KIEL - The gray, wet, cold months of January and February have dairy farmer Dan Meyer sitting behind a desk rather than on a tractor.
"This time of year, we're working on year-end taxes, insurance, long-range planning," he said. "We try to look ahead as much as we can."
Like many Wisconsin farmers, Meyer grew up on a farm and knew from a young age that working the fields and caring for animals is how he wanted to spend his life.
Dan's 1,200-acre farm, in the town of Schleswig, belonged to the family since his grandfather bought it in the 1940s. He and his wife Becky took it over from Dan's father about 16 years ago.
"When I was growing up, I helped my dad, milking cows, driving tractor, a little bit of everything," Meyer said. "We all worked on the farm."
He's the only one in the family farming these days, but says he never considered anything else.
"Every day is different, and every day is unique," Meyer said.
His farm has 150 dairy cows, about average for the state of Wisconsin, he said. That's about the size he'd like to be, Meyer said.
"We do much of the labor ourselves," he said. "We're diversified. We're efficient and we're careful where we spend our money."
Costs of running a farm — including feed, seed, fertilizer, vet visits and medicines — have doubled or tripled in the years he's owned the farm, Meyer said.
About half of Meyer's acreage is used to grow feed for his cows, the rest grows a variety of crops for sale, including grain to feed mills and soybeans to grocers.
"We're always looking for ways to improve," he said. "Modern farms are looking for ways to be better. Happy cows will produce more, we want to give our animals the best feed possible, the best care possible. Happy cows will produce for years and years."
Science, math and chemistry are a big part of any farmer's life.
"The best part of the job is thinking big picture," Meyer said. "I'm continuously learning."
One change has been a move to 100 percent no-till crops in the past four years. No-till is an agricultural practice of leaving the ground as it is and not disturbing it with tillage at all, helping to preserve nutrients in the soil and cutting fuel costs from tilling,
"In this area of the state, we have light or sandy soil," Meyer said. "To conserve moisture, we decided to become no-till. So even in dry years, we can hold onto soil and produce a decent crop."
He also actively plants cover crops, or those planted by farmers in between the harvest of one cash crop and the planting of another. The rye, clover or other cover crops survive the winter and keep soil in place. About 75 percent of his acreage has something green growing this time of year, Meyer noted.
He's experimenting with a new crop, dry Canadian field peas, which is used for GMO-free livestock feed. He uses it to feed baby calves, mixing half calf-grain mix and half of the dry peas. He also sells the peas to a local pork producer at a good price.
Peas not only benefit the soil, but grow on a different cycle than other crops.
"They're ripe in the middle of summer," Meyer said. "If we get a drought in late July or August, they are harvested by the time late summer comes."
He and other farmers put a lot of thought into planting and harvesting cycles.
"The environmental side of it is very important," he said. "I think sometimes farms get a lot of false negative publicity as polluters. But farmers care about the land and they care about their animals."
Along those lines, Meyer said he doesn't believe in the term "mega-farm."
"Farmers do what they have to do," he said. "Some have consolidated, but that's what they needed to do to provide food. I think there's a huge lack of understanding about modern agriculture and what people think about farms. They need to be bigger. American consumers have the cheapest food on earth. Every farm used to have one cow, a chicken, but not anymore, but farmers care a great deal for the health of their land and animals."
The farm employs two workers who work almost full time, as well as high school students for part-time work. One worker has been with the farm for more than 20 years.
"We try to teach young people a good work ethic," Meyer said. "They gain a lot of maturity working on a farm."
The farm has employed hundreds of local teens over the years, he said. Many have gone on to have successful careers or become local business owners.
"It's great to see," he said. It also helps with the challenges of finding labor, which all farmers face these days.
He tried working 16-hour days, seven days a week, but Meyer said, "It got to the point no one was happy."
He does most of the planting, but that means he also can't be milking, he noted.
Volunteering in the community and coaching basketball is also important to Meyer and his wife, Becky. They have four daughters: Ashley, 24; Brittany, 22; Melissa, 17; and Andie, 13. He's coached the youngest in basketball since third grade.
"It's a lot of fun watching the kids grow up all these years," Meyer said. He's served as athletic director and served on committees at his family's Catholic school.
He's also running for the Kiel School Board. And he's president of the Manitowoc County Farm Bureau.
"Serving our community is very important to us," Meyer said. "We make a point of leaving the farm, too."