Better Soil, Bigger Yields

Shullsburg, Wisconsin, farmer Chad Gleason is enthusiastic about everything he does — from managing his 400-head steer finishing operation, to growing corn and hay for his livestock with help from Midwestern BioAg.

Gleason farms on a wide variety of soil types — some of them are great like his Tama soil (reputed to be the best soil in the world), and others that are not so great in the hills.

But all of the fields are going gangbusters since he decided to utilize the products and practices recommended by Midwestern BioAg seven years ago.

 

300-Bushel Corn

“We have some very fertile fields that are producing really well, but we also have some poorer ground that’s yielding great too.” Since he switched to the BioAg program, Gleason said he isn’t surprised to get 300-bushel corn yields.

“I am very impressed. Most people don’t believe me when I talk about my soil tests,” he said. “I’m definitely sold on the results.” He uses his phone to show photos of corn ears as big as his forearm weighing 1.36 pounds each. He hit 301 bushels per acre with those ears, on fields planted in 38-inch rows and a population of 30,500 plants per acre.

Before working with BioAg, 125-bushel corn yields on Gleason’s farm were the norm. He can only marvel at the corn yields he gets now and the rates at which his soil organic matter scores have risen. “I have no soils under 4 percent organic matter now. Many of my soils are 5, 6, 7, even 8 percent organic matter. Most were in the range of 3 percent when we started.”

 

 

Since he switched to the BioAg program, Gleason said he isn’t surprised to get 300-bushel corn yields.

 

 

Gleason is primarily a livestock man, but believes that good production will follow if the soil is taken care of. “Everything starts with good soils that produce good crops that do good things for my livestock. It’s a cycle — everything works together.”

The main enterprise on the Gleason farm is raising beef cattle. The baby calves and the 400-head steer finishing operation are both on Chad’s 80-acre farm, which once belonged to his great-grandfather. He’s now the fourth generation of his family to farm that land.

Chad farms with his wife Katrina — they have two young children and another on the way — and shares some equipment with his parents Pat and Betty who have their own 200-acre farm nearby. “We have some bigger equipment that we share and we try to help each other back and forth.”

 

High-Yielding Forage

In addition to working his own land, Chad rents about 100 acres of hay ground. He tries to produce as much feed as he can for his livestock to cut down on purchased feed and save the livestock enterprise money. He generally grows pure alfalfa stands on his fields to produce high-protein hay and save on purchased protein costs. Last year, Gleason took 10.5 tons per acre of dry matter off his hayfields in five cuttings. “I’ve never had so much hay.”

Fields are generally kept in alfalfa for three years and then corn is brought into the rotation for a few years, depending on the price of corn and other factors. Gleason also grows oats for straw and uses the grain in his calf starter. “We try to be as self-sufficient as possible. It’s a lot more work but the savings have paid off.”

His feedlot cattle are fed with a total mixed ration (TMR) utilizing his corn and hay crops. The corn is all harvested as “snaplage” — the grain, cob and husk is harvested with a silage chopper equipped with a snapper head and a kernel processor. Gleason stores his feed in a bunker silo and horizontal silo bags.

 

Fertility Program

Gleason credits BioAg’s Bio-Cal® with building his soil’s tilth. “Bio-Cal creates humus and humus builds organic matter,” he said.

Gleason’s fields get at least 1,300 pounds per acre of Bio-Cal yearly each fall. “My rented field gets 1,700 pounds to the acre. With a good, balanced fertilizer program and good manure, it all works together.”

His fields are “in the soil corrective stage,” and he knows that eventually this productive phase will slow. “We are at the high end of these soil additives but we are throwing everything at it to see what will happen.”

His fertilizer program includes 32% nitrogen that goes on with his pre-emergent application of herbicide, and then a broadcast of BioAg fertilizer in the spring. He does grid-sample soil testing with BioAg every two years.

When it comes to selecting seed corn, he is “very happy with Master’s Choice for feed.” Nearly all the corn he plants is Master’s Choice — generally 112-day and 118-day corn. “When corn moisture hits 40 percent, the chopper is rolling,” said Gleason.

For 2016, he plans to save money by planting all conventional corn rather than the genetically modified (GM) stacked-trait corn at double the price tag. Last year he experimented with some conventional corn along with his GM corn and didn’t see much difference. “It’s a no-brainer to save that much on seed cost.”

Gleason plans to continue to push his fields with BioAg products to see how much production he can get. He has noticed that when his neighbors have ponding on their fields after rain, he doesn’t; in drought conditions, his crops look green and healthy compared to those of his neighbors. “I’m definitely a believer,” said Gleason. “You can visually see the difference.”

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Jan Shepel has over 25 years of ag journalism experience and lives in southwestern Wisconsin.

The Farming Pharmacist

A New Jersey native — with no farmers in his family tree — is now a successful beef breeder and cash cropper in Minnesota’s Winona County, southeast of Minneapolis. Tom Scarponcini came to his beautiful Rushford-area farm by way of Maine, where he started a small enterprise pasturing 16 head of cattle and learning about rotational grazing. “I wanted to be a farmer, but I have no idea where that came from,” he says.

