Conservationist Farmers

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For the past 20 years, Del Stubbs has developed his orchard while supporting the pollinator population.
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Art Thicke manages his 90-plus-head herd of dairy cattle by rotating them among paddocks on his farm.
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Jean and Art Thicke have been managing their dairy with rotational grazing for years.
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With proper rotation management and forgoing the annual soil tilling, Thicke’s herd is able to have year-round access to 200 acres of pasture with supplemental grain at milking times.

Oftentimes, the best conservation practices and methods in agricultural settings are not the results of government regulations, mandates, or oversight. Instead, they are often initiated by those with their hands in the dirt. Because of this close relationship with nature, small-scale farmers often have the foresight to see the need for protecting soil, waterways, and wildlife.

One such farmer is Del Stubbs of Leonard, Minnesota, who is a woodturner and custom toolmaker by trade. He is also a knowledgeable small-scale farmer engaged in restoring and protecting pollinator habitat, according to Sarah Foltz Jordan, senior pollinator conservation and habitat restoration specialist at The Xerces Society.

Spending one December morning with Stubbs, knee-deep in snow in his apple orchard, was as enlightening an experience as any class I have ever taken on beekeeping. He rattled off scientific names of local wild bees, bumble bees, and butterflies. He could tell you where each is found, and the plants they prefer. He pointed out the two quarter-acre parcels hidden under the snow that were specifically developed and replanted for wild pollinator habitat, with more on the way, and a section of the orchard where milkweed was allowed to flourish instead of being tilled under.

Not only is Stubbs involved in restoring pollinator habitat, but he has also renovated seven small ponds in low-lying areas on his 160 acres into original habitat for waterfowl. And as an entomologist, he is very knowledgeable about fruit production. He has tested some 80 varieties of apples alone in the harsh climate of north central Minnesota. Stubbs told me a humorous story about going to see the regional cooperative extension advisor 20-plus years ago. He introduced himself as being from the fruit-growing regions of northern California. He wanted advice on growing apples in northern Minnesota. Before he could finish, the advisor rolled his eyes, cut him off, and said, “Forget it. It won’t work. They’ll all die.”

Undeterred, Stubbs set about finding out what would work and what would not work. He tested varieties and rootstocks, and grafted his own combinations. Today he has become one of the most knowledgeable experts on apple varieties and rootstocks in north-central Minnesota. He has shared his knowledge by teaching fruit growing and grafting classes.

The passion for fruit growing and restoring native-pollinator habitat go together. Today, many of our native pollinators are endangered, due largely to loss of habitat and pesticide usage, among other reasons. It is people like Del Stubbs who are trying to prevent it.

Doing dairy different

Involved in the dairy business for most of his 69 years of life, Art Thicke of La Crescent, Minnesota, has been practicing rotational grazing and no-till forage production for much of that time. When Art decided to go into full-scale rotational grazing, it was not solely to meet a great environmental vision. It was more of a common-sense business move that Art decided to make after years of experience and from his own simple analyses.

In conventional dairy farming, the cows are held in enclosed, compact areas. Many dairy farmers keep their cows confined and away from fresh forage. They till the soil in the fields, plant the forage crops, till the weeds, spray the weeds, and cut the forage. They make it into hay and silage, and this final product they feed to the cows. Then they employ great labor in scooping up mountains of cow manure and putting it back onto the fields just in time to begin the whole process again. This is all performed at great monetary expense, use of time, wear and tear on equipment, and the burning of voluminous amounts of fuel. And all this while trying to manage the basic operations of the dairy itself.

Art decided to put this cycle under the microscope. Being an experienced dairyman, he was well aware of a cow’s natural ability to forage for itself in a pasture. He was also aware that if cows are on pasture and free to graze, this naturally spreads their manure instead of it being concentrated in one area. The way Art figured it, a cow that can get its own feed and haul its own manure is a real treasure. Get a whole herd doing it, and you’ve got something going for yourself.

In 1985, Art finalized his decision to switch entirely to managed grazing, or rotational grazing. Today, 33 years later, 90-plus head of milking Ayrshire are still being rotated through some 200 acres of natural grass pastures and paddocks on the Enchanted Meadows Organic Dairy Farm. From mid-April until approximately the first week in December, the cows feed mainly on pasture with a small amount of grain at milking time. According to Art, the herd is rotated into a new pasture after each milking. Instead of Art having to cut hay and make silage for year-round feed, the cows simply harvest their own feed during most of the year. Instead of having to move mountains of manure back into the fields, the cows simply leave their own manure in the pasture when they are rotated out.

The practices Art has put into place do more than merely reduce labor: The lack of conventional tilling reduces carbon emissions. The soil is built naturally, which helps the soil structure, beneficial bacteria, and other friendly organisms. One of the most noteworthy features, however, is that wastewater runoff from the land is almost nil. Many dairy farms have become notorious polluters of watersheds. The deep root structure of the grasses along with the humus-rich soil in Thicke’s pastures means rainwater is quickly absorbed instead of running down the Mississippi watershed.

Two cuttings of hay — one in late spring and another in early summer — help sustain the cows through the winter. While the cows have access to shelter, they often choose to stay outdoors in the snow-covered pastures, even on the coldest days of winter.

Making the leap from no-till and rotational grazing to operating completely organic was a natural progression. Today, the Thicke herd is certified organic. Art’s wife, Jean, says most of their cows stay very healthy, and they rarely need to call the vet. “However, when we do call,” she says, “he comes right away because he knows it must be serious.”

Art and Jean said they have multiple cows as old as 10 to 12 years still in production. Several years ago, they had one girl still in production at 17 years of age. As a comparison, some dairy cows in commercial management systems are rotated out to slaughter after only two lactation cycles.

According to Art and Jean, managed grazing creates a healthy, sustainable environment with a good end-product. Their farming methods foster a more pleasant and relaxing lifestyle for them and their cows.

The resulting environmental impact on soil, watershed, and herd health are some of his most noteworthy achievements. Despite all this, Art wanted me to make sure that I did not try to present his methods as the one and only way. “It is just another way of doing things.”

Related: Get into land conservation on your own property.

As a writer who has a background in agriculture and teaching, Doug says one of the greatest honors he has is to be able to meet people like Art Thicke and Del Stubbs, and share the things that they are doing, as viable options, to help make our world a better place.