2015 CTIC Tour Minnesota: Exploring Conservation In The Land Of 10,000 Lakes

The damn cattle just didn’t want to cooperate.

After a day of pretty much every detail (during an event with a lot of moving parts, no less) going off without a hitch, a planned demo of Phil and Nate Maring’s rotational cattle grazing program – where the Maring’s herd of heifers are rotated among 8 different paddocks to maximize pasture profitability and protect the grassy habitat from over-grazing – was looking more like a pipe dream.

As the attendees along for the ride on the Conservation Technology Information Center’s (CTIC) 2015 Conservation In Action Tour lingered in the mighty August sun on the sloped pasture, listening to Phil describe the conservation practices in place on his families’ Goodhue County Century Farm, one of the Maring’s young farm hands commandeered a John Deere Gator up and down the dirt path between paddocks, hoping to dupe the herd into thinking it was their snack time so they’d perform the promised routine for their human audience.

“We usually feed them in the morning,” lamented Phil when the first few tries to stir the cattle went south. “So they probably know something’s up.”

Maring then began wrapping up his talk with the group, asking if anyone had any more questions as folks began to meander amidst the early evening haze back to the tour buses, when a whoop went up from the somewhere in the crowd.

“Everybody look, the cows are coming!”

The group turned back around in unison and waited for the cows to come barreling over the nearby hill. First to peak the grassy knoll in front of us was the farm hand on the Gator, and trailing behind him was the sight we all had come for: Maring’s herd, kicking up a massive cloud of afternoon dust, stampeded their way to a nearby paddock for watering from the Maring’s 45-year-old spring-fed pond.

Maybe it was the long day spent in close quarters with so many new faces or the uncomfortably hot and humid weather, but what will be remembered by many as the running of the cows at the Maring’s little farm outside Kenyon, MN, seemed to refresh and energize the group, imparting a second wind-ish momentum as the group headed off to the tour’s last stop before a dinner and reception along the banks of the Mississippi River in historic Red Wing, MN.

It was an almost perfect end to an almost perfect day crisscrossing the bucolic rolling hills of Southeast Minnesota. Here’s a brief wrap up of the day and what we saw/heard, accompanied by a slideshow of images from the tour. Enjoy!

Tour Stop #1: HAFA Farm – Hastings, MN

At the Hmong American Farmers Association (HAFA) Farm, attendees saw numerous sustainable agriculture practices being implemented, from cover crops to diversified plantings for pollinator habitats. Pakou Hang, HAFA founder and executive director, explained how the organization created a conservation easement to remove development threats to the land and reduce its value, so that HAFA could purchase the land for agriculture. Yao Yang, a recent college graduate that works as an organizer at the farm, told the group how she is getting into beekeeping on the farm with the help of Dr. Marla Spivak from the University of Minnesota Bee Lab.

Tour Stop #2: Far-Gaze Farm – Northfield, MN

Brothers Bruce, Chris and Brian Peterson and their families farm corn and soybeans, as well as raise hogs and heifers, on their 6,000 acre farm. At this stop attendees heard about successes the Peterson’s have had with interseeding cover crops in corn at the V7/V8 growth stage, and University of Minnesota professor Paulo Pagliari discussed various ways growers like the Petersons can measure soil health by quantifying the water holding capacity and organic matter in their soils.

Attendees also heard from two precision ag advisors working with the brothers on the farm, Kate Stenzel, an agronomist with Central Valley Cooperative in its Central Advantage precision program, and DuPont Pioneer’s Jamie Seitzer, the local Encirca lead for Southeast Minnesota. Seitzer described how Encirca and the data the Peterson’s collect throughout the season can help them understand how much nitrogen they have in the ground already to estimate how much additional nitrogen the crops will need throughout the season. Stenzel helps administer a 2.5 acre grid sampling program on the farm, and she uses the cooperative’s data base of over 200,000 acres of data to help the Petersons on variable rate fertilizer recommendations and implementing the 4Rs on their land.

Tour Stop #3: Doug Legvold’s Farm – Northfield, MN

A hop, skip and a jump away from tour stop #2 was our next stop at Doug Legvold’s impressive operation. Legvold’s 800 acre farm employs a saturated buffer system as drainage control, as his fields drain into the unfortunately named “Mud Creek” that runs between Legvold’s 200 foot buffer strip and a neighboring field.

On the day of our visit Legvold, a retired middle school teacher that taught environmental sciences for 35 years in the local school system, was in the middle of having some new drainage tile installed that will work in conjunction with a two-stage water level control structure in his saturated buffer, allowing Legvold to control the flow of water on and off of his fields and force water up the distribution line. Attendees also got to see the Soil Warrior zone tillage tool in action, and heard from University of Minnesota’s Jodi DeJong-Hughes on the different soil types across Minnesota and how they affect tillage and other management practices.

Tour Stop #4: Maring Farm – Kenyon, MN

Coming from the intense row-crop production systems in place at tour stops #2 and #3, the Maring’s rolling pasture and livestock management operation was a nice change up on the itinerary. Besides the aforementioned “running of the cows”, attendees learned about the karst topography that much of the Southeast Minnesota area near the Mississippi River has to deal with. Karst is a vast bed of eroded limestone dissolved by eons of rainwater into a network of channels and caves, according to CTIC literature. Phil Maring discussed the importance rotational grazing to keep the pastures viable for the long term, sustainable feeding of the cattle, as well as good conservation practices to manage groundwater quality in the area, as karst topography can allow for nutrient runoff to travel miles downstream where it is obviously not wanted.

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