After getting a taste of farming in Maine, Scarponcini wanted to expand his operation but it was nearly impossible in that area. “You end up paying house-lot prices for new land, but then I stumbled on this place,” he says. “This place,” which includes the highest spot in the county, comprises 870 total acres; 330 acres are used for crop production. He fell in love with the rolling, sloping hillsides and could envision it as a place to expand his beef herd.

“This is a beautiful farm for raising cattle,” says Scarponcini. At the start, it was kind of run down. “It was a diamond in the rough, which made it affordable. But you just looked at the depth of the black dirt and you knew there was potential there.”

For the first few years after purchasing his farm, Scarponcini rented out the farmland while he concentrated on building 32 miles of fence and installing 13 miles of water line so he could set the land up for rotational grazing. He also moonlighted as a pharmacist on the second shift at the Mayo Clinic, which helped with the setup of his Brandywine Farm.

About 20 years ago, Scarponcini visited Midwestern BioAg’s booth at the Rochester farm show and met with Gary Zimmer, the company’s founder. Having earned his pharmacy license, Scarponcini had a very strong background in chemistry and biology. He also obtained a master’s in microbiology and had a good grasp on the science as he read the promotional materials from BioAg. “I knew very little about agriculture at the time, but the science — the biology, chemistry, and microbiology — all made sense. In theory it sounded right and I thought it was worth a try. It’s not organic; it’s biological,” he said.

Two years after landing at his Minnesota farm, Scarponcini took over the management of his crop acres and began a long relationship with BioAg consultant Mike Lovlien. Twenty years later, he is getting silage corn with 204-bushel-per-acre yields, his plants are 13 feet tall, and the stalks are thick and green. When Scarponcini and Lovlien analyze root systems, soil, and earthworm holes, they find “it’s cooking,” Scarponcini says.

Lovlien notes that they avoid applying harsh inputs that can restrict soil life. “We’re not out there harming soil health. Tom has fully embraced our program. In 2013, we grid-sampled every 2½ acres on his land,” he said.Tom Scarponcini_Mike Lovelien in corn field

Another factor his crop acres benefit from is the cattle that are a part of Scarponcini’s operation. Along with dedicated cropland, he has 350 acres of permanent pasture on which graze 250 cow-calf units — some registered Gelbvieh and some that are Balancer breed — a registered hybrid between Angus and Gelbvieh. These hybrids, he explains, gain carcass traits and a black hide from the Angus side, while getting their mothering ability from the Gelbvieh. Of the 250 cows that calved this spring, all but two were born on his farm. “They were raised here and adapted to this environment and management program.”

The cattle have been more than helpful in balancing the cash flow of the farm and providing manure that enriches the land. During calving season, manure is stockpiled from cattle yards at the farmstead and is used selectively on the fields. Scarponcini and Lovlien manage his land, but he leaves the crop planting and harvesting to custom operators who have recently put up huge piles of corn silage at the farm.

“I have to hand it to Tom,” says Lovlien. “He manages the two enterprises to support each other. He sold cattle to help pay for soil improvements in 2013 and he will recoup that for years to come.”

One of the things that drew this farmer to BioAg is that the company emphasizes the importance of micronutrients as well as calcium and sulfur. “No one else ever acknowledged that they were even significant. Their significance was obvious to me with my science background. If a micronutrient is a catalyst for a larger process, then when it’s gone, that process stops. Of course it’s important,” Scarponcini adds.

He went into the BioAg program on its claims, and was won over by the tangible results — tonnage, evidence of earthworm activity, and nodules on the roots. Tissue analyses of his haylage showed that his crops stood at the highest test levels in every category. “That really impressed me.”

Some of his crops are “too rich” for his beef cows and must be diluted with corn stalks or lower-quality hay. His corn production this year is 12 bushels ahead of where it was last year. “I’ve achieved a level of production that I’m comfortable with,” said Scarponcini. “All indications are that it is working.”

Scarponcini has been active in the cattle business since he started his enterprise. His cattle leave the farm as breeding bulls and replacement heifers for other breeders. He helped start a cooperative marketing group 13 years ago with breeders in Missouri, Nevada, and Colorado called Seedstock Plus with a strong commitment to commercial producers.

All their bulls are tested for feed efficiency and DNA tested for the gene markers that are associated with tenderness of their beef. “There’s no reason in the world for anyone to ever have a tough steak. Genomics has identified the genes for tenderness. We have the tools.”

The Balancer breed’s development — in which Scarponcini was instrumental — draws on hybrid vigor by crossing the two breeds and pulls the best qualities from each breed. Two-thirds of his own herd is purebred Gelbvieh, which are red, and one-third is Balancer.

Scarponcini says it took him almost 20 years to get his place “up and running,” but his goal was always to get the farm in reasonable condition so he could retire from his pharmacy job, which he did in March 2013, a few years ahead of schedule. BioAg’s program was a big part of bringing his farm back to life.

“I strongly believe that I have a moral and ethical obligation to leave the farm, as a whole, in better condition than I found it,” Scarponcini said. “It transcends being a job to being a way of life.”

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Jan Shepel has over 25 years of ag journalism experience and lives in southwestern Wisconsin.

From the Desk of Tony Michaels, CEO

There is a lot of buzz these days about sustainability in agriculture, a term that means different things to different people. As author Rob Gray might say, sustainable agriculture is about “treating the world as if we intended to stay.”

