Geiser's conservation ethic earns Leopold finalist spot

Ray Mueller
David Geiser checks the growth of a perennial forage stand with the Gold Star farmstead buildings in the background.

TOWN OF CHARLESTOWN – Six weeks ago many rivers in Wisconsin were overflowing with brown water that was carrying soil which eroded from nearby farm fields and other sites during heavy rainfalls.

For 43 years, David Geiser of Gold Star Dairy in Calumet County has been striving to greatly reduce the number and severity of such incidents. That's largely how he earned one of the three finalist positions for the state's 2018 Leopold Conservation Award.

On Geiser's home farm, which he owns and operates with his wife and business partner Deborah Reinhart and two non-family partners who joined them in 2015, “brown water” is that which has been used for two or three other purposes in the dairy operation before being applied to irrigate and fertilize growing crops.

Inspired by classes

Geiser credits the adult education agricultural courses, particularly a soil science class, offered by the Lakeshore and Fox Valley technical colleges “for making me think about the soil and sparking my interest in geology.” Much of the area's cropland has shallow soils and the karst geological features, which include large fractures in the bedrock.

David Geiser checking the growth of a perennial forage stand on his Gold Star farmstead.

A special concern of Geiser's is how “soil particles are vulnerable every year when the seeds are planted for annual crops compared to perennial crops. That's why I like the grasses.”

“Conservation has many different meanings for people,” Geiser notes. “For me, conservation is how you treat the soil for the next generation and our grandchildren. You need to be profitable and sustainable.”

Nominator's notes

According to Sue Schultz, a friend and fellow farmer who nominated Geiser, “he exemplifies the spirit of Aldo Leopold and translates his deep love of the land into daily responsible stewardship and management. Long before others in our community, he implemented voluntary conservation practices.”

“As a quiet leader, David has been an inspiration to others by leading by example,” Schultz states. “As an individual, he tends to avoid the spotlight. He chooses to participate in projects that can speak for themselves.”

“David is focused on doing 'goodwill' to help the farm community and the public understand the role farms play in conservation success in the past, present, and future,” Schultz observes.

Cooperator practices

To raise enough feed for more than 700 dairy cattle today, Gold Star has agreements on nearly 1,000 acres owned by seven neighbors within a radius of three miles of the homestead farm. By also encouraging and developing conservation ethic practices on that land, Geiser hopes he has “created a legacy of protecting the natural resources by having traveled the extra mile.”

Starting with the purchase of wheat straw, neighboring farmer Eric Pagel has been one of Geiser's cooperators since 2000. Depending on the year, Pagel raises and sells 70 to 120 acres of alfalfa for haylage and 40 to 70 acres of corn for silage to Gold Star Farms.

In addition to what he considers to be very agreeable negotiated prices that Geiser pays for the crops “so that everyone can make a profit,” getting liquid manure from the dairy farm is part of the arrangement, Pagel points out.

“He doesn't enforce any special conservation practices but he suggested that I interseed grasses to fill in open spots in the older hay fields,” Pagel says of Geiser. “On my own, I've been planting oats as a late season cover crop. Last year I had a cover crop on almost 100 percent of my acres.” Those crops also provide a bit of green manure, he adds.

Farm history

As a fourth generation owner of Gold Star, whose name is based on the index for registered Holsteins, Geiser took over from his parents Victor and Hildegard in 1975. At the time, it was a fairly large traditional family dairy farm with 80 milking cows, along with some existing debt, the owners note in their application for the Aldo Leopold Award.

David Geiser, with wife, Deb Reinhart, and son, Joshua.

In the early 1980s, Geiser worked with the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) to design and construct a manure storage pit that would both protect the groundwater beneath the karst topography which prevails on the farm and make better use of the nutrients in the livestock manure for growing crops. It ended the need for almost daily hauling of manure.

By the end of 1997, when the milking herd had 120 head, Geiser had converted 90 acres on the rolling landscape to 21 grazing paddocks for the cattle. “This saved on equipment costs, reduced the need for manure storage, and increased the water-holding capacity on the land,” he indicates.

Dairy herd expansion

With gradual internal growth, the milking herd reached 184 head by the year 2000 and was up to 300 head by the end of 2011 and to 480 today. The year 2000 was a pivotal one at Gold Star, starting with the May 12 storm which destroyed free-stall greenhouse barns and forced a decision on the farm's future.

The decision was to rebuild and add to the debt. But what was more important during 2000 was the employment of Manuel Valenzuela, a native of Mexico who has been with Gold Star ever since and who, along with Simon Regan, became one of the two new owning and managing partners on Jan. 1, 2015, Geiser points out.

Geiser and Reinhart have three married sons and three grandchildren — two of whom visit the farm often. Son Joshua is a part-time worker at the farm.

