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Layers of livestock
Brenner focuses on soil health at Farm On Dairy

DURAND — As a beginning dairy farmer, Tom Brenner has taken a much different approach to starting a farm of his own than many of his peers.

Despite growing up milking in a parlor, when he set out to build a dairy farm of his own, Brenner opted to build a tie-stall barn.

“It’s pretty unique to see a young dairy family build a new tie-stall barn,” Shelly Mayer, executive director of Professional Dairy Producers of Wisconsin and dairy farmer from Slinger, said June 26 during a Water Matters tour of Brenner’s Farm On Dairy.

Brenner’s great-grandfather started dairy farming on the family’s Pepin County property in 1923, but his family got out of dairying in 2000.

After finishing college, Brenner started farming on his own in 2011. He rented a farm and milked nearby for five years, but eventually he decided to move back to the home farm.

He bought 20 acres from his family to build on and in 2016 built a new 100-cow tie-stall barn.

“There were a few good years of milk; I got a little cocky and built a barn,” Brenner said.

While Brenner’s family had milked in a parlor, he became familiar with a tie-stall system on the farm he was renting in Eau Galle and decided he liked it.

“And building this structure, on a cost-per-stall basis, was the cheapest option,” he said. “It fit into a budget, and I could build the shell of a barn that’s high enough and wide enough that if things go well in the future, I could easily put a parlor and holding area in.”

Brenner started dairying with about 50 mostly Holstein cows. He has been crossbreeding his Holsteins to a Jersey bull and he also has some purebred Jersey cattle in the herd.

“I like the idea of crossbreeding for hybrid vigor,” he said. “The goal is to have a healthier animal and longer lives. You run the whole gamut of health benefits.”

Brenner said milking 100 cows is right about where he wants to be. He rotated cows into the tie-stall when he was renting but has no plans to get any bigger than he is now.

“My goal is to make profitable milk,” Brenner said. “I believe you can do that at all sizes. I don’t think there’s anything cookie-cutter about the ag industry.”

Brenner said being small and farming on his own affords him some opportunities that larger farms supporting multiple families might not. For example, he said, he is able to make the conservation-minded decisions he thinks would best fit the farm.

Brenner practices no-till farming and runs about 300 acres. About 100 acres is in corn, part for grain and part for silage, and the remainder is in new seedings and rye.

“I need to make milk, and the seeds I put in the ground need to make high-quality forage,” Brenner said. “That’s the only way to make milk, in my opinion.”

Brenner collaborates with an agronomist and seed representatives to look for digestible forages, deciding on alfalfa, corn silage and a mixture of grasses. He hopes to get away from the use of synthetic fertilizer.

“A secondary focus is how to keep things growing on the ground at all times,” Brenner said. “I’ve got to feed the soil too. Underneath that mat of fodder is another nutrient system. It’s like livestock under the ground, and they need live, active roots soaking up solar sun to feed them.

“If I can grow plants and harvest carbon from the sun and put that in the ground, I’m going to feed all those soil micro-organisms, and life is going to get better for me down the road.”

Brenner said his Pepin County soils are sandy and don’t contain a lot of organic matter, which makes his goal of getting away from synthetic fertilizer difficult but increases the importance of having something growing on the ground for as much of the year as possible.

“If we always have something growing and we’re always pushing carbon in the ground, we can change the top layer of soil into an absolute growing machine that is unbelievably healthy for the waterways and anything around you,” he said. “What’s good for the goose is good for the soil.”

Brenner said he is hoping to build healthier soils faster than the 10 to 15 years it can typically take by planting a diverse mix of cover crops and “making his manure count,” he said.

“I’m going to try to take all my manure and utilize carbon sources — whether that’s leaves from the city of Durand or anything that I can purchase or harvest off my own ground,” Brenner said. “Any waste that’s carbon, I want to mix it with my manure and make a compost. That compost is going to be a very stable fertilizer that can hang out with locked-in carbon and be slowly released throughout the growing season. and when it’s not the growing season, it’s still tied to carbon and it’s much less prone to leaching.”

Brenner said testing of the organic matter has shown it’s not growing quite as fast as he would like, but he’s gained between 0.5 and 1.5 percent in certain fields. On the farm he previously rented tests would come back between 0.9 and 1.9 percent, he said.

“It’s some light soil,” Brenner said. “There’s nothing Iowa about western Wisconsin.”

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Fourth international kernza conference held in Madison

MADISON — When Valentin Picasso, an assistant professor in UW-Madison’s agronomy department; Julie Olmstead, a program officer at The McKnight Foundation; and Fred Iutzi, president of The Land Institute, were all working in the lab together at Iowa State University many years ago, they often wondered if there would be a perennial grain developed in the future. It seemed like a radical idea then, one that was considered “on the fringe,” but the trio was hopeful someone would plant the seeds for what would come later.