As a Midwestern BioAg customer, you practice this concept on your farm year after year. With an eye on building future farm productivity, you manage your soils for long-term health by putting down the best fertilizer possible in the most efficient ways. The short-term benefits are obvious — increased yields and higher quality feeds. The long-term benefits are compelling — reduced environmental impacts and higher farm margins.

Sustainable agriculture is a hot-button issue in today’s media, and for good reason. Nutrient runoff is arguably one of the most-debated topics in ag today. As the costs of cleaning nitrate and phosphorus deposits from drinking water financially strain municipal budgets, governments look to point and non-point pollution sources like agriculture for solutions.

 

 

With an eye on building future farm productivity, you manage your soils for long-term health by putting down the best fertilizer possible in the most efficient ways. The short-term benefits are obvious — increased yields and higher quality feeds. The long-term benefits are compelling — reduced environmental impacts and higher farm margins

 

 

Often not included in the story are the methods farmers like you already implement to keep nutrients out of the waterways and in your fields. Your motivations are twofold: putting down quality nutrients efficiently is both financially smart and environmentally sound. As a Midwestern BioAg customer, you plant cover crops whenever possible and practice tillage only when necessary to reduce compaction and keep top-soil loss at a minimum. You understand that a good soil structure increases water-holding capacity and nutrient cycling — two benefits that improve profitability and reduce nutrient loss.

Midwestern BioAg customers farm for margins in ways that go beyond mere sustainability. Over the past 30 years, our industry has seen tremendous advancement. Yields are higher, efficiencies are stronger, and cattle are more robust. And today, as pressures increase to make these advancements sustainable, the industry has stepped up to the challenge. Every farm conference or industry publication is peppered with mentions of best farming practices that can make farming better without sacrificing profitability.

The environmental benefits of our products and recommended practices are a silent addition to the reasons why our approach to farming has value. These benefits also have real value to municipalities. It costs a city $25 to $100 to remove each pound of phosphate from wastewater. It costs millions of dollars to put in a nitrate removal technology for urban drinking water.

At BioAg, we are exploring ways to have local cities “trade” their cleanup requirements to the farmer and create an additional revenue source for the farm. Under this type of policy, growers like you could reduce water-quality problems for free — while making more money on crops themselves. This is the kind of win-win situation needed to support sustainable change in agriculture.

This is just one of the many benefits of our approach to farm management, benefits that arise from a practical system of farming that can focus on all the factors that contribute to soil health, plant nutrition, and farm profitability. By taking this economically savvy approach to farm management, together we can truly “treat the world as if we intended to stay.”

Helping Hunger Task Force Feed Those in Need

The Hunger Task Force works to end hunger in the Milwaukee, Wisconsin, metro area. Their farm, located just southwest of the city, serves over 40,000 people in need each month. The farm produces over 800,000 pounds of fresh produce each year, cultivating nearly 30 varieties of fruits and vegetables.

Formed in the early 1980s, the Hunger Task Force’s mission is to provide food to people in need today, to achieve a hunger-free community tomorrow. Some 75 percent of their produce recipients are a particularly vulnerable population: children and the elderly.

The Hunger Task Force is dedicated to its work. But with a group of beginner farmers at the helm, they were willing to try new things. And Midwestern BioAg was happy to provide guidance.

“We have a really bright and talented crew of young farmers,” including four University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Agriculture alums,” said Matt King, farm director at the Hunger Task Force. “That’s where the partnership with Midwestern BioAg comes into play, because we are young farmers.”

The operation is unique because staff can test equipment and management practices without affecting the financial bottom line that a typical commercial farmer must consider.

“The fun part about working with them is that they are very receptive,” said Ben Bartlett, a southeastern Wisconsin-based BioAg consultant who works alongside BioAg vegetable expert Allen Philo to craft the Hunger Task Force fertility program. “We make a suggestion and they try it out: short cropping cycles, multiple cropping cycles.”

The Hunger Task Force also has an interesting labor force: a small army of nearly 5,000 volunteers who participate in every aspect of their farming process, from seed to harvest.

“Hunger Task Force is a food bank year-round,” noted King. “After the farm has planned out the next year, ordered seeds, and completed any necessary equipment repairs, our team works on a natural-area restoration project.” This fall, the farm also plans to build hoop houses to extend the growing season into late fall.

Aside from an open-minded approach to agricultural practices and ag connections, the Hunger Task Force shares Midwestern BioAg’s dedication to replenishing soils and treating them responsibly for the benefit of all.

 

 

Bio-Cal® is a building block for healthy soil, with a proprietary blend of five calcium sources including both soluble and time-released.

 

 

“We really view ourselves as stewards of this land that we’re farming,” King said. “We want to ensure that the farm is going to continue to be viable and to produce 20 to 30 years from now. And Midwestern BioAg has the expertise to help move in that direction.”

Midwestern BioAg keyed in on the Hunger Task Force’s need to develop a program to revitalize their soil with cover crops on the nearly 100 acres it farms on a 200-acre parcel of land. The other 100 acres lies along the Root River.

“In some years past, it’s been challenging for us to stay organized and be deliberate with our cover-cropping schedule,” King said. “Working with Ben and Midwestern BioAg, we’ve been able to keep on top of that and we haven’t had any fields without cover this year.”

