Boerst family brings regenerative ag approach to their farm

Dan Hansen
Soil conservationist Derrick Raspor (left) and farm owners Ruth and Dan Boerst check the growth of the cover crop mix that took place in less than 60 days.

MANAWA, Wis. – Canadian grazier Steve Kenyon helped define regenerative agriculture as “growing soil from the plants instead of just using the soil to grow plants.”

Now Dan and Ruth Boerst are practicing regenerative agriculture on 500 acres of owned and rented land in central Waupaca County through the use of cover crops, no-till planting and livestock integration by grazing cover crops.

For 39 years the couple have milked cows and raised crops on their farm, but are now beginning the process of transitioning from dairy to beef as they work to maintain profitability while improving soil productivity.

Cover crop growth

The success of their soil-building with cover crops was abundantly evident earlier this fall on a 17-acre field near their farmstead.

“This was winter rye that we combined in early August,” Dan said. “We surface-applied 6,000 gallons of manure per acre and planted an eight-species cover crop mix with a no-till drill. We’re going to leave this as a cover crop for soil health, and then no-till a crop into it next year.”

The mix includes mustards, radishes, buckwheat, kale, rape, turnips, peas and sunflowers. “We ended up buying this green cover seed mix from Nebraska, and put it all in the drill. Just look at the root mass and all the fibers that have developed in less than 60 days,” said Dan.

Derrick Raspor, soil conservationist with NRCS (Natural Resources Conservation Service), has been documenting the cover crop species, their growth, how the roots are developing and affecting the soil, measuring biomass of plants, and doing some infiltration tests looking at how quickly water enters the soil, while also documenting the biological benefits whether it’s above ground or below ground.

Profitability over yield

“I’m more concerned about profitability than I am with yield,” Dan emphasized.  “You can have 200 bushel corn, but if it’s costing you 199 bushels to break even you’re not really profitable. I can make money at 120 bushel if my input cost is low.”

To help build the soil, the Boersts plan to have a cover crop, rye or barley on all 500 acres. “There will be something green and growing into the fall every year,” said Dan.

“We used a lot less fertilizer this year,” said Ruth. “Our goal is to use 20 percent less fertilizer each year until there’s no need to apply any additional fertilizer. There’s also nitrogen being stored in the turnips and radishes.”

According to Dan, the effectiveness of rye in suppressing weeds means they don’t have to apply as much herbicide either.

Preventing soil erosion

Because much of the land they farm is near the Little Wolf River or Bear Lake, Ruth and Dan Boerst are especially concerned about preventing soil erosion and keeping water clean.

Their farm also is one of the 10 demonstration farms in the Upper Fox/Wolf River Watershed network.

“Every drop of water that leaves this farm goes into the Wolf and Fox rivers, and ultimately into the Great Lakes,” Dan noted. “To help prevent erosion and ensure that only clean water leaves the farm, we’ve already installed eight catch basins, which slowly release the water over 24 hours after a heavy rain.” 

Move to grazing

Dan and Ruth Boerst are currently reducing the size of their dairy herd. “By next year we’re hoping to complete the transition from dairy to beef,” Dan explained. “A lot of people want to know where their meat is coming from, and they’re willing to pay a little more for it.”

This fall they’ve fenced in more than 40 acres of the land  for grazing. “We’re going to integrate cover crops with livestock. That’s the way to build soil health the fastest,” emphasized Dan.

“If this field was fenced we’d be grazing now,” he said. “We’re trying to incorporate grazing cattle in a field one time, and then put a row crop in. We’d run the animals through once, letting them eat just the top few inches, and then move them to another paddock. That way they’re distributing their own manure which also helps build the soil. What we’re trying to do is incorporate grazing cattle here one time, and then put a row crop in the field.”

The Boersts plan to leave the cover crop on the 17-acre field for soil health, and then no-till a crop into it next spring. 

“By then the biomass will all be laying down, and we won’t even see the ground when we no-till a crop into it,” Dan said. “Our goal is to leave the soil better than when it was when we started farming 39 years ago.”