“I’m so struck by the amount of young people here who are now interested and it’s not such a radical idea anymore,” Olmstead said at the conclusion of the fourth annual International Kernza Conference, held last week in Madison. “I have incredible hope and faith we’ll get where we’ve always wanted to go.”

About 100 people attended the two-day conference that focused on research, particularly genetics, ecosystem services and agronomic management of the new perennial grain, along with tours of plots and fields where the crop is now growing in central Wisconsin.

Attendees first visited Fountain Prairie Farms in Fall River, owned by John and Dorothy Priske. The Priskes have been growing kernza since 2017 through a partnership with UW-Madison; the Priskes’ field is believed to be the first perennial grain polyculture commercial field in the world, an organic kernza and red clover field used for production and cattle grazing efforts.

What attendees observed at Fountain Prairie Farms is not typical for what a kernza field looks like as most are in monoculture, Picasso said. However, researchers at the UW Arlington Agricultural Research Station are also studying polyculture and intercropping of kernza, and attendees were able to visit those research plots during the conference as well.

The Priskes, along with several other farmers from across the country who grow kernza, were included in a panel discussion about their experiences with the perennial grain. While The Land Institute, the entity that owns the trademark for Kernza, is interested in commercializing the grain, farmers still play an important role as research and data continues to be collected on it.

“Kernza won’t move forward without farmer participation,” said Aaron Reser of Green Lands Blue Waters, who also moderated the farmer panel. “You all are sticking your necks out and going to the forefront with this.”

Carmen Fernholz farms 500 acres of certified organic cropland in Madison, Minn., recalling when Dr. Don Wyse, a professor and plant geneticist at the University of Minnesota, told him in 2011 that he was working on an intermediate wheatgrass variety and asked if Fernholz would be interested in trying to grow a bit of it. He received enough seed to plant 2 acres that first year, and has been growing it in partnership with the university since then.

Erik Engellant is a farmer from Montana with about 4,000 acres to care for. In 2015, he moved back to the farm and began transitioning it to organic; he credits his brother for telling him about kernza, a grain he discovered after they enjoyed a beer with it as an ingredient.

He acquired seed and planted about 100 acres of kernza, also allowing his cattle to graze on the grain. He is seeing success with the crop and plans to continue to plant it.

“We’re very excited about it,” Engellant said. “It seems to meet the needs we have and the goals we want to achieve.

“It’s also fun for us young farmers to see something new like this and to see the potential,” he added.

Josh Svaty farms about 2,000 acres split between crops and livestock in a dry climate in Kansas. He planted about 27 acres of kernza in 2014, admitting that first year was a loss. However, the second year was a better year, followed by two more years of bad crops before being surprised in the fifth year of growing with a good crop again.

“It works well in my operation and fits my farming philosophy,” Svaty said.

He implements cattle into his system, adding that his cattle spend about 70 percent of their time hanging out in the kernza fields.

As attendees of the kernza conference, both Svaty and Engellant were interested to hear more about some of the research behind intercropping, which Svaty said he sees as an exciting opportunity.

However, when asked what they’d each do with $10 million for research, each farmer had different priorities depending on their use of the grain. While some would like to see research on disease resistance and yield, others were more interested in how to market the unique crop and engage end-users of the products made from kernza.

James Farag, managing director at Padagonia Provisions, an online food retailer based in California, shared how Padagonia has seen success after releasing a kernza beer three years ago. Padagonia now has two kernza beers available and plans to expand their beer program, along with two to three new food items featuring kernza. But Farag has run into problems sourcing the grain, which has led to putting the further development of kernza food items on the shelf for now.

Christina Skonberg, a senior sustainability analyst for General Mills, detailed how the company is focusing on sustainability in agriculture and promoting regenerative agriculture through a new initiative announced in March. General Mills also has interests in developing kernza products, including a commercially available kernza cereal, although like Farag, is finding that sourcing of the grain has been a challenge.

She is excited to see other companies on board with kernza, and she feels efforts have been pretty collaborative so far instead of competitive when it comes to developing kernza products in these early stages. Both she and Farag are interested in working together to get kernza more well-known and to a point where there is a good supply assurance of kernza grain.

Staff at The Land Institute are working on several pieces of the kernza puzzle, including the breeding and development of techniques for successfully growing the crop, particularly on a larger scale. Although the grain has made its way into the commercial supply chain in small niche markets, their goal is to commercialize the grain — an effort already underway by The Land Institute.

But when looking back at the commercialization of wheat, which took hundreds of years of evolution, kernza advocates admit there is still quite a way to go.