With the help of Bartlett and Philo, King’s team analyzed the farm’s different geographical areas to determine the best cover crops to improve issues like soil compaction and nutrient imbalances.

“Their challenges were heavy clay soils and relatively out-of-balance calcium ratios,” Bartlett said. “With clay soils you get tightness, hard crusting issues, and poor drainage. So we’re trying to improve water management, as well as fertility.”

“Despite cover cropping in the previous year, we were experiencing a degree of soil compaction that was limiting the production of our green beans,” said King. “Through Midwestern BioAg, we were able to optimize the planting rate of our cover crop seeds.”

Midwestern BioAg’s Bio-Cal® product has helped to rebalance the land’s nutrient ratios. Bio-Cal is a building block for healthy soil, with a proprietary blend of five calcium sources including both soluble and time-released. It helps improve nutrient availability and also improves soil structure in heavy soils.

The Hunger Task Force’s farm also applies Midwestern BioAg’s custom-blended fertilizers, which are designed to work with the land it’s used on. These custom blends contain not just N-P-K, but calcium, sulfur, and magnesium, as well as micronutrients, including iron, manganese, copper, zinc, and boron.

King said the relationship they’ve built with Midwestern BioAg is an asset to the growth of their farm and their experience as farmers.

“They’ve taken a lot of time to come and visit us throughout the season. They check on our progress and provide insight,” King said. “With them, we have a long-term partner who cares about the sustainability of our operation.”

Midwestern BioAg’s dedication to healthier soils, farms, food, and communities is a tie that binds them to the mission of the Hunger Task Force.

“I know that there’s a concerted interest on their part in helping our farm be successful so that families who are struggling and having hard times can also have access to fresh produce,” King said.

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Raised on a third-generation cattle and grain farm in Illinois, Holly Henschen is an active writer and blogger from Madison, Wisconsin.

Improving Dairy Profitability

Milk prices are low, but to improve dairy farm margins in challenging times, dairies should look “lower” to improve profitability — all the way down to the ground, according to Midwestern BioAg Director of Nutrition Dave Meidl.

“If you grow your own forages,” says Meidl, “we can help you improve profitability by building a fertility plan to grow a better quality, higher-yielding crop. There’s a lot of revenue potential in the soil, and we can help you unlock it.”

By taking a systems-approach to dairy farm management, consultants like Meidl can help farmers grow better quality, higher-yielding forages and reduce supplemental mineral costs.

Wayside Dairy near Green Bay, Wisconsin, works closely with BioAg consultant Terry Dvorachek to build farm profitability from the ground up. With Meidl’s help, Dvorachek put together a fertility program to improve financial returns from Wayside Dairy’s forages. With their top-quality genetics and close attention to detail, “it has been a real honor to work with Dan and Paul Natzke,” notes Dvorachek, who has worked with the 1,750-cow dairy since 2012.

 

 

Working with BioAg consultant Terry Dvorachek, Wayside Dairy saved 13 cents per cow per day on supplemental mineral.

 

 

A family operation for more than 150 years, Wayside Dairy is always in search of tools to help them improve their 2,600-acre farm. “We are progressive dairymen and we want to have our soil as healthy as we can,” says Dan. “By being good stewards of our land, we can provide more nutritious food for our cattle and also leave behind a better farm for the next generation.”

Wayside Dairy relies on BioAg’s soil fertility program to enhance their forages and make them more profitable. They have also implemented management practices like cover crops to help them build soil health.

“We plant about 280 acres in triticale each year following corn silage harvest,” says Dan. “In the spring, we apply liquid manure and harvest the crop for our heifers and dry cows.” After harvest, Wayside Dairy follows with no-till corn.

Earlier this spring, the Natzkes averaged 4 tons (wet) per acre from their triticale crop. “If you’re a dairy farmer, don’t overlook cover crops as a forage source,” notes Dan.

On their alfalfa, the dairy applies BioAg’s Bio-Cal® at 800 lbs. per acre and 2-4-30 fertilizer at 300 lbs. per acre.

The payoff? More milk per acre and reduced feed input costs.

“Wayside Dairy’s yields, forage samples, and soil tests are very strong,” says Dvorachek. “Their crop performance has helped them keep feed costs low without sacrificing production.”

Returns on Midwestern BioAg’s forage program are threefold:

  • Reduced feeding costs: Working with Midwestern BioAg and Dvorachek, Wayside Dairy saved 13 cents per cow per day on supplemental mineral. Out-of-pocket costs for mineral are lower because forage tests show that the mineral content of Wayside Dairy’s homegrown forages has improved. “This is important,” says Dvorachek, “because minerals in plant form are more bioavailable to the cow than supplemental minerals added in rock form.”
  • More feed: Using products like Bio-Cal and BioAg’s balanced fertilizers, Wayside Dairy has improved forage yields from 3.7 tons per acre to 4.2 tons per acre. With a larger feed inventory on the farm, Wayside can devote less acreage to hay production so that other crops can be grown or herd size can be increased without buying or renting additional land. And, in some cases, extra hay can be sold as secondary income.
  • Better economic return per acre: Using the University of Wisconsin Extension’s Milk 2006 program, Wayside Dairy’s BioAg-fertilized hay ground showed higher total digestible nutrients of dry matter over the control (63.2 versus 61.6), higher relative forage quality (164 vs. 158), and more milk per ton (3,013 vs. 2,903). Milk per acre was higher as well (12,777 vs. 10,828).

