while working as an executive at an air conditioning company. Although he spent many years in the air conditioning business, Jim’s passion for agriculture led him and his wife Phyllis to purchase their land in Wisconsin and reitre from the corporate world in 1978.
Prior to Jim’s purchase, his land had been heavily tilled for crops and was experiencing substantial erosion. Jim created contour buffer strips on the tilllable part of the farm, which at the time was the primary method of conservation. That mitigated the erosion initially, but because of his farm’s hilly topography, he needed additional erosion control. Soil testing revealed below 2% soil organic matter (SOM) on Jim’s farm, with some fields as low as 1.5%. Given Jim’s background in agricultural engineering, he knew cattle could be the answer to increasing the SOM and solving the erosion issues.
In 1981, Jim turned a portion of this cropland into pasture, brought cattle onto the farm, and began using roational grazing. Since then, Jim has slowly turned all his fields into permanent pasture. The last time Jim disturbed any soil on his farm with tillage was 1990. He explains, “as soon as everything was covered in grass, I noticed a huge difference.” He no longer had ditches in his fields, the soil retained significantly more water, and water that did run off ran clear. Jim proceeded to embrace other aspects of conservation farming, like creating wildlife habitat by planting trees and pollinator forages. Today, Jim’s SOM has doubled and is between 3%-4.5% across his entire farm.
Lessons and Advice
Even with his background in agricultrual engineering, Jim had little knowledge of animal husbandry. He explains that this was his steepest learning curve when he started raising cattle, and he relied on the expertise of his farming community and the local extension service. In the early 1990s, the local extension service in southwest Wisconsin was working with dairy producers to lower the cost of production through managed grazing. Jim says at that time there was “a whole village of knowledge around managed grazing.” Jim attended pasture walks, seminars held by University of Wisconsin, and any event that would give him the information and tehcnical assistance on grazing that he needed. Jim has continued to champion this work and is recognized as one of the most knowledgeable experts on managed grazing in Wisconsin and beyond.
Jim stresses the importance of community for the future of grazing and other conservation-farming practices. For example, in Jim’s experience working with organic growers, if there isn’t a community where farmers can rely on each other for advice, “chances of failure are double.” He explains that while extension services, non-profit organizations, and the internet can provide some of the technical knowledge needed around farming, nothing can match walking the field and talking to a neighboring farmer about best practices and overcoming challeneges. Farmers listen to other farmers, Jim explains.
When asked when his farm became financially viable, Jim explains it was in the early 1990s when he partnered with a large-scale vegetable grower that wanted to provide additional products to its customers. Jim also began selling to the Wisconsin Grass-Fed Beef Cooperative when it opened in 2003. In addition, he sells breeding stock, feeders, and some grass-finished beef direct to individuals and families. Jim explains that diversifying revenue streams for his products has led to his farm’s success and is essential to a farm’s financial viability.
Jim tells farmers to approach farming like a small business and create business and grazing plans. Jim says he made lots of mistakes in the beginning, especially around capital. He bought too much equipment that needed constant repair and upkeep, which lead to dollars down the drain. He says this is a mistake he sees often with beginning farmers and stresses the need for minimal equipment when it comes to managed grazing.
Jim points out several issues facing farmers today but believes one of the biggest for farmers in the Driftless is access to land and infrastructure. Jim believes one viable path forward is convincing landowners that currently rent land to farmers to install permanent fencing. Jim explains the need for outreach to these landowners to demonstrate the low risk associated with converting their land to patsture and the potential finanncial benefits that come with increasedsoil health from managed grazing.
Jim is now in his 80s and contineus to farm and consult full-time. When asked what motivates him to continue his work, he says he’s “constantly learning” and “seeing erosion drives me nuts.”