Farm’s ‘greening’ sets example of Earth Day ideas

by Associated Press
Special Member Services

Beginning farmer, Jacob Marty, of Green Fire Farm in Monticello, Wisconsin, has created a regenerative grazing operation on his family’s nearly 175-year-old farm.

He and his father, Jim, farm 400 acres. Their family’s farming roots date back to the 1850's. Their farm was even named after Aldo Leopold’s famous conservation writings in, A Sand County Almanac.

Their farm was a dairy until 2012. “After 37 years of milking, it was time for a change,” said Jim. Today, Jacob runs their new 90-acre grazing operation.

His focus is grass-fed beef, pastured heritage pork, pastured poultry and eggs, and sheep. Jim runs the cropping operation, actively cropping corn and alfalfa, and producing grain and hay for animal feed.

“My dad is the best at making great quality hay to feed my beef cattle,” said Jacob. Each generation of the Marty family has served as stewards of their land by adopting agriculture technologies to continue to restore and protect Green Fire Farm for future generations.

Grazing with Wildlife

With a background and degree in wildlife ecology, Jacob wanted to help animals, but never thought of taking over the family farm himself. “I needed to figure out what I could apply my passion to, and realized I might be able to manage a farm to provide habitat, since I have a passion for animals.” So he investigated permaculture and how grass-fed grazing operations mimic grasslands and provide nesting bird habitat.

“That was my gateway into grazing on the farm,” said Jacob.

Jacob learned about USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) in school and through networking with other grazers. His first exposure to grazing was during a six-week field course. “That was the first time I had an opportunity to go on a farm and see rotational grazing work,” said Jacob.

Mimicking Nature

“When Jacob first visited his local NRCS Service Center, he came prepared with plans and goals,” said Tony Strenz, Green County Soil Conservation Technician.”He had everything laid out and was more than ready to work with us. He had really done his research.”

Jacob visited many grazing operations. “I wanted to know what worked well, what I should be doing and how to finish high quality beef.”

His goals are to regenerate and build soil, sequester carbon, and enhance the health of the local water and air through his grazing operation, mimicking patterns that occur in nature.

“My livestock are managed in ways that mimic their natural history and behavior. This results in healthy and happy animals that produce quality meat in the process.”

Technical and financial assistance, provided by NRCS, through the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), enabled Jacob to set up a 90-acre rotational grazing operation.

In 2015, he enrolled 48 acres in prescribed grazing, completed 1,000 plantings for tree and shrub establishment, installed perimeter fencing, livestock pipeline, watering facilities, and planted forage and cool season grasses on all 48 acres. Through a second EQIP contract in 2016, he enrolled 39 more acres, installing the same practices.

“The financial assistance through EQIP made my goal achievable,” said Jacob.

Jacob planted an 18-species mix of native grasses, legumes and some medicinal herbs on more than 80 acres, converting corn crop ground into pasture.

Many species were chosen to provide increased habitat for wildlife and pollinators, while also providing a diverse mix of forage for the cattle and to attract wildlife.

Supporting New Farmers

Jacob divided the new grazing acres into six large paddocks that are separated into smaller grazing sections by portable fencing.

He also planted eight acres of silvopasture, including chestnut and apple trees, chestnut and apple trees for wildlife habitat.

“Seed is expensive and I wanted to plant a diverse multi-species mix. The financial assistance made my goal achievable,” said Jacob.

Once he planned his grazing system, Jacob purchased a starter herd of 17 Black Angus cow-calf pairs from a retiring grass-fed beef producer. Currently, he has 98 cattle and will calve around 40 to increase their herd.

“We needed to be aggressive in expanding the managed grazing aspect of our farm so we could compete and be economically profitable within a couple years,” Jacob explains.

Leader-Follower Grazing

This year, he will be using a leader-follower grazing system. In this setup, his animals are grouped by their different forage needs, and pass through each pasture in succession, based on the available forage. This uses the land more efficiently, without destroying its ability to support livestock.

“I’ll be moving them twice a day. We are really trying to get our grazing system churning at full capacity,” said Jacob.

Jacob partnered with a farm in Peoria, Illinois, to keep St. Croix sheep and heritage pigs grazing on his property. He cares for more than 30 pigs and 25 sheep. In exchange for his work, he keeps the lamb and piglet offspring.

He also manages 12 different heritage chicken breeds on pasture, which offer a lot of diversity and variety in the flock.

Jacob is managing his dozen of heritage chicken on his pasture.

“He’s always looking to do better, and make conservation minded decisions for his grazing operation and animals,” said Strenz.

Regenerative Farming

He manages livestock during calving season to coincide with forage availability. And he uses nitrogen provided by legumes to supply over 90 percent of the nitrogen needs in his pasture.

Jacob works to make his farm more than sustainable. He wants it to be regenerative, increasing production, while not diminishing the natural resources he relies on.

“Regenerative agriculture to me, is the intentional restoration of healthy, functioning communities for our farm to be viable. All our pasture, crops, livestock, and wildlife are integrated.”

Jacob’s passion has influenced others to try to match Green Fire Farm’s management . “It’s almost like the field of dreams - build it and they will come. I have people who want to help me, and I can help them. Many want to start grazing on their own. It’s so neat to see the farm stimulating minds and getting others to think about and see multiple benefits of a managed grazing system,” said Jacob.

“I have nothing but praise for NRCS, Jacob reflects. I’ve told many people that EQIP worked for me. I came prepared and ready to make things work. Every farmer is different, and their situations are unique, but NRCS is ready and willing to work with everyone.”

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