Overall, Wayside Dairy gained $300 more per acre in milk income by applying the BioAg forage program on their hay ground.

Wayside Dairy forage improvements

“That’s a pretty nice return on investment,” noted Meidl. “Even in the face of low milk prices, we can help dairies improve their bottom line. The proof,” says Meidl, “is in the numbers.”

Wayside Dairy takes those numbers seriously. When asked what advice he might give other farmers looking to improve their bottom line, Dan suggested looking for an outside opinion. “We use a lot of consultants — really good people who can take us to that next level,” says Dan. “Good consultants can help you do what you are already doing even better.”

From the Farm of Gary Zimmer

Dear Farmer/Agribusiness person,

Field Day at Otter Creek is coming soon and what do we have to show you this year? In the past year, many changes have been made to our 1,000-acre operation — we have a lot that’s new in 2015.

The dairy herd grew too large for our facility, so we sold half of our cows early this year. My daughter Sadie bought the remaining herd and manages them here on the farm. At present, we are milking about 160 cows, most of which are Holsteins. We have also decided to raise only replacement heifers. In other words, instead of raising 100 calves each year, we will keep only about 50.

With half as many cows, meaning fewer acres of hay and pasture, this leaves us extra acres for cash crops and a different rotation. We have greatly expanded our small grains production and now grow fall rye, winter triticale, and spring hard red wheat. We also planted 90 more acres of sweet corn, plus 120 acres of seed corn, and more soybeans.

To do all this, we made another big adjustment to our operation, switching from 38-inch rows to 30-inch rows. It’s a big job to change over all the equipment, tractor tires, etc., and there’s a big learning curve.

We also made the decision to do every acre better — applying fertilizer more precisely, moving up our soil correctives to deal with limiting factors, and adding more foliars and liquids into our fertilizer program.

Adding more weed control tools was another part of this change. As an organic operation, weed control can be a challenge at Otter Creek. The weather rarely cooperates with us in getting into the fields. This spring, as in the past, it rained, and rained, and rained. As we enter mid-summer, we are very satisfied with our weed control and the look of the crops. With the right amount of rain at the right time and some heat units, we will be set up for a great crop season. Nothing is 100 percent at this stage of the game, but I do feel we are doing better on every square foot of soil we farm.

I keep saying that as farmers, we are at the mercy of many factors out of our control — our costs are up and market prices are down. However, what we produce on every acre and what we spend per unit of production is where our opportunities lie.

At our Field Day on August 18, we will demonstrate farming practices that can help grow farm margins in challenging times. This year’s topics include forage production, corn production, weed control, and dairy herd management, among others. Please join us to learn how what we practice on our farm can help you on yours.

Gary F. Zimmer

Celebrating Our Soils

During the International Year of the Soils, the United Nations is spreading a message similar to what Midwestern BioAg has been practicing on its research farm for over a quarter of a century.

But this 2015 celebration of soils is missing a crucial element, said Midwestern BioAg Co-Founder and President Gary Zimmer.

The UN Food and Agriculture Organization’s International Year of the Soils campaign was initiated to raise awareness and educate society, decision makers, and the public about the crucial role of soils. The importance of soils is becoming a prominent theme in modern agriculture. Aside from serving as the ground for food production, soils are vital in global issues of food security, climate change adaptation and mitigation, poverty alleviation, and sustainable development.

The UN program separates the importance of soil into five vital roles which every Midwestern BioAg consultant and customer can attest to:

  • Soils are the foundation for vegetation that is cultivated or managed for feed, fiber, fuel, and medicinal products.
  • Soils support our planet’s biodiversity and host a quarter of all organisms.
  • Soils help to combat and adapt to climate change by playing a key role in the carbon cycle.
  • Soils store and filter water, improving resilience to floods and droughts.
  • Soil is a non-renewable resource; its regeneration and preservation are essential for food security and our sustainable future.

All of this is good common sense, says Zimmer. But the UN’s tenets lacks a key aspect of the soil-enriching practices pioneered by Midwestern BioAg more than 30 years ago.
“The only thing that’s missing is how to manage the system and minerals,” Zimmer said. “You can’t keep putting harsh inputs on the land if you want to get the soil healthy.”

 

Midwestern BioAg’s approach to farm management begins with assessing the needs of the soil to cultivate a healthy environment for growth.

 

Zimmer and three partners founded Midwestern BioAg in 1984. The fertilizer and agronomic consulting company recommends a program that supports farming methods based on healthy, balanced soils and the equally healthy crops, livestock, farms, and food that come from them. In modern agriculture, this practice is becoming increasingly common, but in 1984, the concept of “biological” agriculture was a rarity.

Rather than treating the soil as an agricultural input, biological farming nurtures the ecosystem within the soil. Midwestern BioAg’s approach to farm management begins with assessing the needs of the soil to cultivate a healthy environment for growth.

