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Schlangen Dairy proof that small herds can have big impact on sustainability

Progressive Dairy Editor Dave Natzke Published on 23 June 2022
Steve and Cheryl Schlangen

Outstanding Dairy Farm Sustainability

Schlangen Dairy,
Albany, Minnesota

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In 1986, Steve Schlangen rented a barn, bought a small Holstein herd and started milking. Shortly thereafter, Steve married his wife, Cheryl, and together they purchased a farm in rural Stearns County near Albany, Minnesota. The Schlangens currently milk 60 Holsteins with a Lely robotic milker and raise their own feed – 200 acres of corn, soybeans, barley and alfalfa.

The Schlangens’ dairy farm is located in Minnesota’s Backes Lake Watershed. Water from their farm eventually flows into the Sauk River and then into the Mississippi River. Their choices to conserve soil and improve water quality positively affect many downstream, both in their local community and thousands of miles away.

Steve and Cheryl’s commitment to sustainability is based on the simple but profound belief that it’s the right thing to do. They do this by taking a holistic approach to sustainability, employing more than 30 regenerative farming practices that recharge the soil, promote biodiversity, enhance carbon sequestration and efficiently use natural resources.

The Schlangens started their conservation journey more than 30 years ago by rotating crops and applying manure as fertilizer. One of the first things they accomplished was converting a field washout into a waterway. Since then, they’ve established a long history of environmental stewardship, tapping into several resources and organizations.

They have participated in the USDA’s Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) since 2005, working with Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) staff to implement and utilize cover crops, vegetative buffer strips, grassed waterways, water-and-sediment control basins, reduced tillage, no-till and variable-rate manure application. Adding a shelter belt around their farm has provided protection and a place for wildlife habitat.

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Getting soil samples

Under their closed-loop system, the dairy herd and crops sustain and improve one another by optimizing resource efficiency. They work with a certified crop adviser to determine nutrient needs and conduct grid soil sampling to help select the fields needing additional or minimal nutrients. They also have conducted tissue sampling to determine nitrogen needs.

With funding assistance from the NRCS Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), the Schlangens built a manure-stacking slab that allows them to store manure and use it to apply nutrients to land at the right rate, time and place. Timed application prevents soil compaction from applying in non-ideal conditions and prevents nutrient loss through leaching. They use low-disturbance manure injection to ensure the nutrients are incorporated in the soil to reduce runoff risks and protect water quality. A Soil and Water Conservation District (SWCD) standardized tool estimated the slab resulted in application reductions of 23 pounds of phosphorus and 69 pounds of nitrogen per acre per year.

In 2016, the Schlangens became certified through the Minnesota Agricultural Water Quality Certification Program (MAWQCP). In 2020, all four of their crop enterprises exceeded the minimum score to be certified in the respective crop category. Today, they participate in All Acres for Our Water, a program that tests innovative approaches to incentivizing conservation and soil health practice adoption.

The Schlangens were the sole farmer participants on the start-up committee that became the Headwaters Agriculture Sustainability Partnership (HASP), a collaboration between The Environmental Initiative and The Nature Conservancy. Formalized in 2018, HASP is focused on implementing farmer-led conservation projects, promoting peer-to-peer sharing among farmers around conservation efforts and farm profitability, while also developing and testing voluntary and market-based incentives for accelerating conservation adoption. As one of three farms participating in Phase 1 of the project to evaluate return on investment from conservation practices, they were enrolled in Field to Market’s Fieldprint Platform and teamed with Stearns County SWCD staff and a Farm Business Management instructor to evaluate and correlate the conservation impacts with the financial aspects of their business.

The 2020 HASP report shows the Schlangens outperformed their peers on a per-acre basis by 22 bushels of corn, 12 bushels of soybeans, 2 tons of corn silage and 0.7 ton of alfalfa.

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Not only are they excelling in crop yields, but they are also doing so with less resources. For example, they’ve reduced nitrogen applications to 0.1 pound per bushel of corn, one-tenth the level they applied when they first started farming. The Schlangens have also outperformed in crops where there is a regional dairy benchmark for soil carbon, including corn silage and soybeans.

