Growing Farm Margins with High-Quality Forages

Ten years ago, Plaetz Dairy came to Midwestern BioAg looking to improve their conventional dairy farm. Farmers Bruce and Sherry were struggling with feed quality, a problem they hoped Midwestern BioAg’s forage program could help them solve.

“Everything we grow is fed to the cows,” Bruce said. “Before switching to BioAg, we spent a lot of money on feed, protein and minerals trying to keep cows healthy. A big problem was that our cows didn’t like their hay. It was bitter tasting; they picked through it.”

After testing their forages, Midwestern BioAg consultant Josh Elsing noticed excessively high potassium levels — a problem for many Midwest dairy farms. Elsing recommended a new fertility program, and the Plaetz’s decided to give it a try.

After ten years, the changes Elsing recommended have led to significant improvements in forage quality — the farm now saves 63 cents per cow per day on supplemental minerals.

Plans for Change: Going Organic

When Bruce and Sherry first began working with BioAg, they had major changes planned for the farm. “Our son, Matt, wanted to start farming with us, but it just wasn’t economically feasible at the time. We decided to go organic so that Matt could join the farm and we could stay profitable.”

“When I first started working with Plaetz Dairy, my goal was to balance the farm’s soil and improve biological activity,” said Elsing. “Knowing that they wanted to transition the herd to organic, it was important to get their ground in great shape to help make the transition as smooth as possible.” Today, the Wabasso, Minnesota, operation milks 75 cows on 520 acres. They’re organic on 320 acres and are currently transitioning another 200 acres.

A Different Fertility Program

At Plaetz Dairy, organic corn yields average 150 to 180 bushels per acre. Their organic soybeans average about 45 to 50 bushels per acre, close to the conventional average in the area — results, Elsing says, the Plaetz’s have earned.

“The Plaetz’s have worked hard on improving and mineralizing their soils so that now, after years on our program, they can reduce the amount of fertilizers needed to grow a crop. They are excellent managers — they are open minded, willing to try and they observe and learn.”

“You don’t need chemicals to grow a good crop,” said Bruce. “But you still have to take good care of the soil and use the right inputs to be successful.”


After ten years, the changes Elsing recommended have led to significant improvements in forage quality — the farm now saves 63 cents per cow per day on supplemental minerals.


Adding calcium was the first change Elsing made to the Plaetz Dairy fertility program. “We applied Bio-Cal® — and later, OrganiCal™ — to the Plaetz’s ground to improve both soil and crop quality,” said Elsing. “Calcium improves soil structure and plant uptake of other minerals, including phosphorus, boron and sulfur. This helps improve feed efficiency and reduces dependency on purchased mineral.”

The Plaetz’s organic herd is producing well on the BioAg-fertilized forages. “Production averages 60 lbs. per cow per day, and herd health is very good,” said Bruce. “For the first time in the 35 years I’ve been milking cows, we had to sell springing heifers. We’ve never had that ‘problem’ before.”

In addition to OrganiCal when needed, Plaetz Dairy bulk spreads Midwestern BioAg’s organic fertilizer blends each season. These include phosphorous, potassium, HumaCal®, K-Mag®, potash and rock phosphorous, with analyses ranging from 0-0-2 to 0-1-25. Additionally, they apply liquid fertilizer at planting, which includes a mixture of Midwestern BioAg’s OMRI-listed L-CBF TerraFed™ and fish at 5 gallons per acre.

“Now that our soil is balanced, we’re growing much sweeter, more palatable hay,” said Bruce. “One of the first things Josh told us was to take care of our alfalfa and the rest will take care of itself. We’re seeing that coming true.”

Diverse Crop Rotations

In addition to their hay ground, Plaetz Dairy rotationally grazes 40 acres of pasture during the growing season. Their TMR includes all homegrown corn silage, haylage, dry hay, high-moisture shell corn and roasted soybeans.

“We grow a lot of alfalfa,” said Bruce. “Our hay is a combination of Midwestern BioAg’s WinterKing alfalfa and High Quality Forage (HQF) grass mix.” Alfalfa on the Plaetz farm is kept in a short rotation (three-year maximum) and yields about 4 to 5 tons of dry hay per acre. Alfalfa is then followed by two years of corn and one year of soybeans.

Organic farms like Plaetz Dairy must grow a majority of their own nitrogen on the farm. For the Plaetz’s, this includes livestock manure, green manure crops like oats and alfalfa, and chicken pellets when needed. “We rotovate our fields in the fall, so they’re pretty smooth for planting oats in the spring,” said Bruce. “Once the oats are 6 to 8 inches tall, we work them in with a field cultivator.”

Transitioning Challenges

Transitioning to organic isn’t simply leaving the sprayer parked in the shed. It requires a whole new management system, including using cover crops and well-timed planting to help control weeds. “It takes courage not to use herbicides,” said Bruce. “We took the leap. Our yields haven’t dropped, our production hasn’t dropped. We’ve been truly blessed.”

For Plaetz Dairy, the initial transition to organic went smoothly. On ground where BioAg products and practices were previously applied, the change went well. However, when the Plaetz’s decided to transition additional acres in 2014, the process was not as seamless. “We had issues with grasses on land that hadn’t been in the BioAg program. We found we needed to do more work with cover crops,” said Bruce. “We didn’t get a cover crop in on two new soybean fields, and we had a mess with grass.”

“Taking a few seasons to prepare the ground before transitioning to organic can be extremely beneficial to producers,” said Elsing. “On the Plaetz farm, the advantage was very clear.”

The Plaetz’s continue to see their soils improve, a full decade after first working with Elsing. “They are getting really loose and mellow,” said Bruce. “Our soil takes the rain better, and we don’t have standing water in the field like the neighbors do. We’re excited for what’s next. Before working with BioAg, we were going backwards. Things are different now. We’re excited for the future.”