The company recommends treating soil with carbon-based, balanced fertilizers and soil amendments with blends that include macronutrients, like calcium and sulfur, and micronutrients, like boron and magnesium. The use of compost, green manures, livestock manures, and crop residues complement these recommendations by fostering microbial life within the soil. When paired with short crop rotations and the use of cover crops, producers replenish their soil, build biodiversity, and fix atmospheric nitrogen so less synthetically produced nitrogen is required. This system also helps reduce pesticide and fungicide dependency.

The benefits of biological agriculture include increased growth capacity in the soil, as well as higher drought resistance, less mineral runoff, reduced carbon footprint, and building soil that counteracts erosion.

Some 25 years ago, Midwestern BioAg shared the results of early tests of biological farming at its first Field Day at Otter Creek Farms in southwestern Wisconsin. Its 1,000 acres serve as a demonstration farm that hosts Field Day each year for interested farmers and customers.

Midwestern BioAg’s Field Day is “a celebration of agriculture and our approach to farming,” Zimmer says. “My favorite part of Field Day is to be able to show off our farm and show what’s achievable.”

The first Field Day, in 1992, drew 90 people, Gary said. In the years since, as many as 1,000 people from across the U.S. and 11 countries have attended Midwestern BioAg’s Field Day. Otter Creek Farms operates as a dairy with plots of corn, soybeans, alfalfa and, of course, cover crops. Field Day features consultants on-hand leading educational programs and answering questions.
Otter Creek Farms is a living example that soil is more than just a place to apply fertilizer, Gary said.

“This is a living system and we can do something about helping it function better and having healthier foods and a healthier environment,” he said.
Zimmer said he hopes Field Day inspires visitors to explore the possibilities of Midwestern BioAg’s approach to farming.

“There’s a lot more room for improvement in current agriculture,” Zimmer said. “If farmers look at our approach and all the things we do to get our high yields, I hope it sparks them to think, “My gosh, these things are doable!’”

Come see what Midwestern BioAg has to offer during the August 18 Field Day and visit the award-winning Otter Creek Farms at 6620 WI Hwy. 130, Avoca, Wisconsin.

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Raised on a third-generation cattle and grain farm in Illinois, Holly Henschen is an active writer and blogger from Madison, Wisconsin.

Midwestern BioAg Expands South and East

Two new regional Midwestern BioAg facilities, one in Ohio and the other in Illinois, will improve customer service and make more product locally available as Midwestern BioAg continues to grow and expand.

At Bellefontaine, Ohio, approximately 60 miles northwest of Columbus, the new BioAg facility includes 5,000 square feet of warehouse space and 2,500 square feet of office space. The warehouse provides on-site storage, improving product availability as well as serving as a clearinghouse for organizing small loads. The location includes storage for livestock mineral as well.

Another big advantage, says Ohio consultant Alan Kauffman, will be “better service and more convenience for customers to stop in and pick up products, with an easier in and out” than previously. “In the long run, a larger variety of products will be available here.”

The current Ohio team includes Kauffman, a seven-year Midwestern BioAg consultant, joined by sales consultants Victoria Buhr and Harrison Hobart, assistant operations manager April Burnett, and part-time delivery driver Ben Gantz. The office space will also be used for meetings, staff training, and webinars.

Equipment based out of the facility currently includes two spreader carts with plans to add a one-ton pickup and gooseneck trailer for deliveries. More equipment will be added in the future to better accommodate growing demand.

Construction of an all new, full-service facility got underway in July in Milledgeville, Illinois, with project completion set for fall. Located approximately 40 miles southwest of Rockford, Illinois, this new facility will include a 17,000-square-foot blending and storage building, a 4,800-square-foot shop, and a 1,500-square-foot office. “Milledgeville is a very ag-centered community with good road access in all directions” says local consultant Ben Adolph about why that location was chosen. “It will cut a lot of delivery time for customers who were previously serviced through Blue Mounds, Wisconsin.”

Fertilizer materials will be stored on-site for blends, and custom blending will be offered with bags, totes, and bulk-delivery options available for fertilizer products. Bagged livestock mineral will also be kept on hand in Milledgeville.

Existing Illinois consultants will work out of the new location. In addition to Adolph, that group includes Kyle Dionne, Matthew Busse, Mitchael Dunphy, and Mike Dietmeier.
Plans call for adding operations and office personnel as the facility comes on-line.

The new locations join the five existing Midwestern BioAg facilities:

  • Blue Mounds, Wisconsin, is the current corporate headquarters for Midwestern BioAg. Built new in 2006, this facility boasts a 5,800-square-foot office building, a 36,000-square-foot warehouse, and a 17,000-square-foot, custom-built fertilizer building.
  • In Monticello, Iowa, Midwestern BioAg’s 6,500-square-foot facility provides products and services to producers in Iowa and nearby Illinois, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Kansas, as well as some areas of Minnesota and Wisconsin.
  • The Kinde, Michigan, facility, originally established in 1999 as a Midwestern BioAg satellite, has served parts of Michigan, Ohio, Indiana, and Canada for 15 years. Kinde is BioAg’s fertilizer blending and storage facility in the thumb of Michigan, and includes offices for staff.
  • Utica, Minnesota, where construction of the facility began in 2002, originally had a 4,200-square-foot warehouse and distribution center plus a small office. Later, a 3,600-square-foot mineral shed and a 1,500-square-foot office building for staff and consultants were added onto the facility.
  • The Black Creek, Wisconsin, sales and service center was established with the purchase of an existing building in the Black Creek Industrial Park in 2013. The office, shop, and warehouse facility is home to fertilizer staging, spreading equipment, and warehouse space for livestock nutrition and seed products.