The cover crops are yielding benefits to the farm as well, including reduced use of herbicides. It is estimated the Schlangens have realized 9.8 tons per year on soil savings through soil loss or sediment reductions on the 70 acres of cover crops they have implemented so far. The cover crops also produced 7,500 pounds of forage per acre for the herd.

Most recently, the Schlangens were among early adopters in the Ecosystem Services Market Consortium (ESMC), an initiative focused on developing markets to pay farmers for adopting practices that protect the environment. Samples from their fields were some of the first taken in the U.S. as part of a pilot project to measure carbon, greenhouse gas and water quality impacts of the new soil health practices they are implementing.

Also, joining other members of their cooperative, Associated Milk Producers Inc., they were among the earliest to voluntarily complete a FARM Environmental Stewardship evaluation, setting a baseline for estimates of farm-level greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and energy intensity.

In the dairy operation, the Schlangens set high animal care standards, and conservation practices have included recycling farm plastic, installing a variable-speed vacuum pump and LED lighting.

Sustainability is built into the way the Schlangens run their business every day, supporting the local community and economy, and serving as an example to others in the dairy industry. They have made deeper connections with their neighbors, serving as an example of modern agriculture and sustainable farming.

Steve Schlangen visits with Dennis Fuchs

One driver for the Schlangens’ continuous improvement and outreach is the dairy consumer, recognizing they have choices about what they eat, and those decisions are often made for reasons other than price, nutrition and flavor.

“Dairy farmers have been writing the book on sustainability for a long time, long before it really became popular,” Steve says. “Now, with increased scrutiny, documentation and telling the farmer story to consumers has become more critical. Consumers want to feel good about what they are buying, knowing it is responsibly produced and environmentally sustainable.”

Advice to other producers

At times, those consumer expectations can be overwhelming, he notes. For that reason, Steve is willing to share information about sustainability projects with other producers and mentor beginning farmers, enabling them to face challenges and replicate successes.

His recommendation to other farmers is to test new practices and adjust over time, working in partnership with county and state officials and others to gain additional resources and knowledge and, in some cases, grants to provide financial assistance.

“Not everybody can do everything, but everybody can do something to help improve the environment. Figure out what works on your farm,” he says.

While some producers fear the 2023 Farm Bill will bring more environmental regulation, Schlangen says he believes it will also bring opportunity through increased conservation program funding.

Serving as an advocate

Schlangen has been an advocate for conservation practices by speaking at local and national industry-affiliated sustainability events, most recently serving as a panelist during a conservation symposium presented by The Environmental Initiative and The Nature Conservancy in February 2022.

Last fall, he served as a panelist at the 2021 Sustainable Agriculture Summit, discussing the financial and environmental benefits of on-farm conservation practices. Another presentation at the Ag-Urban Partnership Forum on Water Quality highlighted the need for trust, partnership and innovation among agriculture and urban communities to meet climate goals. He has also been a guest on DMI’s Dairy on the Air Podcast talking about conservation practices in agriculture. end mark

PHOTO 1: Steve and Cheryl Schlangen operate Schlangen Dairy, in Stearns County, Minnesota.

PHOTO 2: Through the Ecosystem Services Market Consortium, soil sampling is part of an initiative to gather information quantifying the carbon, greenhouse gas and water quality impacts of new soil health practices.

PHOTO 3: Steve Schlangen (left) visits with Dennis Fuchs, Stearns County Soil and Water Conservation District administrator, to evaluate conservation practices and discuss environmental and financial impacts. Courtesy photos.

Dave Natzke
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RECIPIENTS OF 2022 U.S. DAIRY SUSTAINABILITY AWARDS

Outstanding Dairy Farm Sustainability

Grayhouse Farms,
Stony Point, North Carolina

Schlangen Dairy,
Albany, Minnesota

Deer Run Dairy LLC,
Kewaunee County, Wisconsin

Bar 20 Dairy,
Kerman, California

Outstanding Supply Chain Collaboration

Bel Brands USA, Land O’Lakes, Inc. and Boadwine Dairy

Outstanding Dairy Processing and Manufacturing Sustainability

Milk Specialties Global,
Monroe, Wisconsin

Outstanding Community Impact

Maryland & Virginia Milk Producers Cooperative Association

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