It’s important that we farm organically. That’s the whole reason we’re in farming. We have ethical reasons we feel it’s important to treat the soil biodynamically. — Altfrid Krusenbaum
The importance of farming organically and biodynamically has motivated the land stewardship practices of Altfrid and Sue Krusenbaum on their 240-acre East Troy, WI, grass-based dairy farm since 1990, when they first leased this farm.
Since then, their system of farming practices has evolved to move Altfrid and Sue closer to their goals of environmental protection and economic viability. They’ve worked with the support of the Center for Integrated Agricultural Systems (CIAS) and the input and guidance of a team of agricultural specialists from the UW-Madison, Michael Fields Agricultural Institute (East Troy), and the private sector to experiment with different practices and refine their farming system to approach their goals.
This research brief summarizes some of the land stewardship practices that are part of the Krusenbaums’ farming system and highlights how these practices contribute to the pursuit of their vision of sustainability.
Eliminating chemical weed control
From the beginning, the Krusenbaums have wanted to keep their soil healthy and productive and to minimize erosion. Their first step in achieving that goal was to make the transition from chemical weed controls to mechanical weed control, including rotary hoeing and mechanical cultivation.
Some of the weeds stubbornly resist these efforts. The most persistent ones are foxtail, lambsquarter, pigweed, and velvetleaf. Yet the system has proven to be successful by Altfrid’s and Sue’s standard of keeping crop yield loss from weed competition to below an estimated 10 percent.
Cutting chemical fertilizers
Using only their own herd’s manure to enrich the soil is another move the Krusenbaums made to improve their soil while cutting all application of chemical fertilizers. Because they practice management intensive rotational grazing (discussed below), Altfrid and Sue had initially hoped to rely entirely on the cows to fulfill soil fertility needs by spreading manure as they grazed.
Now it appears that this may not be enough, and the Krusenbaums plan to spread manure and “manure tea”–concentrated liquid wastes from separated manure–on all of their paddocks within five years.
The necessary technology is already in place on the farm. In 1992 they installed a unique manure-handling system in their stanchion barn. The system separates the liquid from solid manure and pumps it into an 11,000-gallon holding tank behind the barn. A concrete storage pad holds up to 90 days’ worth of solid manure, which the Krusenbaums windrow at the edges of their fields and allow to compost before spreading it on their hay fields in late summer. Today, all their cows overwinter outside.
Low input, high output
How is the soil faring? Soil tests show some mild nitrogen and potassium deficiencies, but the farm is not suffering from runoff problems, nor is it being contaminated by chemical additives. And the soil is healthy enough to produce nearly all the forage their herd needs year-round.
In their time on this farm, Altfrid and Sue have developed cropping methods that reduce erosion and keep their soil nutrient rich. The majority of their tillable land (about 150 acres) is gently rolling with a slope of 4 percent and doesn’t face much danger of eroding. The other 50 acres, however, has a slope of about 8 percent and is classified as highly erodible.
To reduce erosion, the Krusenbaums practice chisel plowing and have put in contour strips. This, coupled with their crop erosion plan, is expected to reduce soil loss to erosion from eight tons per acre in 1989 to an estimated 3.4 tons per acre in 1997.
Crop rotations and soil health
The overall plan was to seed the entire farm down to pasture, which was completed in the fall of 1994. With help from the UW advisory team, the Krusenbaums set up a crop rotation to ensure continued soil health. They followed a seven-phase rotation on the more hilly land and an eight-phase rotation with more row crops on the flatter land. Their major crops included corn, oats, soybeans, hay, and sunflowers.
Although the schedules differed, both followed the same biological principles: Cereals followed legumes. Deep-rooted and shallow-rooted crops alternated so leached nutrients could be drawn back up into the topsoil. Alternating summer annuals and winter annuals reduced weed pressure. The ground was kept covered as much as possible to prevent erosion and encourage a buildup of earthworm populations.
The grazing component
Altfrid and Sue graze their 67-animal herd, and they have an interest in grazing their animals in the least intrusive way. The goal is to prevent problems like overgrazing, trampling, and concentration of manure (and therefore runoff) from developing.
The Krusenbaums usually wait until paddock grass is over eight inches tall to turn out the herd on it. In the spring, the animals are allowed to graze the paddocks down to three inches to encourage the grasses to produce tillers. Later in the year, this limit is five to six inches. Rotating animals frequently also spreads their manure over the land, preventing buildup.
To control weeds, particularly thistles, which are troublesome to eradicate, Altfrid used to clip all the paddocks twice a year with a rotary mower, but in 1994 he clipped only once. He has observed on his farm that clipping hampers natural regrowth, and the labor and resources saved from clipping can be applied elsewhere in the farming system.
Pasture maintenance experiments
One thing that has always marked the development of the Krusenbaum farm’s systems approach is experimentation. Altfrid and Sue have done the same with maintaining their grazing pastures. Altfrid noticed that legumes tend to thin over time in a continuous pasture system, but are easy to re-establish without having to turn the soil. On the other hand, grasses–especially brome–are difficult to manage.
In 1992, they experimented with aerial seeding of winter wheat and hairy vetch into soybeans, then plowed them under before corn planting. Early in 1994, they frost-seeded a portion of the grazing paddocks with three to four pounds per acre of red clover and some perennial ryegrass. These forages didn’t catch on originally, perhaps because of that year’s hot, dry June, but in the fall, they came out a little better.
A lesson from this is that Altfrid decided to add a few extra pounds of alfalfa to his frost-seeding mix as low-cost “drought insurance.” His plan calls for using a small broadcast seeder mounted on an ATV to frost seed half of the total acreage as soon as the snow melts each winter.
The Krusenbaums report being pleased with the productivity and improved soil and forage quality resulting from their low-input practices. Altfrid says, “We’ll know we’ve succeeded when we establish a truly sustainable farm that supports itself and the family on it with very little outside inputs for eternities to come.” Building such a successful, profitable farming system takes time, and CIAS plans to continue to watch the Krusenbaum farm to help document that complex process.
Contact CIAS for more information about this research.
Published as Research Brief #17