Today, Midwestern BioAg serves over 4,100 customers on over 1 million acres in 29 states and three Canadian provinces. With new facilities in Ohio and Illinois and the capacity to service hundreds of thousands of additional farmland acres, the company looks forward to helping more farmers improve the yields, profits, and sustainability of their operations.

Building Yields, Soil Health

Twenty-five years ago, when Gary Manternach first began working with Midwestern BioAg, few would have predicted that topics like sulfur, calcium, micronutrients, and soil biology would be a vital part of mainstream agriculture today. “The whole industry is talking sulfur now,” notes Manternach as an example. “You can’t open up a magazine without reading about biology.”

Today, Manternach successfully farms his Iowa silt-loam acres by focusing on both soil health and profits. Working with soil health to build yields and profitability makes farming a pursuit he enjoys and hopes he will be able to pass on to the next generation of his family.

Almost all of his 640 acres are corn-on-corn, grown successfully and profitably because he follows the healthy-soil concepts he has learned from Midwestern BioAg — nurturing his soil life, applying quality nutrients from quality sources to address crop fertilizer and soil corrective requirements, and avoiding overtillage — all practices aimed toward improving efficiency and increasing yield while simultaneously building soil health on his farm. “I want to keep that good soil health,” adds Manternach.

One way Manternach assesses his soil health is by evaluating the number of earthworms found in his fields. Why are they important? High populations are “a great sign of good soil: structure, fertility, the whole works,” says Manternach. “That includes great nutrient cycling,” he added.

 

 

“The whole industry is talking sulfur now,” notes Manternach. “You can’t open up a magazine without reading about biology.”

 

 

By performing a slake test, Manternach’s Midwestern BioAg Consultant, Bob Yanda of Monticello, Iowa, confirmed another of Manternach’s observations — that his soils absorb water better than the surrounding ground. Visual differences are obvious after a heavy rain. “You can see a lot of neighboring ground where the yellowing on their corn was more visible compared to mine,” Manternach notes.

His most important measure, however, is profitability, which he judges by net dollars per acre.

Back in 1989, before becoming a BioAg customer, yields were stagnating, Gary Manternach recalls. “We bulk-spread fertilizer, soil tested our fields, and it seemed like the only recommendation we received was to put on more potash.” That advice didn’t make sense to him, because with livestock manure from their feeder cattle operation “you wouldn’t think you’d need that.” But when a BioAg consultant knocked on his door with new ideas and new products to maximize his operation, Manternach saw the potential and value of going beyond N-P-K to meet his crops’ nutrient needs. “We needed to apply calcium to help get things in balance.” With the help of his consultant, Manternach selected Midwestern BioAg’s Bio-Cal® as a calcium source. “Calcium is a big help with water infiltration and in keeping that cake-like soil structure,” he noted.

Initially, Manternach disced-in fertilizer during planting, but “now we’re zone-tilling so we’re putting it right in the root zone. It’s more efficient, and requires less tillage.” They utilize light vertical-till and strip-till, plus ag technology applications such as GPS and auto steer. Their goal is to “get the corn root closer to that fertilizer zone.”

Managing crop residues is also an important aspect of Manternach’s farming approach. By recycling the nutrients in the residues back into the ground, Manternach helps feed next year’s crop and builds organic matter in the soil. Using a corn head with a crusher that physically breaks down corn leaves and stalks after harvest, Manternach then leverages the microbes in his soil to finish decomposition. Additionally, he bales as much residue as he can for bedding for his 650 feeder steers, and then returns that manure to his fields. The combination of stalks and manure speeds decomposition and generates a yield increase later in the growing season. Where manure is applied, “the ground is yielding better,” a 10 to 20 bu/acre bump. “I see it all the time,” Manternach added.

A product the Iowa farmer has recently added to his operation is Midwestern BioAg’s molasses-based fertilizer Boost™. With a 4-0-3-2S-.5Mg analysis, Boost is a liquid fertilizer, a surfactant that provides drift control, a biological stimulant, and a nitrogen stabilizer. “It’s great to use a fertilizer to help your chemicals and stimulate your biology,” says Manternach.

Manternach uses a variety of nitrogen sources in addition to what’s found in BioAg’s starter fertilizers. Manternach uses a slow-release nitrogen source, plus additional 28% or 32% with chemical applications. He spreads livestock manure on about half of his land. A small part of his acreage, usually about 30 acres, is in alfalfa, and when plowing down a stand, he credits that nitrogen as well.

His fertilizer program for corn-on-corn is a custom blend with an analysis of 19-4-8 and an additional 8 units of sulfur. Manternach uses micronutrients in all his blends.

Manternach applies nitrogen with his planter (side of row) and in-furrow with Midwestern BioAg’s L-CBF 10-14-1. Boost is also broadcasted to provide additional nitrogen. Bio-Cal, a Midwestern BioAg exclusive product he’s used for many years, is applied about every three to four years to his row crops and always ahead of alfalfa.