“If your life’s work can be accomplished in your lifetime, you’re not thinking big enough,” Tessa Peters, commercialization manager at The Land Institute said, referencing a quote by the Institute’s founder Wes Jackson.

Part of Peters’ job is to work on building as a resource for those with interests in growing and marketing the perennial grain. Within the next six months, the Institute has planned to update the website with more information and knowledge, including licensing agreements for growing kernza. They also aim to create a Kernza Consortium to connect kernza growers across the world.

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Universities explore potential for 'naked' barley crop

VERONA — Sprawling across about 570 acres, the West Madison Agricultural Research Station is unique among Wisconsin’s agricultural research stations. It’s surrounded by development and is home to the University Display Gardens; it is also the site where most of the feed and bedding for UW-Madison’s herds is grown and now boasts impressive plots of naked barley varieties included in a research project that spans five states.

In 2017, five universities received shared funding from an Organic Research and Extension Initiative grant, part of the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture program, to test naked barley varieties and provide organic gardeners, growers, processors and consumers with an alternative material that could be economically rewarding and sustainable, particularly in the areas of food, animal feed and malting/brewing.

Barley is a major cereal grain commonly used in animal feed; barley typically has a hull, which has dictated how the grain is sold. However, “naked” barley, or “hull-less” barley, could present new opportunities as it can be directly processed as its hull does not need to be mechanically removed.

As part of the grant, the development, assessment and participatory breeding of naked multi-use barley is being conducted in five representative regions: the Pacific Northwest, headed by Washington State University and Oregon State University; the Upper Midwest, headed by UW-Madison and University of Minnesota; and the Northeast, headed by Cornell University.

Representatives from each university were in Verona last Friday, June 28 to discuss preliminary results from their trials and to visit UW-Madison’s fields of barley, dodging rain showers to walk amongst 20 genotypes included in their spring regional trial and more than 200 genotypes included in a diversity panel, grown to study genetic data to improve barley for organic systems.

“This is probably the most diverse grouping of barley that you’ll ever see,” said Brigid Meints, a postdoctoral research associate at Oregon State University.

Meints has been hired under the grant to help with the project, which aims to study organic naked multi-use barley for whole grain nutrition, animal feed and malting and brewing markets. Along with research, outreach has been another key component to the project, with Lane Selman, an agricultural researcher at Oregon State University, taking the lead on outreach.

Selman and Meints have been attending numerous events to promote and spread the word about barley, including an event in Oregon that highlighted olive oil and barley used in baked products. Three-hundred people were exposed to barley at a recent “Grain Gathering” in northern Washington, where bakers, chefs and consumers came together to learn more about grain. This particular event featured a “noodle-making school,” where participants were taught to make homemade pasta using barley flour.

In the future, Selman aims to get more information on barley into cookbooks, encouraging chefs and bakers to use barley products. She is also seeking more individuals to teach classes on using barley and its products, and also plans to attend more upcoming events to promote barley.

In Madison, Lucia Gutierrez, an assistant professor in the Department of Agronomy at UW-Madison, shared how she has been trying out different ways to connect school-aged students with barley, particularly the naked barley varieties being grown. She recently invited fifth-graders from an area school to the university greenhouses to plant their own barley and discuss the science behind it.

“It was fantastic,” she said. “The kids were engaged with the activity and were thoughtful when reviewing the results.

“It is important to get them to learn, eat and connect to the science in their classroom,” she added.

The fifth-grade activity was so successful that a sixth-grade teacher also approached her for an activity focusing on genetics and barley.

“Education is very important and so is getting those kids exposed to agriculture early,” Gutierrez said.

Julie Dawson, an assistant professor in the Department of Horticulture at UW-Madison, spoke to attendees of the field day on how she has been studying the end uses for multi-use naked barley. Although her work is preliminary, she shared how she worked with Madison Sourdough to create four different kinds of pita breads using four different barley varieties, and recorded the observations from bakers and consumers alike.

“I hope to have more useful information next year for (barley) breeders,” she said.

Another representative from the project spoke about how he sees huge potential for flavor and economic benefits with naked barley in the brewing industry. While much research still needs to be done in this area, brewing trials have been authorized to start at Oregon State University through their malting program.

Poultry feeding trials have already started at Oregon State University as well, with one researcher looking into the effects of feeding naked barley to chickens.

Anyone interested in keeping up with the Organic Naked Multi-Use Barley Project is encouraged to visit for updates, recipes and resources, including presentations given by those involved with the project. As more data emerges from the research, the organizers also plan to add research articles to the website.

Photo by Nate Jackson  

Alfalawn Farm added a new calf and heifer barn in 2016.

Submitted photo  

Fish measurements provide researchers with baseline information. If tagged and recaptured, this young walleye will add to a broad base of data collected in the Northern Highland Fishery Research Area.