Conservation practices

Amid an approximately sixfold increase in the number of milking cows and cropland over four decades, what's been consistent has been Geiser's devotion to the conservation ethic — protection of the natural resources which are directly affected by what's done on the farm. This required “balancing soil health and water quality with what was needed to operate the dairy,” he explains.

One of the first steps along the way was being an early adopter of the state's 590 program, also referred to as the Nutrient Management Plan (NMP). With the help of a certified crop adviser, it is designed to match the application of nutrients (manure and any synthetic fertilizers) with current need of the growing crop, thereby reducing or eliminating the movement of pollutants to groundwater and surface waters, Geiser points out.

In addition to the guidance provided the NMP, Geiser enhanced the goal of protecting the soil, water, air, and wildlife by adhering to prescribed rotational grazing practices, by keeping many of the acres on the farm's most sloping land in permanent grass vegetation, by growing cover crops when the soil might otherwise be bare, by choosing “no-till” whenever possible on cropped land, by interseeding subsequent crops in standing crops, and by rotating crops to promote soil health and reduce the threat of insects and plant disease.

Harnessing solar energy

By having plants covering the soil at nearly all times, Geiser seeks the best use of solar energy. He notes that a combination of annual and perennial plant species is needed to achieve this.

At the periphery of the cropped land, Geiser reinforced the conservation ethic with buffer strips at the edge of fields where runoff was possible. Those strips also provide wildlife habitat. Most recently, paved ditches have been installed to collect and move any runoff water.

A custom nutrient operator applies the liquid manure. As an associated conservation practice, that application is carried out with low soil disturbance drop hoses.

New regulations require the collection of leachate from stored feeds, Geiser observes. Another recent practice is the recycling of plastic feed covers rather than sending them to a landfill.

Leopold Conservation award finalist David Geiser (right) talks with Manual “Manny” Valenzuela, who came to the farm as an employee in 2000 and who became an owning and managing partner at the start of 2015.

Geiser describes his approach as “a combination of science and technology” for the sake of nurturing sustainability in terms of economics, the environment, and the well-being of animals and humans. In recent years, he has become a fan of the “soil pit” approach for learning about soil types and health.

Serving the community

Always ready to share what he advocated and learned, Geiser was instrumental in forming Calumet County's Forage Council in 1984 and then serving in leadership positions. Still active today, the council operates in conjunction with the University of Wisconsin Extension Service and Fox Valley Technical College.

Once the farm's grazing system was activated 21 years ago, Gold Star hosted a number of pasture walks as part of the grazing network which operated in the east central part of the state for more than a decade. Geiser also shared grazing experiences during panel programs at meetings.

A combination of livestock grazing and the karst topography (shallow soils above fractured bedrock) provided the setting for many projects, demonstrations, field days, training sessions, and workshops on Gold Star farm. These involved participants from the Extension Service, county land and water conservation departments, the NRCS, the Professional Dairy Producers of Wisconsin, and geology graduate student interns from the University of Wisconsin – Madison.

In 2009, the farm was a site for a Wisconsin environmental management system innovative grant study. It was designed to identify ways to reduce the use of energy, thereby cutting farm operating costs while also boosting environmental sustainability.

The project with the UW-Madison interns, overseen by professor Fred Madison, continued from 2010 to 2015. It examined the links between karst topography, groundwater, and dairy farm practices. As a result of those ventures, Geiser reports that mistakes were uncovered in the existing soil survey data.

Earning recognition

Geiser's efforts since the mid-1970s have been noticed with awards by numerous entities.

Before being nominated for the Aldo Leopold, his “proudest moment” was being selected for the county's Land Conservation award in 2004. Gold Star farm earned a Midwest Forage Association Pacesetter Award in 2010.

Gold Star farm also received funding under the federal Environmental Quality Incentive and Conservation Stewardship programs. The latter program funds are shared only with farms already practicing good stewardship of natural resources.

In March of 2018, New Holstein Utilities recognized Gold Star for changes which reduced the use of electric power by 195,222 kilowatt hours during one year. This occurred after the installation of LED lights, sensor controls, and energy efficient fans with variable frequencies. The water which is reclaimed for several uses is designated as “fresh, gray, or brown.”

Within the dairy sector, Gold Star has won milk quality awards from Land O'Lakes Dairy and is certified through the National Milk Producer Federation's Farmers Assuring Responsible Management for the care of dairy cattle. This is emphasized through a “See It, Stop It” provision in signed contracts with farm employees.

For Geiser's Aldo Leopold nomination, letters of support were sent by Tony Reali of the Calumet County land and water department and Dennis Frame of Timber Ridge Consulting, who is also the former executive director of the UW Discovery Farms program.