Among the advantages of working with BioAg, Manternach lists economic stability, better yields, more enjoyment in farming, and knowledge, which allows him to farm to his full potential.

Why work with Midwestern BioAg? He answered with a question. Ask yourself “Are you satisfied where you are at? If not, and you want to learn more, BioAg is something you ought to look at.”

Feeding Restaurants

Kristen Kordet was working as a restaurant server when she founded a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) farm in 2004. Since then, Kordet’s Blue Moon Community Farm has supplied that restaurant, L’Etoile, with the seasonal vegetables left over after filling CSA members’ share boxes.

L’Etoile, established in Madison, Wisconsin in 1976, is a fine-dining meets farm-to-table establishment, among the first in the Midwest to consciously build its menu around local, seasonal food. French for star, L’Etoile remains a beacon for sustainably oriented restaurants. This model is cropping up more as consumers seek a clear connection to their food, the farmers who grow it, and the land it’s cultivated on.

The term “community supported agriculture” was coined in the northeastern U.S. in the 1980s. According to the USDA, there are about 13,000 CSAs in the U.S. CSA farmers typically sell shares in their operation to members who receive a box of vegetables every week. It’s like a subscription to produce. The contents of those CSA boxes depend on the time of year and other growing conditions. CSA farmers often peddle extra produce at local farmers markets and farm stands.

For years, Midwestern BioAg has serviced CSA growers and helped them grow great-tasting produce.

 

 

“As farmers, we fundamentally believe getting the soil as healthy as you can is going to create healthy vegetables and healthy people.”

 

 

The short CSA supply chain inspires loyalty from customers of farm-to-table restaurants like L’Etoile, said Kordet, a Midwestern BioAg customer who farms in nearby Stoughton.

“Most of the time, the person who grew that food is the one that’s delivering it to the restaurant. It’s special and increasingly rare. That food has a story,” Kordet said.

That story begins with CSA farmers producing diversified and often heirloom-variety crops with an attitude of land stewardship. Chefs at trendy restaurants are helping tell their stories through menu items that change with the supplies and the seasons for diners seeking local, organic foods.

Lettuces are Greg Simmons’ specialty at Marigold Hill Organics, a Midwestern BioAg customer from Grayslake, Illinois. There, he grows the baby kale, arugula, escarole, and radicchio that make top chefs swoon. The farm sets up a stall at Chicago’s Green City Market, which caters specifically to chefs on Wednesdays.

“There’s an extremely vibrant community of chefs and restaurants at the top of the dining world in Chicago that support local farmers and beautifully grown vegetables,” he said.

Marigold Hill Organics counts the One-Off Hospitality Group among its frequent customers. The group’s proprietor was named Outstanding Chef in 2013 by the prestigious James Beard Foundation, a nationally known culinary group. Simmons’ greens are served in Chicago restaurants including Blackbird, avec, and The Publican.

“These [chefs and restaurateurs] understand that they have to pay a little more to get the right product,” Simmons said. “It’s a little harder to grow organically. We baby this stuff. It’s nutrient-rich, fresh, and beautiful, and they understand that it costs a local farmer a little more to do it.”

CSA farmers use different methods to reach chefs who integrate their produce into unique dishes.

When John Binkley has veggies to spare from his CSA farm, he contacts chefs at downtown Madison restaurants like L’Etoile, whose chef was named Best Chef in the Midwest in 2013 by the James Beard Foundation, its sister restaurant Graze, and Pig in a Fur Coat, home to another James Beard Foundation-recognized chef.

“Every Sunday, I’ll send an email out to my chefs and tell them what I have and they’ll email back and say what they want,” Binkley said. In a few days, he delivers from Equinox Farm in nearby Waunakee.

“One of the things we move more volume of is tomatoes,” said Binkley, whose farm boasts 25 to 30 heirloom varieties.

Allison Parker’s Radical Root Organic Farm in Libertyville, Illinois is also a BioAg customer. She branched out in recent years from CSAs and farmers markets with a wholesale service for restaurants. Chefs from restaurants like Parson’s Chicken and Fish and Cellar Door Provisions in Chicago’s hip Logan Square neighborhood place a minimum order of $75 for veggies like bright heirloom beets and carrots.

“It started out with us reaching out to restaurants, but now it’s gotten to the point that restaurants are reaching out to us,” Parker said. “It’s nice that we have multiple outlets because it makes me feel we’re reaching more of a community.”

Responsible soil enrichment with products like Midwestern BioAg fertilizers is a top priority for CSA farmers. Designed for diversified crops, fertilizers like Veggies Plus, Veggies NKO, and Veggies Sol replenish soil and comply with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Organic Program guidelines.

“As farmers, we fundamentally believe getting the soil as healthy as you can is going to create healthy vegetables and healthy people,” Parker said.

By promoting healthy communities through local restaurants, farmers are looking out for their land, their crops, and the consumers of their vegetables.

“It’s nice to know that all the produce I have to offer is actually going to people locally,” Binkley said. “It contributes both to the health of the land it’s grown on and the health of the people who are eating it because it’s wholesome, healthy food.”

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Raised on a third-generation cattle and grain farm in Illinois, Holly Henschen is an active writer and blogger from Madison, Wisconsin.