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Klessigs find grazing to be enjoyable way of working land

PD Editor Karen Lee Published on 27 December 2010
Ed Klessig dairy tour

The late Ed Klessig and his wife, Margaret, ran a conventional dairy farm for decades, just as three generations of his family had done before on the same piece of land in eastern Wisconsin.

In 1989, at the urging of their two sons and son-in-law, they made the switch to rotational grazing and let their cows out of the barn.

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Saxon Homestead Farm LLC is now a fifth-generation family partnership operated by Robert and Kathleen Block-Klessig, Karl and Elizabeth Klessig, Gerald and Elise Klessig Heimerl, and their families.

They milk 450 cows and raise 425 youngstock and 250 steers. The animals graze 825 acres of permanent pasture and the dairy has another 200 acres of alfalfa ground.

“We really depend on our working lands for our way of life,” Karl Klessig said to a group of local legislators and dairy producers that toured the farm earlier this fall. They were participating in an Agricultural Community Engagement (ACE) twilight meeting.

The farm sits on the headwaters of Seminole Creek, which drains into Lake Michigan. “The creek runs right through the heart of our farm,” he says, noting it’s just one of the reasons the family is mindful of its land use.

They began using a nutrient management plan in 2004 and participated in the Discovery Farms program that same year. In 2005 and 2006 they put together a comprehensive nutrient management plan and three years later were enrolled in the Conservation Security Program with NRCS. This past year, they’ve focused their conservation efforts on the Environment Management System and Wisconsin’s Green Tier program.

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“The dairy industry has made huge steps in the last 40 years to deal with manure in a positive way,” Klessig said.

The steps taken at Saxon Homestead Farm include the switch to rotational grazing, where the cows spread their own manure. It also has a little more than 5 million gallons of storage in a clay pit, which provides 18 months of storage for manure scraped from the holding area, parlor and some housing. That manure is surface- applied on growing pasture land throughout the spring and summer months.

They start using the pasture at the end of April, and the cows receive less than one pound per day from it at that time. Throughout the season the cows will typically peak at eating 55 percent of their ration from the pasture.

This past summer above-average rainfall made for abundant pastures. So much so, the Klessigs did not have enough animals to eat it all. To not let it go to waste, they harvested the additional grasses for extra stored feed. They are equipped with three forage bunkers to store haylage and corn silage raised on the farm.

The home farm has 48 contiguous paddocks. These are used in the evening to keep the cows from crossing the road overnight. Including those across the road, the farm has 200 permanently fenced paddocks, most of which have their own waterers. The remote paddocks have 2,500-gallon tanks and the Klessigs are in the process of converting their other 400-gallon tanks to the larger ones.

“When we turn the cows out to pasture on a hot, dry day, they will suck the 400-gallon tanks dry,” Klessig said.

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Every year, the Klessigs renovate 10 percent of their pastures. They tear them apart and start anew by planting 50 percent legumes and 50 percent grasses. After each paddock is grazed, manure is applied and the cattle are let back on no less than 20 days from that time.

Cows are milked twice a day, all year long. Their milking times are 3 a.m. and 3 p.m. This allows the cows to be turned out to pasture by 8 a.m. and reprieved from the summer heat by 2:30 p.m.

“We milk the herd all in one mob,” Klessig said. “One efficiency we can claim is that we manage one large group of cattle instead of each individual cow.”

One technique to this is to have all cows calve in around the same time. Their window is from March through June. That way they only have three groups of cattle – calves, yearlings and milk cows. “That’s all we have, just three groups of animals on the farm,” he said.

The herd is comprised of Holsteins crossed with Brown Swiss and Jersey. Jersey cows are known to be better grazers with high components for cheese. They also are thrifty when it comes to reproduction and easier on the pasture because of their lighter frames.

“We really like the Jersey influence in our herd,” Klessig says.

That influence also helps in the cheese factory they started a few years ago. Saxon Homestead Creamery ( www.saxoncreamery.com ) is located in Cleveland, Wisconsin, just two miles east of Saxon Homestead Farm. Up to 25 percent of the dairy’s milk is processed through the creamery; the rest is shipped to Baker Cheese.

Cows are milked in a 28-unit New Zealand swing parlor. It is equipped with a separating gate for breeding. The Klessigs were the first in the U.S. to use a heat detection system that has infrared sensors on the cows’ collars to measure activity and cud chewing. If a cow is sensed to be in heat, the gate will automatically separate them after the morning milking.

Young calves are kept in a hoop building and introduced to pasture at 5 months old in groups of 150. In winter, they are fed with a self-feeding stack, a large stack of hay placed on a part of the pasture that needs extra fertilizer.

These young animals are also fed four to five pounds of grain per day while out on pasture. The Klessigs developed a grain train for this purpose by cutting 55-gallon drums in half lengthwise and hooking them together. Grain is poured into the drums and hauled out into the field with a tractor.

With time to invent and work outdoors, Klessig said, “Grazing is a more enjoyable, fun way to farm.” PD

PHOTO : Karl Klessig, left, leads a tour of local legislators and dairy producers around his family farm. He described how grazing is the way they prefer to work the land. Photo by Karen Lee.

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